THE MUSEUM OF SADNESS AND STRENGTH

Note:  I am publishing this post from 2016 in honor of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

2016-03-30 09.01.50 (Small)There is a quietness about the September 11th Memorial and Museum.  Visitors appear to be lost in thought as we wait for the doors to open.  Trepidation is etched on everyone’s face – 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 difficult and emotional visit.  The museum offers three options for viewing the exhibits; we chose a guided tour led by one of the volunteers.  Our guide was a young man from New Jersey who lost neighbors in the terrorist attack, so for him, this museum is 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 started the tour at the bottom of the museum, in Foundation Hall,  where the famous “slurry wall” stands.  When the Trade Center was built in the mid-1960’s,  the slurry wall held back the Hudson River, which lapped at the side of the building.  After the attack on 9/11, when the site was being excavated, the workers were astounded to find that the slurry wall had survived.   Daniel Libeskind, the architect who led the redevelopment of the site, pushed to keep a portion of the 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”.

The Last Column

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 in Foundation Hall as a physical reminder 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 “Survivor’s Staircase”, used by many to escape the burning towers.  But I suspect that the main reason most of us come to the museum is to pay tribute to the people who were lost that day.  After seeing massive beams bent and misshapen by the impact of planes and the heat of the fires, it gives new perspective to what the people trapped in those structures experienced.  I recall one of the shell-shocked firemen who survived the collapse of the towers saying, “How bad must it have been up there that people thought jumping out of a window from the 100th floor was the better alternative?”

          The Dream Bike

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.  It wouldn’t start so he had to roll it to the firehouse.  The guys ribbed him endlessly about buying a worthless piece of junk.  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 transform it into what is now known as “The Dream Bike”.  The bike was auctioned, with proceeds donated to the education fund for 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 its story.

                The Wall of Faces

There is a room called “The Wall of Faces” filled with pictures of the victims.  It is hard see their smiling faces, knowing that their lives would end so tragically.  They are the faces of people who, on a gloriously sunny Tuesday morning,  kissed a loved one good-bye, walked out their front door, and were never seen again.  Down the hall from the “Wall of Faces” is an alcove, a small space with black walls and four benches.  On each of the four 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.

I sat in the video room for a while, as the images and voices streamed past.  It was heartbreaking to hear a young woman talk about how much her children miss their dad and a father describe how proud he was of his lost son.  One woman remembered her husband through the story of a Thanksgiving dinner when they got into a spat because the gravy was missing from the dinner 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 very 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 the victims back to life, and made the violent nature of their death all the more jarring.  Our guide told us that if we saw a guide wearing a tan vest, that person is a family member of a victim.  Some of them come every day 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 a 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 you can easily walk past them without having to look at their faces.  After what I seen prior to that exhibit, 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 on 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 September 11th museum.   So the “who”, “why” and “how” need to be included to present a complete picture.

Someone's birthday  We finished our tour of the museum and went outside to visit the memorial 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 cascading over the four sides of the pools as the endless tears shed over the victims.  Perhaps the most touching site I saw all day was the single white roses stuck sporadically into the carvings of names.  I had assumed that family members laid those flowers on the names of their loved one.  But in fact, each morning the staff of the museum places a white rose on the name of any victim who would have celebrated a birthday that day.  I found that to be such an elegant gesture and thoughtful beyond words.
The Freedom TowerWe 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.

SMALL MOMENTS – TWENTY YEARS LATER

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

This week, as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I am posting the memorial I wrote on the 10 year anniversary with updates on a surreal encounter and a promise kept.

melissa harrington hughesMelissa Harrington Hughes died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  She didn’t work there; she was on a business trip for her San Francisco-based technology firm. She was an extremely accomplished 31-year-old, who had a passion for life and adventure.  Melissa married her sweetheart, Sean Hughes just a year prior to her death.

On that fateful morning of September 11 she was attending a meeting on the 101st floor of the North Tower when the first plane struck just six floors below her.  Many people remember her for the harrowing voicemail she left for Sean minutes after the building was struck.   In that voicemail she said, “Sean, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know I love you and I am stuck in this building in New York. A plane hit or a bomb went off – we don’t know, but there’s a lot of smoke and I just wanted you to know I love you always.”

