09/13/2002 12:00AM

Impromptu memorial becomes a permanent tribute to heroes


There are very few times in peoples' lives that they will remember with vivid detail a where-they-were-when-it-happened moment.

During my lifetime, those moments have been the assassination of President Kennedy, the first moon walk, and Sept. 11, 2001.

As our country commemorated the one-year anniversary of the most horrific attacks on American soil, we relived that horrible chain of events.

A year ago, nobody in America's adult playground felt much like playing. Las Vegas was as much a ghost town as it ever could be. Almost everyone wanted to help. They wanted to be counted. They wanted to give unselfishly. They wanted to make a difference.

Locals quickly started reaching out to help New Yorkers, donating blood, money, and manpower. As days passed, there was a return to normal - at least post-9/11 normal.

As tourists returned to Las Vegas, they once again found sanctuary from the realities of life.

A reminder of what happened in New York came at the corner of Tropicana Avenue and the Las Vegas Strip. That's where the New York-New York hotel-casino stands, a re-creation of New York City that includes a multistoried replica of the Statue of Liberty.

New York-New York has evolved into a kind of memorial of the 9/11 attacks. Visitors have left personal articles to honor the heroes of New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. They left T-shirts from fire stations and police departments from all over the country, candles, miniature American flags, flowers, cards, and poetry. They laid those articles across the fence that surrounds the corner at the base of Lady Liberty.

Also lining the fence are badges from rescue workers, handwritten notes pinned to T-shirts and sweatshirts from firefighters from around the world, firefighter helmets and police artifacts, and pictures of family and friends lost in the attacks.

Officials from MGM Mirage Inc., owner of the New York-New York, realized the importance the city's visitors had placed on this impromptu memorial. On the one-year anniversary of 9/11, the company announced it would create a permanent tribute to preserve the thousands of articles left at the resort.

Last Wednesday, thousands of fire fighters representing the quarter-million membership of the International Association of Fire Fighters marched to the resort in support of the project.

Felix Rappaport, president of the New York-New York, said: "In response to the overwhelming outpouring of emotion by so many visitors, we are committed to respectfully preserving these articles and honoring the spirit in which they were offered."

Unlike the skyline of the real thing, the New York-New York facade hasn't changed. The Twin Towers were not among the casino's replica buildings, because the resort's design was based on the 1940's New York City skyline.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.