It’s hard to believe that tomorrow is the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
To me, it feels like that darkest day in American history was only yesterday.
I remember receiving the frantic phone call telling me to turn on the television, wondering what could be so urgent on a crystal-clear September day that followed a night of storms.
That evening, September 10, 2001, I had been at a press event on a small vessel moored at South Street Seaport, not far from the World Trade Center, and was more worried about keeping dry and staying away from the frequent lightning strikes. Travel writers have to cope with the elements, and I had already survived a tornado, a flood, and a couple of earthquakes.
Who could have imagined that the fury of the heavens that night were about to be compounded by the fury of man’s inhumanity to man?
The sky was so blue, and the late-summer air so crisp, that September 11th seemed like it would be a perfect day, perhaps the most perfect day of the entire year.
But a bunch of al-Qaida terrorists, fueled by a twisted ideology, would change all that in a flash.
The 19 fanatics combined to hijack four planes, turning them into suicide missiles that destroyed 2,977 lives, most of them at the World Trade Center but some at the Pentagon and others in an open field in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Some 400 first responders also perished.
Those memories all came flooding back when I paid my first visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, a subterranean complex squeezed between reflecting pools poised over the actual sites of the destroyed Twin Towers.
Open only since May 21 of this year, the museum is both a tomb and a tribute, a place where names of victims are engraved in bronze around the perimeters of the pools, but where a video shows Mayor Giuliani tells a Saturday Night Live audience that “New York City is open for business.”
As I began my journey into history, I passed two enormous girders from the original World Trade Center that framed the shiny new one, a glass structure that stands 1776 feet high (the number was chosen deliberately). Then I encountered a map headlined by the infamous date of September 11, 2001 and a chart showing the paths of the ill-fated flights.
I learned many things during my visit, including the startling fact that the 9/11 attacks were witnessed by 2 billion people — a third of the world’s population.
Terrorists want publicity, or at least notoriety, and certainly received more than their share that day.
I also learned that the original complex included seven buildings, a plaza, and an underground shopping mall. There was also a PATH train station that brought workers from New Jersey, just over the Hudson River.
When finished, the new configuration will have a spiral of new towers around the eight-acre memorial and the museum, plus office and retail space and public transit connections.
Architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker were the winners of an international competition that drew more than 5,000 entries from 63 countries.
The pools feature 30-foot waterfalls that send water gushing toward a gaping void, symbolizing each of the Twin Towers.
Even a tree is part of the design, with a Callery pear tree restored to health after being reduced to a eight-foot stump after the 9/11 attacks. Nursed in a nearby park, the tree sprouted new branches and even produced spring flowers as it grew to be more than 30 feet tall. Called “the Survivor Tree,” it is a symbol of survival and resilience in the face of almost total disaster.
The museum covers it all, from the original construction of the Twin Towers to the first al-Qaida attempt to topple it — a 1993 bombing that claimed six lives. There are pictures and posters of the original World Trade Center, plus posters of movies and comics popular at the time, from Working Girl and Superman II to Woody Allen’s New York Stories: One City, Three Stories.
A true multimedia experience, there are dozens of videos, showing a then-hirsute Matt Lauer reporting live as events unfolded, and a somber Brian Williams reporting on the history of al-Qaida and its elusive leader, Osama bin Laden (later killed by U.S. Navy Seals in a commando raid).
Remnants of 9/11 are everywhere, from the crumpled “Survivor Stairs” to pieces of elevators, emergency vehicles, and building parts unable to escape the searing heat.
I saw letters written by children to missing parents, photos of missing persons, and a young girl, too young to remember living through the attacks, but so overwhelmed by the displays that she stood with her hands on her cheeks.
Without exception, every visitor reacted as if they were walking on hallowed ground. If they spoke at all, they used hushed tones, as if they were in a library or a religious institution. In a sense, they were.
After completing the circuit of exhibits, many guests had difficulty tearing themselves away. They moved silently up the escalators, eventually settling on the benches around the reflecting pools, buried in their thoughts.
I know. I was one of them.