By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
There is a quietness about the 9/11 Museum. You can see the trepidation on everyone’s face as they enter – do we really want to re-live that horrible day? And yet we all file in, bracing ourselves for what we know will be a roller coaster of emotions. The museum allows you to wander through the various exhibitions on your own, you can also download an app that provides information as you walk by each display, or you can buy tickets for a guided tour. We chose the tour and were glad we did. Our guide was a young man from New Jersey who had lost neighbors in the terrorist attack, so for him, this was personal. I reflected that we are fortunate in our generation to be guided by such people; future generations will experience it from a more distant perspective.
Our guide first took us to the bottom of the museum, to Foundation Hall, where the famous “slurry wall” stands. It was a wall built to hold back the Hudson River, which lapped at the side of the Trade Center when it was built in the mid-60’s. After the attack, when the site was being excavated, the workers were astounded to find that the slurry wall had survived. Daniel Libeskind, the architect heading the redevelopment of the site, pushed to keep a portion of the original slurry wall in place. He proclaimed that it was a testament to the determination and resilience of a nation; a document “as eloquent as the Constitution itself”. Also in Foundation Hall is the “Last Column,” a 36-foot girder that was the last to be removed from the site, marking the end of the recovery effort. During the excavation it quickly became a makeshift memorial, plastered with Mass cards, rosary beads, flags, photos of missing innocents, and patches from fire and police units. When it was finally cut down it was laid on a flatbed truck, draped in black, with an American flag over it, and escorted by first responder honor guards to a place of safekeeping. It now stands again in Foundation Hall as an exemplification of our resilience and hope.
There are many displays that feature recovered portions of the buildings – bent beams, the only remaining glass window and the staircase used by many to escape the burning tower. But I suspect that the real reason most of us come is to pay tribute to the people that we lost that day. After seeing incredibly massive beams bent and misshapen by the impact of planes and the heat of the fires, it gives new perspective to what the people who were in those structures must have experienced. I still recall, on the afternoon of the attack, one of the news channels interviewing a fireman who had been at the scene. He was understandably shell-shocked and said, “How bad must it have been up there that people thought jumping out of a window on the 100th floor was the better alternative?”. There is a room called “The Wall of Faces” filled with pictures of the victims. It is overwhelming to be in a room, with face after face looking down on you, and realize that we lost all of them in one day. People who set off to work on a gloriously sunny Tuesday morning, kissed a loved one good-bye, and were never seen again. And then there are the first responders’ stories, especially the 343 fire fighters who died trying to save people. One particularly poignant display is of the motorcycle that belonged to Gerard Baptiste, a firefighter with Ladder 9 in Lower Manhattan. Two weeks before 9/11 he bought a broken-down 1979 Honda motorcycle off the street for $100. He had to roll it to the firehouse and the guys gave him endless ribbing about the worthless piece of junk they said would never start. Baptiste died at the Trade Center and shortly afterward the surviving members of his firehouse decided to restore the bike in his honor. With the help of Honda, some motorcycle shops and private donors they were able to make it into what is now known as “The Dream Bike”. The bike was auctioned, with proceeds going to the education funds of the children of firefighters from Ladder 9 who were lost on 9/11. The winning raffle ticket, selected by Baptiste’s mother, went to a woman from California who donated the bike to the museum so everyone would know his story.
Down the hall from the “Wall of Faces” is an alcove, a small space painted black with benches on all four walls. On its walls is a projection of video remembrances of the victims. Each person who died is remembered with a picture and a bit of personal background information. For most of them there is also an audio remembrance from a family member or friend. For me, this was the hardest room to experience, hearing a young woman talk about how much her children miss their dad and a father describing how proud he was of his lost son. There was one woman who chose to remember her husband by recounting the story of a Thanksgiving dinner where they argued about who was supposed to have brought the gravy to the table. They argued and both stalked off to the kitchen. She said they imagined that all of the relatives thought they were in there fighting but, in fact, they were kissing. She said “that’s just who we were”. Some voices were clearly emotional as they described their loved one, some sounded wistful, and others like the woman with the gravy story, chose to remember a lighter moment. No matter the emotion, the remembrances brought all of the people back to life and thus, made the realization that they had been so tragically taken from their families all the more jarring. Our guide told us that if we see a guide with a tan vest, that person is a family member of a victim. Some, he said, come every day to the museum as a way to work through their grief and talk about their loved one.
I should note that there is a small portion of the museum that describes the rise of Al Qaeda and the planning of the 9/11 attacks. There are photos of Osama bin Laden and the 19 hijackers, along with video description of how they carried out their plot. The photos of the hijackers are placed very low on the wall, much below eye level, so that one does not have to look at them if you chose to just walk by. After seeing all that I had thus far, my instinct was to give those pictures a swift kick. I questioned why we had to acknowledge them at all in a place of reverence and dedication. But upon further reflection I realized what the museum designers intended – future generations will not recall the events of 9/11 from personal experience, they will need to learn about it from history books and places like the 9/11 museum. So the “who”, “why” and “how” need to be included to present a complete picture.
We finished our tour of the building and went outside to visit the plaza and the two reflecting pools where the names of the victims are carved into the steel that surrounds them. The pools are built on the former foundations of the two towers and are symbolic of the sadness one feels there. One person has described the water falling on four sides into the bottomless pit as the endless tears shed over the victims. Perhaps the most touching site I saw all day were the single white roses stuck sporadically into the carvings of names. I had assumed that family members had been there to lay a flower on the name. But in fact, each and every morning the staff of the museum places a white rose on the name of any victim who would have celebrated a birthday that day. Somehow, I found that to be such an elegant gesture and thoughtful beyond words.
We left the museum and went for a very long walk back to our hotel, reflecting on the gamut of emotions we experienced on the tour. I picked up a copy of USA Today in the lobby; the front page headline blared “US Military Families to Evacuate Turkey” due to possible attacks. Sadly, the beat goes on. But thankfully, so do we. The new One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower, is now complete and other buildings are going up where once the ground was but a scar. Would I recommend going to the 9/11 Museum? I guess that depends on your perspective. One of the guest services workers at our hotel said he couldn’t go – that it is still too soon. For me, it was well worth the visit; it is a place where we can reflect, mourn and vow to move forward.