Clayton Collier/Staff Photographer
Even those who have worked in downtown Manhattan for decades find themselves unfamiliar with the surrounding area without the Twin Towers as a reference point.
The attacks on 9/11 not only made the landscape physically unrecognizable, but forever altered the aura of the area as well.
I had been to the site formerly known as Ground Zero once before; shortly after the opening of the two recessed reflecting pools installed in the footprints of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. Although the plaza above ground is incredibly well done, it is the 9/11 Museum below the surface that return all who enter back to that dreadful Tuesday morning.
The site evokes a powerfully somber phenomenon. Just as I begin to admire the aesthetics of the memorial, thoughts of that day—similar to many—flood to the forefront of my mind: my second grade teacher sitting our class around her rocking chair, telling us that the Twin Towers were gone; endless news coverage of the burning buildings and plumes of toxic smoke rushing through the streets; the days following in which the air reeked of burnt metal and wires, physically making the events of Sept. 11 inescapable.
Descending down the escalator into the museum, you can sense a similar confusion on those visiting as well.
A map of the Eastern seaboard appears on the wall with a written summary of the attacks as well as the flight paths of the four hijacked airplanes. A crowd gathers, snapping photos while vocalizing their thoughts on the emotional piece.
Pre-recorded voices penetrate the sound of camera shutters and conversations. Eyewitnesses state their memories of that tragic morning on looping audio. Overlapping words including “angry, alone, devastated and surreal” echo through the hallway. Photos of the horrified onlookers viewing the destruction hauntingly fade into focus on columns. By the time visitors pass through this hallway and are able to view the foundation of the Twin Towers, only the sound of sneakers hitting the laminate wood flooring can be heard.
Images of the thousands of missing-posters appear: photos with pets, children, family and friends; description of eye color, occupation, floor numbers; one poster simply reads, “Have you seen my daddy?”
A staircase and an escalator straddle the “Survivor Stairs,” an exit used by many to escape the crumbling towers. At its base, a volunteer offers more information on the exhibit.
“I can tell you a little more about the stairs if you’d like,” he said.
The man speaks with incredible detail and passion about this slab of concrete. His name is Bill Spade, a 1981 graduate of Seton Hall and former Setonian photography editor who was a first responder on 9/11. Spade, a retired firefighter, was the only survivor from his Staten Island fire company, Rescue 5, and was one of the last people to use the stairs to escape. He would later tell me he feels that volunteering at the museum is a way for him to give back as well as to honor his fallen brethren.
Directly beneath the reflecting pools is a tomb-like structure, surrounded by walls lined with the photos of those killed. Audio of the “Reading of the Names” ceremony hauntingly echoes through-out the room. In the center of the space, a slideshow celebrating the lives of those lost can be seen. Sitting on long lonely benches, individuals quietly sob as they wait for their loved one’s tribute to come up. A woman lets out a faint “Oh my God” as her hand covers her mouth, appearing to have walked in while a familiar face was projected on the screen. This is the first time I feel close to crying in the exhibit.
Continuing onward through a revolving door, the eerie silence of the exterior is quickly shattered by the newsreels, emergency sirens and screams that immediately captures and relays the emotions from that sunny Tuesday. Stills, videos and artifacts of the horror are inescapable.
A retelling of the morning begins to unfold. Appropriately, the events occur in rapid succession, giving off a realistic flashback to that day. The second plane, jumpers, the Pentagon, United 93; a dizzying array of carnage and tragedy lay before us. Portions of the fuselage, office phones, wallets, and bloodied high-heeled shoes all tell the story.
Half a dozen screens show security footage of people running for their lives as the towers fall and the dust rises. Screams, booms, panic; then again silence.
Funneled through a single hallway, the first sound heard is the emergency signal of firefighters, indicating a motionless officer. The singular high-pitch mayday alert increases into hundreds, introducing the aftermath and recovery.
It is at this point I realize how much planning went into this exhibit. Each phase is meant to make you feel what it was like to experience the morning of Sept. 11 and the weeks, months and years following. Each seatbelt fragment or steel beam was carefully placed to tell the story of tragedy and destruction while peppering in the uplifting stories of triumph and survival.
A common theme since the attacks is to “never forget” what occurred on that day. Now, 13 years later, a new generation emerges that is aware 9/11 occurred, but has no recollection—or were not alive—at the time or in the succeeding months.
This museum provides that experience. It is unsettling and often disturbing. It brings back a time many prefer not to relive, but it upholds its duty in honoring the fallen. It will teach our children and grandchildren about a day we promised never to forget.
Clayton Collier can be reached at email@example.com.