Memories, history and people: Remembering 9/11 through the National Memorial and Museum
How do you keep a tragedy like Sept. 11, 2001, from becoming a footnote in a history book? How do you keep a memorial and museum from becoming just another tourist attraction?
These are the questions I carry with me as my train from Jersey City, New Jersey, pulls into the World Trade Center station in New York City and I emerge from Brookfield Place, crossing West Street to reach the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum on a recent day in late August.
The air already has the quality of fall — thinner, cooler — and the sky is an impossibly bright blue. Nearly cloudless.
It is one of the first things Jan Ramirez, the chief curator and the executive vice president of collections at the museum, notes when she meets my colleague, Mimi Wright, and me outside the museum entrance. And we'd talk about it again during an interview inside the museum: that unmissable, unforgettable, incongruous blue.
[pullquote source="Andrea Rotondo, director of content"]Despite how beautiful the morning was, it was time to leave for work (from New Jersey). On clear, sunny days, this is a stunning drive since you can see all of the West Side of Manhattan directly across the Hudson River. On this particular day, I was enjoying the view of the city when we saw a flash and then smoke pouring from near the top of one of the twin towers. It was 8:46 a.m.[/pullquote]
I was in fifth grade on Sept. 11, 2001, but I remember that day with as much clarity as is possible for a 10-year-old. I remember the chaos and confusion at my Connecticut elementary school, where we were held in our classrooms to shield us from events as they unfolded. But I knew through whispers and rumors from teachers, long before my mother arrived to fetch me and my neighbor with conciliatory Slim Jims and candy bars in the seatback pockets of the car, that there had been attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
At home, my parents watched the news for what felt like days while I hung a plastic American flag over my bedroom door. I didn't realize it at the time but I think, even then, I was searching for a way to make meaning out of the events of that day.
[pullquote source="Benét J. Wilson, senior editor"]I was three months in to my first airline job — with Phoenix-based regional carrier Mesa Air Group — on Sept. 11. I was actually scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., that day.[/pullquote]
Wright and I are here to speak with Ramirez about the museum and memorial in the days leading up to the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 — to find out how the site continues to convey the magnitude and solemnity of the tragedy to a growing number of people who weren't even born when 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 people.
Once inside the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum, we all descend to the Foundation Hall, anchored by a portion of the preserved concrete retention wall, or slurry wall, used during the excavation for the World Trade Center site to keep the Hudson River at bay.
Ramirez and I take a seat in front of the Last Column, a solitary, 36-foot piece of steel inscribed with tributes and mementos. She starts at the beginning.
"When we were ... debating how to start (the) interpretive journey for our visitors," Ramirez says, taking me back to the years before the concept for the museum was solidified, "we ended up choosing the one we felt everyone could relate to. And that was remembering the color of the blue sky on that crystal-clear September Tuesday morning."
Everyone, they thought, would understand the "ambivalence of that beautiful blue and what was soon going to come out of it."
"However, here we are in 2021, and there's an entire generation that has no memory of that blue sky," Ramirez says. "And so ... faster than we thought, we're already seeing those who have a lived experience, (a) lived memory, and those who have absolutely none or were too young to have one."
[pullquote source="Brian Kelly, CEO and founder"]I vividly remember exactly where I was when the attacks happened. I was just starting my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh where I was living on campus in the dorms. I was frantically woken up by somebody on my floor telling me that the U.S. was under attack ... I truly felt like the world was coming to an end.
And it's true that while we are at the museum, every generation is represented in the mix of visitors wandering around the halls and exhibits.
But Ramirez says that the mission of the museum remains the same, whether you remember Sept. 11 or not. Visitors will "experience the authenticity of the site" and "understand the gravity of the response and all of the repercussions," she explains.
"(Visitors) are actually at this historic place where an event (happened) that would pretty much change the 21st century," she continues, "whether you experienced (Sept. 11) ... its aftermath, or were not born yet, everyone is living today in a world that was shaped by what happened that day."
[pullquote source="Mimi Wright, social media manager"]I was only 3 years old when the tragedy unfolded on 9/11. Despite this, I still feel a deep connection to the human suffering that occurred on that day. I’ve never really known a world without 9/11. It shaped a lot of my early memories of travel and my understanding of armed conflict as we entered into the war in Afghanistan. The war has since ended but the way 9/11 shaped my formative years sticks with me.[/pullquote]
Of course, the museum is just one element of the complex. In fact, though the necessity of a memorial was realized quite early on, Ramirez says, "The notion of a museum to accompany that was something of a later-born child."
It wasn't until 2005, she tells me, when the mission of the museum became clear: "To be about the event itself, where it happened, to whom it happened and why it happened."
