I am not a family member. I am not a survivor. I am not a first responder or recovery worker. I am a witness and a local resident.
Over the nearly 13 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, various organizers have come up with a stakeholder scheme that is used communicate updates and plan for major events such as anniversaries, openings and commemorations. There are four key groups: 1) families, 2) survivors, 3) first responders, and 4) local residents. As a local resident I was able to get a ticket to view the 9/11 Memorial Museum before it opens to the public today. I am so thankful that I took advantage of this invitation because I avoided being mixed in with the throngs of tourists from all over the world who also want to pay their respects, but who really didn’t experience that day in they same way that those of us in one of these four stakeholder groups did. I am not minimizing their feelings, but my experience of that day is forever seared in my heart, mind and body because I saw, smelled, heard and felt so much of what happened. I am far removed from the unthinkable pain that the families, survivors, and responders must feel. I’m sure they think that I couldn’t possibly understand. Maybe I can’t, but I was here, living and working downtown and I watched the second plane hit the South Tower. I heard the screams coming from the streets as the buildings fell and lived with the acrid smoke that filled my apartment day after day as the fire burned. I walked the streets of Manhattan, shell-shocked and witnessed the incredible humanity, which I do not think I’ll ever see again in my lifetime. See my blog about that day by clicking here.
I spent four hours in the Memorial Museum. I could have stayed longer, there was more to see and read but I simply could not. I eventually had to get away from the pressing sadness and escape to the sunshine and fresh air. My throat was choked and I had to bite my lip and fight tears as I wandered alone, avoiding eye contact with everyone. I could not help but absorb the emotion that surrounded me. And I was deeply angered by those who lacked respect such as the woman whose kid was playing a loud iPhone game with no headphones in the middle of the Exhibition Hall and the woman who talked loudly on her cell phone about trivial matters while inside the In Memoriam Hall. Both are meant to be quiet, contemplative spaces where we can learn about what happened that day and honor the nearly 3,000 murdered people. There were only two people who acted inappropriately, but I do worry about what’s going to happen when the place is opened to the public.
Some people were outwardly emotional but most were like me, holding it in, grim faced. I exited as I entered and noticed the pained expressions on the faces of people who were just coming in. It’s worse at the beginning and somehow getting to the end offered up some relief as I felt my face start to relax. It must have been because of the flow of the experience — at first you are taken by the Foundation Hall that houses the exposed slurry wall, final beam and gigantic artifacts including fire engines, antennae parts, elevator motors and water valves. You can walk the outlines of the two building where only the Box Columns, or supporting beams remain. From there, you enter the Exhibition Hall which tells the story. Upon exiting, you can visit the Tributes for the victims and see a video on the site’s rebirth. Not everyone could handle this experience. Two women walked into the exhibit in front of me and after just two minutes they turned on their heels and rushed out. I overheard one say, “We don’t need to see this!” I assume they lost of a loved one. But some endured. For example, early in the exhibit there were videos that showed the command center that was set up in the North Tower lobby. A man and two women were watching beside me. Suddenly the man said, “There he is, oh God, there he is!” They waited for the video to loop again and when they saw him again, all three started to sob. My heart broke. I don’t know who the man in the video was, but he was someone dear to them. He was a brave firefighter who gave his life trying to save others. They held each other for a very long time.
As I wandered through, I could hear various people telling their stories. “I was here then.” “I ran my ass off.” “I got out but my so many of my colleagues didn’t.” This was a constant murmur throughout my visit. Again, it was simply heartbreaking – I was glad I was alone. When I got to the In Memorium Hall, I watched as people touched the photos of their loved ones. I found the pictures of acquaintances’ lost husbands, fathers and mothers and paused to pay my respects. People were huddled at large touch screens that I didn’t really get at first. But when I went to sit in the square, dark theater I understood. You could go to the database, find your loved one and have their tribute displayed on the black wall. Each tribute included a short bio, snapshots and sometimes spoken words by a loved one. I sat through about 15 of them. I realized that the families were around me and I just wondered to myself, “How do they endure this?” Some seemed comforted; some just seemed to be scraped back across the old sharp edges of pain.
