I was convinced I wasn’t going to cry.
A visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York's Financial District would be a refresher lesson – a look at history from a distance – I told myself.
Standing in line with hundreds of other people over Memorial Day weekend, I was ready to eye the artifacts, hear the stories and, hopefully, come to some kind of conclusion that helped me understand what happened.
And, then, I saw the two pools that went so far down you couldn’t see their bottoms. I touched the names – of people who died during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing – and it got to me. This wasn’t just another memorial, another museum. It was the final resting place for thousands.
Inside, the first glimpse you get of the horror is of the steel beams that remain from one of the buildings. They pull you down into the exhibition area and lead you on a trail that gets deeper and deeper into the story.
Well-organized, the museum is designed to unfold as events happened that fateful morning. Before you get in the belly of the beast – the room where many of the artifacts from the day are held – you see the remnants of the once-proud building. There’s the retaining wall that held back water, preventing the area from being an even bigger disaster. There’s the Vesey Street staircase that survivors rushed down. There’s the cornerstone that once stood as a testament to the World Trade Center’s power and heft.
And then you see a huge wall, covered in shades of blue, with a quote from Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Each blue square represents one of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day. The mural is massive – and shocking. It’s a preparation of sorts for what lies ahead.
A “Wall of Faces” includes photographs of each of the victims. Video screens and headphones help you learn who each was. Mementos from their lives dot cases around the room.
In another dark room, benches ring a glass floor. On the wall, an ever-changing honor roll of the people. The victims’ names, photos and background are projected. On occasion, a voice emerges – from a friend, a family member, an acquaintance – that tells you something about the moms, dads, brothers, sisters and friends who were lost. It’s almost too much to bear, particularly when you hear the voice of a child talking about a deceased parent.
Nearby, a video shows how the World Trade Center was built. As if rising around you (screens envelop the seats), it seems invincible. And, yet, the reality was much different.
Outside the theater, there’s a quilt that people made bearing faces of the victims. Again, it’s huge. There’s a Statue of Liberty that includes messages people sent. And there’s a motorcycle – a point of pride for one of the fire department victims that friends restored in his honor.
Crumpled steel, burned rescue vehicles, hundreds of “have you seen?” posters continue the journey.
And then, you get in that room – the place where television reports from the day play next to voice messages left by one of the victims – and the tears flow freely.
The front window from a business in the area is recreated just as it was, complete with merchandise covered in ash. There are headbands from a man who repeatedly went into the buildings to rescue people until he became a victim.
And, there are photographs of people jumping from the building to give themselves, as one onlooker says, their own dignity.
The beams that look like a cross are there; a crumpled bicycle is, too. Posters, toys, clothes – you name it – converge to tell a story that you thought you knew but didn’t.
There’s an area that talks about conspiracy theories and one that addresses the terrorists but, frankly, the mere scope of what’s on display squeezes out any energy you might have to consider either.
Boxes of tissues placed around the massive museum are essential. If you didn’t bring any with you, you won’t leave without them.
Much has been made about the gift shop, too, but it’s not some crass way of cashing in (cutting boards aside). It contains pins that support the rescue workers who braved plenty. It has the requisite mugs and T-shirts, too. But it’s a fairly tasteful way for the museum to financially stay afloat.
Surprisingly, it’s also a place to decompress. Before looking at one last piece of crumpled steel, you can get your bearings again and hopefully face a world that has forever been changed.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum isn’t just another attraction.
But then, Sept. 11, 2001, wasn’t just another day, either.