"In part, because we had to protect the vestiges of the site," Ramirez explains, "and, in part, because the memorial was going to be our roof, (the museum) would be a largely a subterranean experience. So we're actually ... trying to present this history in the original cavity of the authentic site itself."
Ramirez continues, "For those who knew the World Trade Center — and those who increasingly did not know the World Trade Center," the museum first gives visitors an opportunity to "reckon with" the absence of an enormous physical place. "And then ... cross the bridge to think about the people who (were) affected."
"Because the outdoor memorial is fairly abstract — the two footprints of the original towers now rendered (as) weeping pools — as opposed to reflecting absence, we here (at the museum) try to recapture the presence ... of the people, of the events of the day and the days that followed."
[pullquote source="Juan Ruiz, editor"]I was at Windows on the World in the north tower the day before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and one week before Sept. 11. The closeness of these dates still impacts me today, but as a 10-year-old and then 18-year-old, I recall feeling fortunate to be alive.[/pullquote]
Ramirez describes a "complementary tension" between the museum and the memorial, and it is palpable as we walk around the mostly underground museum and the open-air memorial.
The memorial, in particular, is a somber tribute to the people who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center site; at the Pentagon; and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and during the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. But it is also at the heart of what is once again a bustling business district.
New Yorkers cut through the memorial during the day to get to the gleaming new World Trade Center buildings or nearby offices. Tourists snap photos of the memorial — and with the memorial. People come to visit a beloved name or leave behind a rose, or to seek shade beneath the trees while taking phone calls and eating lunch.
I mention this to Ramirez and wonder if there's a right or wrong way to experience this site.
"Museums are very interesting because they are kinetic learning experiences. You're thinking and taking things in and making connections as you walk," she says.
Regardless of what draws you to this place, Ramirez says people who come to the museum "have a common interest and (are) taking in this story -- learning and experiencing the site together."
"It's a perfectly performed act that works with another one of the big themes that the museum tries to stress, which is the aggregate collective courage and goodwill and resourcefulness and resolve that allowed us to get through that day," Ramirez posits. "That allowed us to get through the ... months that followed; that allowed us to take the steps to resume our lives."
The same, I suppose, is true of what happens aboveground at the memorial. We do not all come to this site for the same reasons or interact with it in quite the same way, but we are all bound by something shared, and we are all experiencing this hallowed ground at the same time, beneath the same sky.
[pullquote source="Benét J. Wilson, senior editor"]We had a group of flight dispatchers in Las Vegas and we scrambled to rent a van to get them back. We had flight crews stranded all over the country in places that we didn’t serve, so we had to get them in hotels. We sent most people home, because there was nothing for them to do.[/pullquote]
After the interview, Wright and I explore the rest of the museum. Even 10 years after Sept. 11, this was still the site of a fresh wound. But with every passing decade, it becomes more instrumental in the preservation of the artifacts, the memories and the stories of the people involved in that day.
The museum's key exhibition, "In Memoriam," occupies the south tower footprint. Photographs of the 2,983 people lost in the 2001 and 1993 attacks fill the walls from floor to ceiling.
Here, Ramirez had said, is where "you will find yourself in a face."
"You'll find yourself in a name ... in a profession, a hometown. And that's another way people connect with this museum. They connect deeply personally. Even if they did not know a single human being, even if they were not alive, they're going to find a face there that is their age, or looks like them or has a similar surname ... and they will bond. And that," Ramirez concludes, "is the way people do get interested in history."
Ramirez had said people, after listening to the recordings, will leave the museum and find that person's name on the memorial, will touch that name. "And that's just a beautiful gesture ... It's all about remembrance."
As Wright and I walk through the exhibition, voices — recordings from family, friends, colleagues and loved ones honoring the victims — emanate from the inner chamber of the space.
At a touch-screen tablet, I search for connections. I start with my hometown but get no more than three letters in (V-E-R) before a single name pops up: Melanie Louise de Vere. Later, I realize she is the only one out of the nearly 3,000 people with whom I share a given name. She was from the U.K. and 30, the same age I am now, working for a publisher. She was at a conference at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th floor of the north tower when the first plane hit.
I read her story again and again before I am able to leave the room.
[pullquote source="Andrea Rotondo, director of content"]But then, (the) south tower came down. It just fell to pieces ... almost as if it combusted into ash all at once. It was 9:59 a.m. We weren’t that far away so there must have been a deafening sound. But, to me, it was absolutely silent. I do not recall any noise as the tower came down. I may have been in shock.[/pullquote]
Wright and I take in Spencer Finch's massive mosaic of 2,983 blue watercolor squares, “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning," and some of the larger artifacts on display in the museum's Memorial Hall (the warped FDNY Ladder 3 truck; the Survivors’ Stairs, which withstood the collapse of the twin towers).
