Bill’s and my visit to the imposing National September 11 Memorial and Museum during a recent trip to New York City was a potent reminder that the horrific events which occurred that day in 2001 bore such monumental significance that they became indelibly seared into the public consciousness.
I would hazard a guess that most adult Americans remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. After nearly 14 years, the events still seem unfathomable.
Nineteen terrorists hijacked four commercial jetliners and intentionally flew one plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, a second plane into the South Tower, and another plane into the Pentagon. The fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, PA, as passengers and crew members heroically stormed the cockpit in an attempt to prevent the probable destruction of another iconic building.
Tragically, nearly 3,000 people – men, women, and children – perished.
It was the greatest loss of life in a single day from a foreign attack on American soil. With the police and firefighters who died, it also was the largest loss of rescue personnel in the country’s history. Eight years prior on Feb. 26, in an eerie case of foreshadowing, six people were killed when terrorists detonated a truck bomb beneath the Twin Towers.
With the passage of time, memories dim, the emotional impact recedes, witnesses pass away, and new generations are born, which makes it all the more important that the memorial and museum exist to tell these stories and provide historical context. Together, they convey respect to those who died, and honor those who survived and those who provided leadership, aid, and support in harrowing, unprecedented circumstances, often at great risk to their own lives.
The weather during our visit was cold, blustery, drizzly, and with a low ceiling that cast a pale grey pall – rather fitting given the site’s tumultuous past.
We entered the plaza in lower Manhattan and approached the massive twin reflecting pools of the memorial, which are situated within the former footprints of the towers. Rectangular in shape, they feature the largest manmade waterfalls in North America. Despite the crowds, the scene was relatively quiet except for the continuous sound of cascading water.
The architecture of the 9/11 Memorial Museum is striking, contemporary in style with large expanses of windows and cathedral-height ceilings. The main exhibition space is underground, built around remnants of the original World Trade Center buildings.
The museum describes itself as “an educational and historical institution honoring the victims and examining 9/11 and its continued global significance.” Throughout, the museum conveys stories about before, during, and after the attacks using a variety of means and media, including videos, artwork, photos, clips of real-time news coverage, artifacts, structural remnants, replicas, first-person testimonies, and a detailed graphic that shows the timeline of events.
At the start of our self-guided tour we filed into a small auditorium to watch a brief video titled “Facing Crisis: America Under Attack.” It featured the recollections and reflections of some of the key decision-makers – President George Bush, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among them.
As we descended from the concourse lobby into the exhibition level we passed by the tridents, which once formed part of the outside of the North Tower, and the Vesey Street stair remnant. On 9/11 hundreds escaped with their lives down that stairway.
The exhibits certainly gave us pause: the damaged fire truck; the segment of the radio and TV antenna; remains of the buildings’ perimeter box columns; the massive slurry foundation wall; the last column removed from Ground Zero and emblazoned with personal messages and memorabilia; partially burned office correspondence; a bike stand; and even a pair of high heels worn that day by a woman who survived.
What stood out the most for us was that the victims from both the 2001 and 1993 attacks are remembered in multiple ways. Each name is inscribed on bronze panels that surround both memorial pools. White roses were on some of the names. We learned later that the 9/11 Memorial places the flowers there to pay further tribute to the victims on their birthdates.
Inside the museum victims’ photos and names appear on lighted wall displays in the In Memoriam exhibition. A kiosk with a touch screen enables visitors to research them by name and read their bios. All the while, from inside a darkened room that projects names and bios on a screen, recorded voices intone the names of the deceased, beginning with their relationship – my husband…, my sister…, my friend…
Visitors may take photos inside the museum, but not within that exhibition, and that lends even more solemnity to the presentation.
The feelings that surged within us at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum – sorrow for the immense loss, admiration for unselfish acts of courage, and gratitude for the resilience of our country in the following days – were akin to what we experienced last year when we toured the World War II D-Day beaches and the Normandy American Cemetery in Normandy, France.
More like a pilgrimage, our visit was a moving look back at extraordinary times and an affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.