The bank where I worked had several divisions housed in the World Trade Center; three of our employees died that day.  But somehow, amongst the overwhelming tales of tragedy on September 11, Melissa’s is the one that stood out for me.  I was not alone.  Melissa’s final words resonated with a lot of people; thousands wrote on her memorial website.  Her phone message to Sean was played on news casts numerous times in the weeks following 9/11.  Each time I heard it I teared up .

In her voice I could sense so many of her emotions: fear, panic, bewilderment.  But mostly, in her final minutes on earth, she wanted Sean to know that she loved him.  I thought about her, and all of the people that died that day, who went off to work as they normally did.  Kissing a spouse or child good-bye, grabbing a cup of coffee, making plans for the weekend ahead.  And none of them came home.  Plans and hopes and dreams were gone in an instant.  Sean Hughes said that he and Melissa were excited about their future and talked about all the things that newlyweds do: moving to a new home, getting a dog, having children.

There were thousands of sad stories that day about love lost and children orphaned, but somehow Melissa’s story, above all the others, resonated with me.  I think that was partially due to some life experiences we had in common.  I had also made business trips from San Francisco to the North tower at the World Trade Center.  I remember navigating its Byzantine elevators and escalators as I rushed to early morning meetings, just as Melissa must have done that morning.  Melissa’s wedding photo also brought back memories for me; she and Sean were married in Napa, California, close to where I grew up, so I knew she also appreciated that beautiful part of the country.  But it was more than the similar business trips and her wedding venue that stayed with me; it was her voicemail to Sean that was seared into my brain.

MHH North Tower (Medium)

Her final words to Sean started me thinking about my own life.  My husband had taken early retirement in 1996.  By 2001 he was anxious to travel, spend time with our new grandson, and enjoy time with friends.  I wanted to continue working.  But I kept thinking about Melissa’s message.  What if that had been me?  Is that how I would want to die, without ever having enjoyed the life my husband and I had worked so hard to build?

The weeks following September 11 were frightening and incredibly busy for me.  My division of the bank received bomb threats in our major office buildings around the country and we were constantly on alert. Of course, all of the threats were false, but that didn’t lessen the hysteria of my employees who were in those buildings.  I understood – my office was on the top floor of our Los Angeles headquarters and I jumped every time I heard a plane or helicopter fly by.  After a month or so, I began to hope that the turmoil would pass and that my life would get back to “normal”.   But then I thought about Melissa.  Life doesn’t get scripted.  I knew that the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack might be low, but there were no guarantees against a car accident or a terminal illness.

So the first week of November, after the initial frenzy died down, I told my boss that I wanted to resign.  We negotiated that I would stay until March, which I did.  I have never regretted that decision and would not trade all of the memories and experiences I’ve had since then for any amount of successful projects or compensation I gave up.

The author Judith Viorst once wrote that it is the small moments in life that make it rich.   Melissa made me realize that I needed to grab the small moments while I could; that sitting with my husband every morning, sipping coffee and watching the news, is a gift not to be squandered or go unappreciated.

So to Melissa Harrington Hughes: thank you.  Someday I hope to get back to the new September 11 Memorial where I will touch the steel engraving of your name.  And in the hollows of those letters, we will finally be connected.

2016 Update:  This past March I went to New York with my niece and her two daughters.  Visiting the National September 11 Memorial and Museum was the highlight of the trip.  When I was planning our visit I read that it was preferable to purchase tickets in advance,  so on February 24 I ordered ours from their website.  On that same day I received a message that I had a new comment on my 2011 post about Melissa.  I thought that was a coincidence – that maybe something that I had typed when researching the September 11 Memorial had caused an old comment to be recirculated.  But it wasn’t an old comment  – it was this:  “I came across your blog after my son and I just prepared a required oral presentation for his English class about a life event of mine that had great impact. I think of Melissa almost every day –  I was her best friend since childhood.  She was a shining light and people were drawn to her. I miss her and the memories are still clear with detail. Thank you for seeing how her passion, love for life, and love for her husband and family was that shining light, even if it was her last words. She called her Dad and Mom and Sean from that burning building because she loved them deeply. She is well remembered and will never be forgotten.”  I still get chills when I read this note and think about the timing of it.  There are no coincidences in life, of that I am sure.

