Considered “a place of solemn reflection,” the 911 Museum which lies in the footprints of the North and South towers, underneath the reflecting pools, is a sobering and exhilarating experience. Sobering because as you enter the building, head down the stairs to the lower exhibition level, the knot in your stomach tightens. Exhilarating because of the artifacts of faith, photos of everyday heroism, reminders of miracles, and pride in extreme bravery. The date remains a defining moment in our lives. “Where were you on 9/11”, and the phrases “before 9/11,” and “after 9/11” have become common in our culture. Even the color of the brilliant sky that morning has a new name, “9/11 blue.”
This September 11, we mark the 15th anniversary. The date we’ll always remember, but the passage of time will always stop us in our tracks. Has it really been 15 years? A recent visit to the 911 Museum, opened just last year, brought it all back.
Down the long escalators and through the big and bustling lobby, we line up and grow quiet. Passing photographs of the Twin Towers – the before pictures – and then the roaring inferno of the after picture; overhead through speakers, we hear the memories of witnesses walking to work, looking out through windows, bringing kids to school — reminders of the everyday things we did before 8:46 am on that Tuesday morning. Phrases like, “…and then the second plane hit,” or “I was just looking out my window.”
And so 9/11 begins to unfold before our eyes. Exhibit after exhibit, we see the evolution of the mighty Twin Towers in the 1960’s and the importance of its construction, we see images of the 1993 bombing attempt, we hear the haunting moans of bagpipes and the tune “Amazing Grace,” and the soft fragile voices announcing the thousands of names; be prepared, it can feel like your senses are on overload.
The rooms are immense, so that 16 large artifacts like a damaged firetruck, the last column, the steel cross, a portion of the Vesey Street “survivors’ stairs can be placed with plenty of room for throngs of visitors. Through a set of revolving doors are thousands of smaller items found during the cleanup, things like wallets, credit cards, bits of paper that flew out of windows. Chilling. Two striking artifacts grabbed my attention: a tattered page from the Old Testament, opened to Matthew 5:38: “You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth…”. In another section is Todd Beamer’s watch, its face cracked, but we can clearly see the number “11” in the little square.
In corners of the exhibition floors, small darkened mini-theatres play clips from TV morning newscasts interrupted by conflicting and confusing reports; phone messages from Flight 93 passengers, flight attendants, and the hijackers themselves. There are benches to sit on, and a box of tissues on a corner stand. In a larger theatre on the top floor, two movies play throughout the day, one on how 9/11 affected various global leaders, and another on the events of that morning as seen through the eyes of Mayor Rudy Guiliani, Governor George Pataki, President Bush, Condoleezza Rice. Still another section focuses on the attack on the Pentagon, and the chaos that erupted; we see a photo of Secretary of Defense David Rumsfeld assisting the injured; we see the surveillance videos of the plane flying into the building, and we hear from a teary-eyed ex-President who said that until the details emerged, he believed that our military might have shot down Flight 93.
Because of the vastness of the museum, no story could ever come close to capturing every aspect of what a visitor can experience. With that said, expect to spend a good portion of the day there, arrive early, so you can move at a slow pace. Make a point to take a break during the day; take a ride up to the top floor, where the bright light of day shines through the glass windows.
There are times when it’s hard to believe that 9/11 ever happened. We’ve returned to our jobs, classrooms, shopping, traveling, there’s even a brand new mighty tower that’s entered the New York City skyline. And then, it hits you. On one wall, we see front pages of newspapers from September 10, 2001, mostly centered on the next day’s primary vote. How innocent we were on that day, “before 9/11.”
It’s fair to say that the message one comes away with is more about the resiliency of the human spirit, and the number of miracles that occurred, like how the evacuation of the Twin Towers was the most successful in U.S. History, that because it was Primary Day workers were late to their desks, and that it was the first day of school so parents were at the school bus. It’s also hard not to leave the museum with a little more patience, a little more aware to live life to the fullest, and to be good to each other. We saw a lot of evidence of that. On his reflection on the goodness he saw that day, Mayor Guiliani says, “It was a beautiful time…and a terrible time.”
Top photo: Monika Graff
Other Photos: MJ Hanley-Goff
There are a variety of tours and price packages for tours. Please visit the following websites for more information. Advanced ticket purchase is highly recommended. Plan to start your tours early in the day before the crowds.
911groundzero.com – combination of tours available, of museum, St. Paul’s Chapel and observatory.
911memorial.org – information for the memorial pools
oneworldobservatory.com – observation deck