It’s a clear autumn morning in New York City, much like it was on Sept. 11, 2001, when four commercial airliners were hijacked by terrorists who flew the planes into two World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon.
(The attempt to crash a fourth plane into the White House was foiled by heroic passengers.) My husband and I are standing at what has become known as Ground Zero – the now-beautiful plaza that once was a gigantic, toxic pile of rubble and the burial ground of more than two thousand people. It’s difficult to imagine the devastation that occurred on that cloudless morning, but we are here at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum to try to get a sense of what happened.
The fact that Ground Zero is, 14 years later, a beautiful urban space is a testament to the amazing resiliency and creativity of the human spirit and will. The leaders and designers of this museum and memorial had to figure a way to interpret the events of 9/11 in a respectful manner that didn’t minimize the terrifying effects of that day. They had to translate the deaths of several thousand people into an artful, meaningful and serene gathering place, and I think they more than succeeded.
The museum, which opened May 2014, contains 23,000 photographs, 1,900 oral histories, 500 hours of film and video, and 10,000 artifacts, large and small. They include massive pieces like melted metal architectural supports, crushed rescue vehicles and twisted machinery parts and communications equipment.
There also are hundreds of small, painfully poignant items like the blood-stained high heels worn by a woman as she fled the South Tower; rosary beads, eyeglasses and lipstick belonging to a victim; a watch worn by a passenger aboard a hijacked plane; and the still-soiled flag that was hoisted at Ground Zero by first responders during the cleanup.
Seeing a window frame from one of the jumbo airliners that flew into the Twin Towers was jolting. Who sat on the other side of this piece of metal and what were they thinking and feeling as the plane plummeted toward the 107-story building?
We spent almost three hours in the museum (not enough) and emotions roller-coastered between horror, anger, sadness, confusion, pride and wonder. It was an exhausting but necessary experience. I knew our visit would be disturbing, but as one who lived 9/11 from the safety of the opposite coast, I felt an obligation to understand the event and the experience more deeply.
A few steps from the museum is the September 11 Memorial – two acre-sized pool with 30-foot waterfalls that flow into the footprints of the Twin Towers. Around the raised edges, carved in bronze panels, are the names of all of the victims of 9/11 and the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. Often forgotten, this explosion killed six people, injured more than 1,000 people, including 123 first responders, and blew a five-story crater in the floors below the center.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org