I am transfixed by massive pieces of steel that have been folded, torn and contorted beyond recognition.
Then we head to the three-part historical exhibition, which opens with the story of that terrible event, told through artifacts, news footage and quotes from those who bore witness, accounting for nearly every moment of the day.
I frequently find myself caught on certain details — and I'm only minutes into the timeline of what for so many people may very well have been the longest day of their lives.
I move more quickly through the second section of the exhibition, which details the events leading up to 9/11. But there is simply not enough time to read everything, to listen to all the audio recordings, to see with horror how everyday objects have been recontextualized: an airplane seatbelt, an employee building badge, a scarred telephone, office memos that caught fire and were scattered around the city.
[pullquote source="Gene Sloan, principal writer"]I was a travel writer at USA Today at the time (assigned) to write about the impact that the attack would have on tourism to New York -- then, as now, a critical part of the New York economy. As I was riding the train up to the city, thousands of visitors who had been in the city at the time of the attack (and thousands of local residents, too) were streaming out. Some people thought New York was done. Finished. Nobody would ever come back.[/pullquote]
Like so many other cultural institutions and memorials, the museum was forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic and public health concerns. It reopened last September, but visitors have been slow to return. Still, in many ways, it has taken on a new significance, especially as the 20th anniversary of that day's events approached.
"One of the reasons why this museum, I think, is so important for people who are still navigating their way through the immense global tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, (is because) this was another ... a different kind of global horror, but probably the biggest one we had been through," Ramirez says of Sept. 11, 2001. "It defined an entire era."
And it also seems to serve as an important reminder that when the worst is over, it is somehow possible to continue on.
"As terrifying as it was, and as sad as it was, we did learn lessons from it. We did resume our lives. We did what (humans) tend to do ... We're wired to repair (and) rebuild. And we did. And I think, you know, as the human spirit or resolve was tested so severely on 9/11, so too it was and continues to be tested by COVID. But it helps to look back. I mean, history always has a valuable insight. It's with us every day ... And I think it's a place where you can find hope."
[pullquote source="Gene Sloan, principal writer"]As working journalists, a photographer and I were allowed behind the barricades to get close to ground zero. The thing I remember most was the sight of armored vehicles and soldiers. They were there to maintain order. But it felt like a war zone. That is something that I never thought I would see in the middle of a great American city, and I hope I never see again.[/pullquote]
That, to me, is one of the enduring lessons of Sept. 11, 2001: After even the greatest of tragedies, it is possible to make sense of the world again, if we connect with others and, as Ramirez suggests, find optimism as we move forward.
After all, the events of Sept. 11 largely took place in New York City, outside Washington, D.C., and in the skies over Pennsylvania, but the day stands apart in our history as a national moment of mourning, of soul-searching and of togetherness, both as Americans and as human beings.
[pullquote source="Clint Henderson, senior news editor"]It was so beautiful to see the way the country came together in the days after we were attacked and to see how the whole world rallied to our sides. It reminds me that no matter how divided the country seems right now, we can stand together when we must.[/pullquote]
A week after our visit to the National Sept. 11 Museum and Memorial, the day before the 20th anniversary, I return alone, tracing the same route into the city. Save for a few thin wisps of cloud crossing the sky, it is another blindingly blue September afternoon.
Roses and miniature American flags now sprout from names across the memorial. There are wreaths of flowers, small tokens, a firefighter's helmet. The strong breeze catches water from the pools and mists onlookers.
Near the corner of the North Pool, I find her name. Melanie.
Behind me, buglers occasionally break into the plaintive 24 notes of "Taps." I stand here and try to find quiet in all the noise. The memorial is especially crowded now. There are onlookers, press capturing b-roll, hurried staff members. Airline crew members in uniform. There are locals leaving, or maybe returning to work. And undoubtedly relatives and friends gathering for the anniversary. A child pushes a plastic truck around the ground. A family poses for a photograph with the Survivor Tree.
Everyone, undoubtedly, belongs here in this moment.
Whether you're a longtime New Yorker or a tourist headed to the city for the first time, visiting the museum and memorial at least once should be essential. But if you don't plan to travel here anytime soon, you can still donate to the Never Forget Fund, which supports the National Sept. 11 Museum and Memorial's educational efforts.
Or, you can join in the collaborative commemoration of Sept. 11 on social media, sharing a photo of the sky wherever you are, and a personal note about what the day means to you. Even this small gesture allows us all to share in the grief and resilience of that day, to appreciate the tremendous acts of heroism and generosity it elicited from first responders and everyday citizens alike, and to reach out to one another at a time when we have all had to discover different ways of being together even while apart.
Additional reporting by Mimi Wright and Eric Rosen.