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Visiting The 9/11 Museum The Memories Come Flooding Back

By Ilene Dube // Photography by Scott Lynch

If I had been asked, before visiting the 9/11 Memorial Museum, if I was personally affected by the September 11 attacks on our country, I might have answered no. After viewing the eight-acre site honoring the 2,983 people who were killed in the horrific attacks, I would have to say we are all personally affected.

When you enter the glass trapezoidal entry pavilion, you immediately develop a somber mindset. An enormous photograph depicting a peaceful scene of the Brooklyn Bridge and East River at 8:30 that morning gets you thinking about what you were doing when the planes hit.

Iconic 70-foot high columns with three-pronged tops soar into the lobby space, designed by Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta.

Trident: One of the architectural terms we learned at the time, referring to the three-branched element distinctive to the lower facades of the Twin Towers. There were 84 that formed its structural perimeter, and here we see two of them, rising like contemporary sculpture, rusted Corten steel with painted markings that helped rescue workers identify them in the rubble.

These weighed 125,000 pounds and were too long and heavy for flatbed trucks so they had to be sawed in half, then rejoined with a protective sleeve, explains docent Howard Levy. The architectural elements were temporarily stored at the former Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, as archaeologists searched for human remains.

Levy was there at the time of the attack. A neighborhood resident, his apartment was filled with dust from the explosions. Registered with the World Trade Center Health Registry, he is regularly checked out for pulmonary disease. So far, so good. Another friendly docent, a rescue worker, is not so lucky—he developed cancer.

Before beginning his 16 weeks of docent training, Levy volunteered at the Tribute Center on Liberty Street. His warm welcome helps to shake off the rain I had to wait in outside in the ticket holders line.

Shanksville, Pennsylvania: A place few of us had ever heard of before the passengers and crew of the fourth flight hijacked by terrorists that day launched a counter attack, bringing down the plane after it was forced to change course.

Box Cutters: A tool few of us knew of, no less that they could be used as a weapon.

Before descending to the museum’s subterranean levels, you walk through a dark corridor and hear voices of those interviewed on the day: “Papers floating through the air like feathers”; “Is this really happening?”; “Surreal”; “Like a Hollywood blockbuster”; “Everything stopped”; “I couldn’t wrap my head around how anyone could do this.”

Suspended screens suggesting the Towers’ shapes display these words, as well as a slide show of people on the street looking up, hands over their mouths.

Minoru Yamasaki: The Modernist architect we learned about in the 1960s; in addition to the Twin Towers, he designed Robertson Hall at Princeton University.

“What has 200 elevators, 1,200 restrooms, 40,000 doorknobs, 200,000 lighting fixtures, 7 million square feet of acoustical tile ceiling, more structural steel than the Verrazano Bridge and was built for more than $1 billion in the 1970s?”

And then the personal connections come flooding back: Yes, just out of film school, I applied for a job as bartender at Windows on the World (no, I didn’t get it, although we ate brunch there.) My family loved taking visitors up for the view. Yes, my husband once worked in one of the towers, although he didn’t go in the day of the attack.

During college breaks, my father took me to watch the construction in progress. He was interested in the engineers’ slurry trench technology enabling the reinforced concrete perimeter wall to be sunk six stories into bedrock, and the specially designed kangaroo cranes from Australia that could lift the heavy loads as the towers rose into the skyline.

What’s amazing is that visitors are inside now, where the original slurry wall has been preserved, again like contemporary art, with reinforced tiebacks make up of 21 steel cables and enclosed in metal pipe to hold it to rock. The slurry wall is designated an historic artifact, as are the tiebacks.

Remnants of our national tragedy as contemporary art: How do I feel about this? The North Tower soared more than a quarter mile into the sky, supported by columns anchored 70 feet below ground. Recovery workers sheared the columns during cleanup. Many victims’ family members view the column remnants as defining elements of the sacred ground where their loved ones were killed. They, too, are designated permanent historic assets. Benches, like pews, are spread about so visitors can pay respect.

