The attacks of September 11, the largest terrorist event ever perpetrated, took place almost fourteen years ago. Has enough time passed to properly memorialize the event and tell the story with some sort of perspective? The National September 11 Memorial & Museum makes a valiant effort on both fronts.
If you are old enough you remember that day, We all saw the planes, the massive fires 100 floors up, the agonizing fall of dozens to their deaths, the ultimate building collapse and the resultant debris pile. We saw as it happened, live on television. Now it is much different. Arriving at the site now you are confronted by two large memorial fountains. Water pours over the edges into the footprint of the original Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and drains into a lowered out-of-sight area in the center. Names of the victims are inscribed along the edge of both fountains. Lingering in this peaceful scene, it is difficult to imagine the horror that took place on this very spot.
The adjacent subterranean museum is massive. The audio tour compares it, fairly, to Grand Central Terminal. You start by regarding the underside of the memorial fountains, and try to get a sense of the volume of such a space. There is a history lesson here embodied by the presence of the giant slurry wall. A slurry wall is the answer to the flooding problem that occurs when you try to dig a hole for a 100-foot-deep foundation next to a body of water, such as the Hudson River. There are many wrecked things here: airplane parts, structural steel, vehicles, fire equipment, office artwork and personal items. These things call to mind the nearly three thousand who perished here that day.
Three thousand. Why is this number still so difficult for me to grasp? Part of the reason is that I remember the buildings on this site. I first saw them from the New Jersey Turnpike as they were constructed in the early seventies. Several times over the years I gazed from the rooftop observation deck and browsed the below street-level mall. And the three thousand? I didn’t know any of them personally, but their lives seemed very similar to mine. We all went to work one morning. I came home. They did not. Three thousand of them did not.
There is also a heart-rending display of the many photos of the missing, artifacts from the recovery effort, copious historical content and interviews with the leaders of the time, all presented with creative high-tech panache. Our tour guide pointed out all of these things, and asserted that the story of 9/11 is best told by the impact steel. This structural steel at the point of impact became twisted and scorched, but was found in the rubble and is displayed as a show of endurance and inspiration.
I think the story of that day is better told by the voices of people recorded as events were happening. These are played back with time-stamps and a graphic location on an electronic representation of the buildings. There are voices of pilots, air traffic controllers and hijackers. There are radio calls from dispatchers, police, and firefighters. And there are calls home from office workers. Several 3-minute long conversations are looped continuously in three small theater pods at the edge of the exhibit space. The voices bring you, for better or worse, right into the moment. One particular message, as I remember it, got to me: Hi honey. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but a plane hit the other building. We’re ok over here, I just wanted to let you know. But it looks…really, really bad.
How did 9/11 change things? How did it change you? Come to this sacred space in lower Manhattan and get a sense of the relationship between history, current events and your personal experience. Is an afternoon at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum sufficient?
It is a start.