Trip to New York City brings historic event alive
The bus dropped us off at Bryant Park a couple blocks from Times Square. While most on the bus trip were taking in a musical or going to see the Rockettes my mom and I had different plans. Explore the city. Actually a specific part of the city. Downtown Manhattan at the September 11th Memorial and Museum. We had been to the small temporary exhibit years ago so were curious to see the now completed site.
From Times Square we took the R train to the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub in Lower Manhattan. The Hub replaced the PATH train station that was destroyed during the 2001 terrorist attacks. When we exited the subway train the platform looked like most in the city. Rigid cement walls and support pillars colored with paint, tile, informative signs and advertisements. The occasional scuff mark on the wall or floor where a suitcase or shoe rubbed against it. All illuminated by the glow of fluorescent bulbs.
We then ascended the stairs to the hub’s concourse where it seemed we were transported to another time or dimension. Before us was something that looked like a set from a 1970s science fiction movie. It was the hub’s centerpiece known as the Oculus. A 78,000 square foot multi level structure containing retail shops and restaurants. A stark contrast to the subway platform with its pristine white walls, organic rounded edges, and ribbed ceiling with a massive curved skylight that stretches from one end of the building to the other.
Because of ongoing construction in the surrounding area we had to exit the Hub on Vesey Street and navigate a walkway of temporary fences to reach the 9/11 Memorial. As we passed the Oculus we paused to look at the outside of the building. Designed by architect Santiago Calatrava to resemble a winged dove, the unique shape of the building looks more like a enormous sculpture than the entrance to New York City’s third largest transportation hub.
We then walked among the swamp white oak trees planted in the Memorial plaza and approached the reflecting pool where World Trade Center North once stood. The massive square one acre pool is edged with bronze panels etched with the names of the victims at the North Tower, the crew and passengers of Flight 11 and those killed in the 1993 bombing of the WTC.
As I stood next to the pool it was hard for me to imagine a 1,368 foot skyscraper once stood at that location. After a brief moment we then walked to the South reflecting pool where my mother immediately noticed something different about this pool. Water flowed from man-made waterfalls on all four inner walls of the pool. After some on-site research we discovered that both reflecting pools contained the largest man-made waterfalls in North America. For some reason unknown to us, the North Pool was not functioning that day.
Surrounding each memorial are the names of every victim of the September 11th attacks, as well as the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
We finished our visit at the memorials reflecting pools and purchased our tickets for the National September 11 Memorial Museum. After going through security, we made our way into the museum via The Ramp, which represents the history of the construction ramps used to build the original World Trade Center complex in the 1960s, as well as the ramps used to haul debris out of Ground Zero during the site’s recovery.
On the ramp is an introductory exhibition of multi-media installations of people who witnessed the attacks on 9/11. The exhibit also includes missing person fliers that appeared after the attack. A bend in the ramp serves as an observation deck, which overlooks the Foundation Hall, which contains the 36-foot high Last Column, and a portion of the retaining wall of the original WTC. It was at this point I noticed the eerie tomb-like calm inside the museum. This is due to the museum’s decorum, which states the museum is “a place of solemn reflection dedicated to preserving the history of 9/11 and honoring those who were killed,” further adding, “proper decorum, personal behavior, and conduct are required from all visitors at all times”
As we made our way to the end of the ramp, we came across the first artifact from that tragic September day — a staircase known as the Survivor’s Stairs. The cement stair remnant was part of the staircase that served as an escape route for hundreds of survivors of the North Tower onto the Vesey Street sidewalk.
The emotions I felt standing there next to the actual steps all those people hurried down to escape harm is almost indescribable. It was joy and relief knowing that the stairs were a means for people to escape, mixed with awe and disbelief that such a seemingly insignificant object was so significant at the time. Throw in a touch of fear that I imagined the people must have felt, topped off with sadness knowing many more weren’t as fortunate to escape the horror.