Standing in the center of the pit is “The Last Column,” affixed with memorial messages by recovery workers, first responders, volunteers and victims’ relatives. “The Last Column” was lowered on a flatbed truck in May, 2003, marking the official end of the nine-month Ground Zero recovery effort,while bagpipers played “Amazing Grace,” then shrouded and draped it with the American flag. When it departed, buglers played “Taps” and bagpipers and drummers played “America the Beautiful.”

Electronic stations allow you to add your own message and view those of others: “Everyone knows where they were that day”; “I never realized how strong our country can be”; “I was a child that day and am now a police officer with this memory heavy on my heart”; “I have dreamed of coming to NYC all my life to see the courage and strength of New Yorkers”; “Never forget.”

At right is a photograph of the towers and surrounding buildings at sunset, the windows illuminated like jewels. To the left is a section of the steel façade, now sculpture that visitors click their cameras at, and just beyond, a photo of that same skyline without the towers, just clouds of smoke. I remember the smoke, and how it drifted to New Jersey, and how we could smell death in Princeton backyards.

Feb. 26, 1993: The first effort to topple the towers by Islamic terrorists in a van loaded with 1,200 pounds of explosives that killed six.

Walls with screened projections of the postings for those missing, snapshots of smiling young people, happier times.

“The survivors’ stairs”: An artifact of the Vesey Street stairs hundreds used in seeking escape. It brings back those images that continue to haunt us, of those who fled by jumping out the windows. Two who held hands.

What were you doing on that morning? A perfect end-of-summer day. I was sitting on my porch, having one extra cup of tea before work to enjoy that beautiful September sky. “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on that September Morning” by Spencer Finch is an installation of 2,983 individual watercolor paintings, each an attempt to remember the color of the sky. Each is a unique shade of blue, creating a panoramic mosaic of color in memory of those killed.

Remember how the only visible difference on the skyline between the two towers was that one had an antenna protruding upward? A segment of it is here – all transmissions from it stopped at 10:28, when the second tower collapsed. By then I was driving to work through blurry vision.

Eleven firefighters were lost when the second tower fell. The FDNY lost 343.

Ever since that historic day, we contend with increased security protocols at airports and other public venues. Even here, before entering the museum, we must put our belongings in a gray plastic tub that goes through a scanner. No, it’s not part of the exhibition – it’s real security. In the “Reflecting on 9/11” Recording Studio, you can join the conversation with the likes of Robert De Niro and Bill Clinton (“We can’t get so concerned with security that we give up our freedom and give in to the terrorists.”)

Another flashback: Visiting one of the towers, witnessing the lobby filled with young men in stiff white shirts, scurrying to elevators, off to their important missions.

Advisory: “This area of the exhibition includes content that may be particularly disturbing.” In one theater area, recovered voice mail messages of those in the tower at the time. “The sky so pure, the air so crisp, everything was perfect.” “Walking over bodies…” Not all survived.

These are not actors. Tissues are provided.

Among the artifacts: Debris and papers that flew out of the buildings that day; a girl’s pink jacket with a Peter Pan collar and boy’s pajamas covered with fire trucks, worn by two children among the 53 passengers on Flight 77 that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon; melted touchtone phones, a Rolodex and photo cube from the Pentagon.

9:59AM: The South Tower collapses and Mayor Giuliani attempts to contact Vice President Cheney.

Remember the escape scene in North by Northwest, when Eva Marie Saint climbs Mount Rushmore in high heels? What was it like for women in their work shoes who had to run faster than their personal best? We see a photo of a rescue worker carrying a barefooted woman, and a display of some of the shoes worn by the evacuees.

10:03AM: Shanksville, Pennsylvania: On display is the watch of Todd Beamer, the Cranbury, New Jersey, resident aboard Flight 93 who tried to reclaim the aircraft from the hijackers. His last words: “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll.” His daughter was born four months later.

10:28AM: The North Tower collapsed. Never forget. The 9/11 Memorial Museum will make sure you never do.

Tickets for the 9/11 Museum, $15-$24 (special discounts apply—see museum website), are sold for a specified time and can be purchased in person or online, available up to three months in advance. The museum is open daily. May 21, 2014-Sept. 21, 2014, 9AM-8PM and Sept. 22, 2014-Dec. 31, 2014, 9AM-7PM. Admission to the 9/11 Memorial, on the grounds outside the museum, is free.

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