Wounded and revitalized: Visiting the 9/11 Memorial Museum
Editor’s Note: This story was written after Murray Bishoff, currently retired contributor to the Cassville Democrat, visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum not long after it was opened to the public. This is an edited version of the story that was published in the September 2015 Connection Magazine.
Memories burn hot and bright of Sept. 11, 2001. Creating a memorial at the site of the World Trade Center buildings took a decade of thought and construction. Many only come to see the giant reflecting pools of water on the public plaza on the footprints of the two towers, great deep holes with water cascading down the sides, flowing to the center and again down into a square hole, symbolizing the absence of both the buildings and the people lost in the terrorist attacks.
Entering the adjacent National September 11 Museum, located between the two pools, takes visitors out of the hum that is pervasive in New York City. The building, which opened on May 15, 2014, is a multi-story structure going primarily down, rather than up.
Walking down a tunnel-like hallway, visitors first encounter floor-to-ceiling panels. On them projections fall, pictures of people witnessing what happened that day, faces expressing shock and horror, words spoken describing their reaction, “So hopeless…so scared of what was happening.” Photos of street scenes and sound of sirens fade behind as visitors proceed.
A placard explains that 50,000 people came to work in the 12 million square feet of the two World Trade Center buildings. From a landing, you could see the stark decorated final metal pillar taken from the demolition site that was removed in a ceremony on May 30, 2002.
Visitors continue down another ramp. Photos on these walls showed the World Trade Center buildings intact and at the moment of the attacks. The walk leads past the original 1973 cornerstone of the first building, and a three-story section of steel façade from the North Tower, from the 96th to the 99th floors. A sign explains how the trident shape of the façade gave the building its distinctive look.
On the main floor of the museum, visitors encounter a scarred and battered series of stone steps. This is the Survivors’ Staircase, part of two outdoor flights of granite-covered stairs connecting the Tobin Plaza in the World Trade Center to Vesey Street. These steps served as an escape route for people fleeing the nine-story World Trade Center 5 building, next to the 110-story towers. This was the first artifact placed in the museum. The facility was built around it, and the steel trident.
On the main floor, inscribed on one long wall are the words of Virgil from “The Aeneid”: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
That thought serves as a before-and-after theme for hall. Running along the left side of the room sat the excavated bedrock footings of the building. On the wall at right, large photos and artifacts reflect activity after the attacks. One exhibit shows a motorcycle purchased as a restoration project by Gerard Baptiste, a firefighter on Ladder Company No. 9 killed in the rescue effort. Fellow firefighters restored the bike in his memory. Other photos show expressions of patriotism and solidarity in projects in other parts of the country.
Mounted on the center of the wall is the National 911 Flag, one of the largest U.S. flags that hung at the World Trade Center. Badly damaged in the terrorist attacks, the flag traveled around the country, undergoing various repairs.
At the far end of the hall there are exhibits that explain the history of the World Trade Center. In the darkened theater, shielded from the rest of the space, visitors are shown news footage of the attacks.
At the center of the museum photos of all the people killed in the buildings hang there. At one end of the room sit interactive directories and visitors can scroll across electronic pages of photos, showing all the faces on the walls. Touching one of the photos will shift to an entire display on that one person, prepared by family members with additional photos and other biographical information, including video. Small displays here and there include many mementoes.
Another room sits inside this hall of faces. This dark room serves also as a theater, continuously repeating the names of the victims and projecting their names and pictures, one at a time, inside. The names are projected onto an outer wall as the names are read.
At the top of one of the towers sat a 360-foot radio and television broadcast antennae, compensating for the signal blockage created by the huge structures. One of the city’s TV stations even moved in. When the towers fell, 19.8 feet of the antennae survived. Part of it is on display, along with a photo showing its original location. The other piece went to the broadcast museum in Washington, D.C.
A massive steel column from the South Tower lays horizontally, bent like a pretzel. The placard explains that extreme stress from the collapse caused the column to fold onto itself. Three of the four welds on the column split.
A fire truck from Ladder Company No. 3 responded to the North Tower. The truck mounted its aerial ladder on the west side near Vesey Street and all 11 firefighters on board entered the building. None returned, and the truck was crushed when the tower collapsed. The 60,000-pound truck, its frame drooping like melted plastic, stands alone, reflecting the sacrifice that came with it.
The flag flown on the last column removed in the demolition and excavation is displayed. The nearby vertical span of steel, on close inspection, still holds the “1” painted on it by Fire Department Squad No. 1, along with handwritten notes and photos, keepsakes of lost friends.
On a far wall, distant from the other exhibits, is a glassed in display case. Mounted inside is a shirt with stained sleeves, worn by one of the Navy Seals in the raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011. A brick from bin Laden’s house sits on the far corner. Center in the display is a photo from the White House Situation Room show by White House photographer Pete Souza showing President Obama and his national security team, receiving news of the mission.
Leaving the lower floor by escalator, soft strains of a single clarinet, then a flute, drift in playing “Amazing Grace.”
The design of the memorial specifies maintaining more than 400 trees there, a stark contrast to the concrete of Manhattan’s streets. A sign designates that close to the south pool stands the Survivor Tree amongst the new oaks. This Callery pear, discovered a month after the attacks, was dug out of the rubble, nursed back to health and replanted in 2010. New straight branches emerged from the twisted trunk, reflecting a new beginning, just as the tree leafs out in the spring before the others.