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9/11 Memorial Museum Honors Those Who Were Lost

Oct 31, 2014 12:52PM ● Published by Jill Cueni Cohen

One of two reflecting pools at the memorial

Gallery: 9/11 Memorial Museum [6 Images] Click any image to expand.

Where were you on 9/11? This question conjures up memories of a beautiful morning that went from bad to worse to the extreme edges of a nightmare. Every one of us was affected, and every one of us has a unique story to tell about the day the world came crashing down and changed our country forever.

I used to live on Staten Island with my brother. Our apartment was perched on the edge of Upper New York Bay, and I had the most incredible view of the Statue of Liberty’s armpit and the famous pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline from my bedroom window. I remember walking around the World Trade Center as I hiked down Seventh Avenue, toward Battery Park after working on 42nd Street all day in a television studio. I used to stare up at the towering shafts of steel, almost dizzy with the power that was contained within. I’ll never forget skipping along the top of Tower One with Cousin Gary on a summer night in 1989, disappointed that we couldn’t look over the edge.

Six months after the attack, I visited Ground Zero and walked along the perimeter of the site with my brother; he had been working in a building not far from the Trade Center at the time. Makeshift memorials were everywhere in Lower Manhattan, and two high-powered beams of light reached toward heaven from where the Twin Towers used to be.

Today the National September 11 Memorial Museum stands in the shadow of the new 104-story One World Trade Center, aka Freedom Tower. I decided to visit the site again this past summer. It wasn’t that I wanted to go there; I felt compelled.

The first thing you see upon entering the area are the two acre-sized memorial reflecting pools. Aptly titled Reflecting Absence, by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, water falls away into nothingness, and the names of the 2,983 victims of the September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993 terrorist attacks are inscribed in the bronze panels that line all four sides of both pools.

Since it officially opened to the public on May 15, 2014, more than 1 million people have come from all over the country and the world to pay their respects. Remembrances of the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives that day are contained within walls that used to rise to the sky; now they speak out from the former building’s basement.

Standing in front of the original slurry wall that still holds back the Hudson River and stopped an even greater disaster, the immense weight of what happened is staggering, but it’s nothing compared to the pictures and voices that call out from all corners of the memorial. There’s the realization that these people were just like us—one moment they were starting their workday; hours later, they were gone forever. But here they live on in pictures and words.

Historic artifacts include the Vesey Street stair remnant known as ‘survivor stairs,’ which survivors took to escape the buildings; the twisted steel that holds the shape of an airplane nose; two crushed FDNY fire trucks, and the ‘Last Column,’ a 37-foot-high beam covered in graffiti that was the final piece of steel removed from the site. However, the reality of the worst terrorist event on American soil is far too fresh in my mind to think of it in such ancient terms. Those items bear witness, but it’s nothing next to the stories of the people who died—and the rest of us who didn’t.

If you want a real, live account of the World Trade Center attack, just go out on the street and talk to New Yorkers themselves. Surprisingly, many of them have no interest in visiting the memorial. “Why should I?” one woman asked rhetorically. “I lived through it.”

What touched me the most was an interactive digital guestbook where visitors hand-write notes onto a touchscreen. The notes appear within 30 seconds, overlaid on a world map projected onto a 24-foot screen. The messages appear before your eyes, written by the people around you.

The museum was a melancholy place, but out on the streets of Manhattan in the heat of a mid-summer day, it becomes very clear that the faces you see are the same ones that were lost on 9/11. It could have been any one of them, and tomorrow it could just as easily be me, I thought, as I considered those brave first responders who rushed in to save those who were rushing out, thinking, “I’m going to die, I’m going to die...” I remembered the haunting cell phone activity that abruptly ceased as batteries went out and spirits sank. It took more than six months to clean up the site, find the bodies and try to give them their identities back. It was difficult to think about the years they’ve since missed out on; the milestones of living loved ones that they would never celebrate. In the 9/11 Memorial Museum, they still exist.

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