The first part of the exhibit was dedicated to the day. Two things stood out for me. When I ducked behind a discrete wall I found a scrolling photo album. Two firefighters were in there with me. I looked up and gasped, put my hand over my mouth and let the tears flow (much like the photos from that day of the people looking up at the horrors above). These photos told the story about the people who either jumped or fell to their deaths. The 9/12/01 issue of the New York Times published the now famous photo of a man falling headfirst. I remember seeing that front page and just falling apart. I don’t think I knew until that moment that people jumped. There it was, that picture, again in this museum, along with five or six others. One quote on the wall was a witness describing a woman who held her skirt before leaping. The person quoted called it such a display of humanity. I don’t know what to call it. I could only think, “What if that were me? How would I deal with the terror? Oh, those poor people to have to face this awful choice.” When I left this alcove a security guard offered me a tissue. She was clearly positioned there for that very reason. You just can’t see those photos without feeling the devastation of that day all over again. Sadly, those photos tell the story best about how the terrorist got what they wanted that day.
The second thing that struck me was the part of the exhibit that told the story of United Airlines Fight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, PA. A family of four was in the room with me as we watched the 6-minute film. The film played audio of some of the recordings from that episode (nothing that was terribly upsetting) but included a transcript of the last moments in the cockpit. This was both terrifying and uplifting. Terrifying to read the terrorists’ words, but uplifting to see the courage exhibited by the men and women on that plane. They fought those four terrorists and they won. They lost their lives but likely saved so many others. The family of four seemed to be angry. One of the women kept talking about how she’s lost all respect for some person whose name I did not get. I can only assume that it was the person in charge of that segment of the exhibit. I assume they were family members and did not like how the story was told. I don’t know, but it made me appreciate again, how hard this must be for the families and how nearly impossible it must have been to build this museum in a way that works for all.
After the story of the day, the exhibit attempted to explain what led up to the attacks. The pictures of the 19 hijackers are displayed off to the side, low on the wall and in small format. The background on Al Qaeda and the events leading to 9/11/01 are laid out. I didn’t spend much time here as I feel I’ve read quite a bit on this topic. The final part of the Exhibition Hall addressed the recovery and cleanup effort. This part really spoke to me and because it brought out what it felt like to be in New York after the 11th. The focus on the recovery effort was well done and really illustrated the amazing dedication of the people who worked on “the pile” and out at Fresh Kills to uncover as many human remains and possessions as they could. The most striking piece of this exhibit was the large piece of building structure called a Trident that now serves as ascreen that displays video of the bucket brigade and other workers who toiled 24×7 to search for victims and remove the mounds of debris. It brought back my experience of sitting in my south-facing SoHo loft, glued to the TV and unable to escape the smell of the fire down there.
There were so many people in uniform visiting that day. I followed a lone fire fighter down the stairs next to the Survivor Staircase and watched as he touched each and every step. I don’t know if he himself walked up or down those stairs but no doubt many of his colleagues did and too many never made it back down again that day. The neighborhood was swarmed this week by police, fire department and port authority men and women who had come to pay their respects. No doubt, The Reade Street Pub was bubbling with activity. They wore either their dress uniforms or a t-shirt emblazoned with their ladder or company logo. I saw so many huddled together, speaking in hushed tones. I don’t know what they were saying but no doubt they were remembering their fallen comrades. I also saw so many big, friendly hellos and hugs. I suspect that many of the family members have come to know one another very well over the last decade as they’ve attended meetings, ceremonies and remembrances. Bound by an event that we all wish never happened, there are no doubt strong ties.
I felt guilty as I admired the artistic beauty of the impossibly mangled steel beams that hung on the walls. These beams are a testament to the violence of the planes’ impact and destruction of the buildings as they fell. Frightening and beautiful all at once, even the most talented artist couldn’t create such overwhelming sculptures.
I watched the dedication ceremony last Thursday and if you haven’t seen it, you can click this link. It’s just one hour and was simply beautiful. I am so thankful that I got to see the Memorial Museum before the general public did. I felt that I was sharing in the reliving of these days with other people who also have this branded into their psyche. I think the Museum committee did a great job. This place is not for everyone and it is full of controversy (think gift shop, café and parties – I heard there was a party there last night), but 20, 50, 100 years from now it will tell our story. It will live on when all of us who were there are gone. It’s a story that must be told in all its grit and gore. My hope is that fundamentalist religions will not longer hijack faiths that are good and well meaning. President George W. Bush did a good job encouraging Americans to not vilify all Muslims and to recognize that the Islamic Faith is not to blame for the attacks. This speech plays in the Exhibition and I was glad to be reminded that he implored all of us to remember that the enemy is the terrorist organizations and the governments that support them, not Muslims.
It was a heart-wrenching experience but it wasn’t as difficult as I had expected. The Museum offers a delicate balance of telling the horror story of the terrorist attack and portraying human resilience and rebirth of the site. Forever and always I am proud to be an American and a New Yorker.