There are many days in our lives that leave a footprint on our memory. We just don’t always realize how powerful that footprint is until our memory is jolted.
This summer my travel group experienced this jolt in New York City when we began recounting the memories of “that day.” Whether those memories were as kindergarteners or as teachers, we all had a school-day memory. My day, like everyone else’s, began as an ordinary fall day until about 8:30 am.
“We’ve been hit! We’ve been hit!” frantically yelled our Home Ec. teacher Michelle Barnette as she raced quickly down the hall toward my classroom.
It was picture day, and as yearbook sponsor I was leaving my class a few moments to check on the photographers. At first I thought nothing of her exclamations except what a great beginning to our Friday night game this would make. Our football team was playing our biggest rival in three days, and I interpreted her information to mean that the adversary had rolled the school, or maybe even gone so far as to egg the school. This should really get our team pumped up, I thought.
I smiled as I passed. “We’re under attack!” she exclaimed again as she hurried to the next classroom. I turned toward her, now wondering if the culprits were outside the school at this moment. “They’re pretty brave—or stupid,” I thought.
I never imagined what was really happening. Only moments later I entered the auditorium. Instead of seeing lines of students waiting to have school day pictures, I saw a herd of students, a few teachers, and two photographers huddled around a laptop watching the Today show.
Tears streamed down several faces. Many wanted to call home. I ran to my room, and my class and I huddled around a small radio listening for any information we could get. Then, we all piled into the Family and Consumer Science classroom to watch more events unfold.
I remember every moment of that early morning in the fall of 2001 as well as the aftermath in the days that followed. I was one of those two billion people who could not be peeled from the horror unfolding on television and radio. However, as real as it all seemed, the events still felt very far away at that time. For me, that feeling of distance changed this past summer.
During our trip to New York City this June, our travel group visited the recently opened 9/11 Memorial and Museum. This is a visit none of us will ever forget.
September 11, 2001 is a day that many have likened to Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President Kennedy. Most can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when that first plane (Flight 11) slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 am.
Almost every American realizes that day will forever be etched in our minds.
Our trek to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum began as many mornings on this trip— skipping along 5th Avenue from our Hotel at Times Square, laughing, reminiscing about the previous night’s excursions, and someone aggravating and teasing someone else. We were a noisy, boisterous group of 32 determined to have as much fun on this trip as possible.
From one block away we could see Freedom Tower high above the other high risers with its beautiful blue hue and spectacular architecture. We speculated about what we might see or feel when we reached the museum. We soon learned we had no idea the impact this museum would have on each of us. As we rounded the corner and left the concrete jungle for a peaceful canopy of the tree-covered pavilion, our demeanor quickly shifted. We could hear the water in the two pools before we saw them. Our hushed voices spoke louder than our laughs had just moments earlier.
The Museum entry and luminescent glass pavilion, bright and cheery, almost seems a paradox next to the two giant pools of water that have replaced the holes left by the fallen towers. The ever-flowing water represents the thousands of tears that have and are still falling for those who lost their lives on September 11. As we neared the North Pool, we felt an overwhelming sense of quiet respect. We were drawn to the North Pool, where the North Tower had once stood.
For Kelly Lay, who has traveled with our little group for ten years, the Pavilion was a very emotional experience. “The fountains outside the 9/11 Memorial and Museum were so moving,” she recalled. “Thinking of each drop of water representing a single tear is so powerful as you watch so many drops pour over the huge fountains.”
The pools were powerful for Morgan Kilpatrick, too. “While standing there at the pools, the thing that got to me was seeing the engraved names that had flowers sticking out next to them,” she recalled. “That made it even more real. There was no cutting up or laughing while we were taking it all in; there was hardly any talking either.”
Our hearts were already stirred, and we hadn’t even entered the building yet. The museum is somewhat of a metaphor; one that takes the visitor from the peaceful tranquility on a processional journey down into the heavy darkness of that fateful day.
Our next steps carried us through the lobby and past a sign that reminded us about the events that unfolded that day. The words seem to jump out and tear at our memory. They read:
“On September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists who were members of al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist network, hijacked four California-bound commercial airplanes shortly after departure from airports in Boston, Massachusetts; Newark, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C. In a coordinated attack that transformed the planes into weapons, the hijackers intentionally flew two of the planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. When passengers and crew members of the fourth plane launched a counterattack, the hijacker pilot crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed that day, the single largest loss of life and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history.”