I stood there for a moment before heading down the area known as the Tribute Walk. This area contains different items made to pay tribute to those who died during the attack. A large quilt is displayed on the wall, along with drawings from school children. A bright red custom FDNY motorcycle. Pieces of artwork. But what drew my interest were triangles from the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball. I thought to myself it seemed out of place since the attacks happened in September and not December or January. With the number of people gathered in front of the large glass display case, I wasn’t able to get a good look at its placard. Thankfully, as always, my mom came through for me. She told me that each of the Waterford crystal triangles were engraved with the names of New York City first responders, police and fireman who died on 9/11.
We continued on past the Twin Towers steel box column remnants that anchored the skyscrapers to bedrock at the South Tower Excavation, and through the original World Trade Tower construction exhibition. In this exhibit are colonial-era items that were found during the WTC construction. Included in the pre-Revolutionary War items are a key, buttons, bowl of a pipe, ornate fixtures and metal address letters. Also among the collection was a vintage New York City street sign for Greenwich Street.
Next is the Memorial Hall situated between the Twin Tower footprints. On the wall is a quote from Book IX of “The Aeneid,” by the Roman poet Virgil “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.” Each letter of the quote was forged from pieces of steel recovered from Ground Zero. Surrounding the quote is an installation by artist Spencer Finch entitled “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning.” The installation is comprised of 2,983 watercolor squares each representing a victim of the 2001 and 1993 terrorist attacks.
Behind the wall is a repository for the remains of 9/11 victims. Closed to the general public, the repository, under the jurisdiction of the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, provides a dignified and reverential setting for the remains to repose temporarily or in perpetuity as identifications continue to be made. The repository is only accessible by OCME staff, with a private space exclusively for 9/11 family members, known as the Reflection Room.
After the Memorial Hall, we passed by Center Passage, containing a piece of the television antenna that sat atop the North Tower, an elevator motor, and a FDNY ladder truck that was partially crushed when the towers fell.
We then entered the three-part September 11 Historical Exhibition. Separated into Events of the Day, Before 9/11 and After 9/11, this exhibit contains hundreds of artifacts, images, first-person testimony and archival audio and video recordings. For me, this was the most powerful of all the museum’s exhibits. The number of personal and professional items, and the stories that go along with them, was almost overwhelming. I don’t think I was prepared for the range of emotions I would feel as I went from display to display reading the stories. One such story was that of Rosemary Smith, a telephone operator for a law firm on the 57th floor. Rosemary survived the 1993 bombing the WTC and was hesitant to return to work after the attack. Smith loved her job at the firm and overcame her fear to return to work. As a reward in honor of surviving the bombing and an incentive to return to work, Smith purchased herself a gold sapphire ring. Smith’s ring, which is on display in the museum, was found with her remains after the September 11th attacks. Smith was the only person from her company to perish in the attack, as she stayed behind to transfer calls to the answering machines. Dozens, if not hundreds, of stories like that are contained in the Historic Exhibition.
Another item in the exhibit that I’m still finding hard to believe, is called a “composite.” I could not get a picture of the item, as photography and recording is not allowed in this section of the museum. The only way I can describe it is a large, flat layered mass made of rusted metal and ash. The unbelievable part of the composite, which is about two to three feet thick, is it’s actually estimated to be five floors worth of material crushed, compressed and fused together with the intense heat and force of the tower collapse.
I’ve been to other museums and places that dealt with tragic events, such as the Gettysburg Battlefield, The National World War II Memorial, The National Civil War Museum and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. All have stirred up my emotions in one way or another, but none with the magnitude of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Perhaps it’s because the other events happened long before I was born and seem almost unreal and unimaginable. Perhaps living during the time of the events of September 11th, 2001, makes the museum more personal.
I don’t know and I probably never will. But what I do know is if you visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum be prepared to go through a spectrum of feelings. It wouldn’t hurt to have a pack of tissues with you as well.
Bradley Kreitzer is a Sentinel reporter and photographer.