2016-03-30 12.06.05 (Small)On March 30 I was able to fulfill the promise to myself that I would visit Melissa’s engraving at the Memorial.  Her name is carved into Panel N-22 on the large reflecting pool that stands in the footprint of the former North Tower.  I put my hand on her name and thanked her once again for all that she has meant in my life.  May she rest in peace.

Note: On Saturday, September 11, I will publish my piece about the September 11 Memorial and Museum.

SMALL MOMENTS – A 9/11 TRIBUTE

Saturday, September 10, 2011

by Suzanne Watson

Her message was my wake-up call.  She inspired me and changed my life forever.  And I never met her.

Melissa Harrington Hughes died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  She didn’t work there; she was on a business trip for her San Francisco-based technology firm. She was an extremely accomplished 31 year old, who had traveled the world and had recently married her sweetheart, Sean Hughes.

Many people remember her, and him, for the harrowing telephone message that she left him minutes after the building was struck by the plane.  In that message, she said, “Sean, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know I love you and I am stuck in this building in New York. A plane hit or a bomb went off – we don’t know, but there’s a lot of smoke and I just wanted you to know I loved you.”

The first time I heard Melissa’s voicemail, Sean was being interviewed by Chris Jansing on MSNBC.  Ms. Jansing completely broke down upon hearing it.  Clearly, Melissa’s final words resonated with a lot of people.  The internet site dedicated to Melissa filled with posts from people who were touched by her story.  I was among them. Somehow, with all of the tragedy of that day, her story stuck with me above all of the others.  But why?

Partly, I think in some ways I could relate to her.  I was working for a large financial institution at the time and had spent all of my life, and most of my career, working in San Francisco.  One of my positions required that I visit our businesses in New York in the Trade Center, so I had also taken business trips to the towers.

When the buildings collapsed I thought about all of the people that worked for my company.  We lost three employees that day, but I didn’t know any of them.  She was the one that stood out for me.  Her beautiful wedding picture taken up in Napa, close to where I grew up, became seared in my brain as it was shown repeatedly over the next several days.  But it was more than the pictures; it was her message.

In her voice I could sense so many of her emotions: fear, panic, bewilderment.  But mostly, in her final minutes on earth, she wanted Sean to know that she loved him.  I thought about her, and all of the people that died that day, who went off to work as they normally did.  Kissing a spouse or child good-bye, grabbing a cup of coffee, making plans for the weekend.  And none of them came home.  Plans and hopes and dreams were gone in an instant.  Sean Hughes said that he and Melissa were excited about their future and talked about all the things that newlyweds do: moving to a new home, getting a dog, having children.

Her final words to Sean started me thinking about my own life.  My husband had taken early retirement in 1996.  He wanted to travel, spend time with our new grandson, and enjoy time with friends.  I had wanted to continue working.  But I kept thinking about Melissa’s message.  What if that had been me?  Is that how I would want my life to end, without ever having enjoyed what my husband and I had worked so hard to build?

The weeks following September 11 were frightening and incredibly busy for me.  My division of the company had locations throughout the United States and for weeks after the twin towers fell we received bomb threats in major cities. I had an office on the top floor of our Los Angeles headquarters and I jumped every time I  heard a plane or helicopter go by.  After a month or so, I began to feel like this would all pass and that life would get back to “normal”.   But then I thought about Melissa.  Life doesn’t get scripted.  Although the odds of me being killed in a terrorist attack might be low, there were still no guarantees that I could escape a car accident or a terminal illness.

So in the first week of November, when all of the initial frenzy had died down, I told my boss that I wanted to resign.  We negotiated that I would stay until March 1, which I did.  I have never regretted that decision and would not trade all of the memories and experiences I’ve had since then for any amount of compensation I gave up.

Judith Viorst once wrote that it is the small moments in life that make it rich.   Melissa made me realize that I needed to grab the small moments while I could; that sitting with my husband every morning, sipping coffee and watching the news, is a gift.

So to Melissa Harrington Hughes: thank you.  Someday I hope to get back to the new trade center memorial where I can touch the steel engraving of your name.  And in the hollows of those letters, we will finally be connected.