“Before I stepped into the building I was already crying,” Erin Holly said of the visit. She chose New York as her senior trip instead of one to the beach because of the exciting places she would visit. However, she never expected this particular site to be so moving.
“The 9/11 Memorial was my absolute favorite,” Erin said. “As we walked through the sacred halls and rooms I couldn’t help but feel a sense of gratitude for the heroic men and women.”
This 110,000 square foot museum in the footprints of where the towers once stood houses artifacts, images, rubble, words, and audio collections that both horrifies the visitors as it honors the heroism of that fateful day. Descending 70 feet below the pools above, we passed what we thought was a huge work of art. However, this is no abstract sculpture. It is “impact steel” that was part of the north tower façade located at the impact point where hijacked Flight 11 pierced the building while traveling more than 400 miles per hour and loaded with 10,000 gallons of fuel. The steel façade spanned three floors.
As we passed the steel façade segments, we noticed more than one set of stairs continuing the descent into the bowels of the museum. On our right, we took the escalator that slowly carried us down alongside “The Survivor’s Stairs.”
The Vesey Street stair remnant was recovered from the WTC site. This stairway provided an unobstructed exit for hundreds seeking to escape. However, to reach the stairs, many had to cross the Plaza beneath treacherous debris falling from the North Tower.
The enlarged photograph of several evacuees is a powerful image. The words next to it, just grip your heart. “Go down this set of stairs, and then just run, run as fast as you can!” Lieutenant David Brink yelled to evacuees.
Beyond this stoic rubble stands a majestic fire truck from Ladder Company 3. Its red and yellow colors along the side and back still blaze brightly in the dim-light museum. However, the cab of the truck speaks a different story–one of contrast. The mangled and burnt wreckage is all that remains of the front of the truck, which was hit by falling debris from the North Tower. The entire 11-man crew of Ladder 3 perished in the towers.
“There was so much to see and take in,” Morgan said. “I think everyone felt emotionally overwhelmed because our hearts just ached for the families who lost loved ones.”
Kelly Lay added, “It was surreal walking through the museum and seeing the real remains of the tower façade and fire trucks. The phone calls and answering machine messages were so moving. The cockpit messages were unreal. I literally felt emotionally drained when we left the museum. I wish we could have taken pictures in every part of the museum.”
Erin continued, “Between reading survivors’ stories and memorabilia of the deceased, I had to find a tissue. Reading and hearing the actual recordings of those who lost their lives just really got to me. I could not imagine what I would have done.”
For me, the enlarged images of people voluntarily jumping from the floors above the impact point was more than I could bear. Along with the recorded messages of victims from the plane, the images and recordings reminded me of how horrific those moments were and how desperate those people felt.
Morgan added, “Reading all those heroic stories and listening to the calmness in the voices of those trapped on those planes made me proud to live in this country. So many people risked their lives to save others. I just can’t imagine enduring a situation like that.”
Tracey Garner agreed, “The 9/11 Memorial was simply astounding. It made me feel proud to be an American.”
Many different flags that were recovered from the rubble were displayed toward the end of the museum journey. Those flags are proof of New York City’s patriotic spirit, and the desire to continue life.
It’s hard to walk a block in New York City that isn’t bombarded with hustle and bustle, noisy sirens, and vendors marketing their wares on the corners. But in this small corner where the WTC embodied the idea of free trade and market, there are no t-shirt vendors or kiosks. There’s just solemn respect.
We were standing on this scared site forever known as Ground Zero where more than 2,000 people lost their lives when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. The unidentified remains of many victims are still at this site, forever encased in the rubble and debris. It is a museum built around an active repository of human remains.
The visit made the event even more real to me. I could touch the stairwell, I could hear the calmness in the frantic voices, I could see the dust-covered sweaters, shoes, and papers left behind. I could feel the horror in the moments. The 9/11 Memorial Museum made me cry. It made my friends and students cry.
But for all of us, this pilgrimage also added reality to what had been just images across a 36-inch television screen. We were literally in the pit that held the events, a part of this story that still has not ended, and invited to allow that day to happen again both emotionally and physically. 78