“Il fait froid,” the young father said.
“Oui,” I reflexively replied.
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It was cold on the day I visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. And the wind blew so strong that the waterfalls normally cascading into the Memorial Pools weren’t flowing.
But the number of foreign languages I heard throughout the Memorial grounds struck me even more. Young parents speaking in a range of tongues explained to small children what happened there.
But of course, the terrorism of September 11, 2001, wasn’t just an attack on America. It was an attack on humanity and an affront to every decent person around the globe.
Like virtually every American old enough, I’ll never forget that day. I was living in northern Virginia, watching the morning news while jogging on the treadmill in my building’s gym. Suddenly the anchors reported that a plane had hit the North Tower at the World Trade Center. I thought it must be a small private aircraft, and felt sad for the victims and their families. Then an audibly shaken witness on the ground exclaimed that a jumbo jet had just hit the South Tower. For a split second I thought she must be confused. And then it hit me: Terrorism. America was under attack — craven, honor-less, evil attack.
People who weren’t coming to exercise started pouring into the gym, just to watch the unfolding horror on TV. After Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37, I realized that I needed to call my family and let them know I was okay. It was hard to get a connection, so I alternated back and forth between trying to reach my parents in Massachusetts and my brother in Canada, figuring that once I talked to one of them, they could reach each other. It seemed like hours, but it was only a few minutes before I reached my Dad. We were still on the line at 9:59 when he said, “The South Tower just collapsed.” I thought he meant from the point of impact up. I had no idea that both Towers would crumple to the ground.
A friend who lived close enough to the Pentagon to hear an explosion came over. We spent much of the day responding to people who checked on us and reaching out to those we hadn’t heard from.
The day’s worst moments were when Flight 93 was still zooming toward Washington. We had to wonder: Which of our friends is already dead, and which are about to die? Then the plane crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, thanks to the heroes aboard, who fought their hijackers and thwarted their evil intentions, people we didn’t know sacrificing themselves to save people we probably did. We’re lucky that in the end we didn’t lose anyone close to us, though friends of ours did.
In the coming days, we watched the candlelight vigils taking place all around the world. I loved hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” played at Buckingham Palace. It was a comforting time in the midst of horror, a time when the worst of mankind brought out the best of mankind.
In a similar way, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum pull some beauty out of the awful wreckage of Ground Zero. Together they honor the lives lost on that terrible day and in its wake, as well as in the earlier bombing at the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993.
I recommend exploring the Museum first and the Memorial second.
The Museum is a difficult place to visit. Visitors enter at street level, but then descend underground to the foundation of the World Trade Towers. Beside them on the way down stands the granite and concrete Vesey Street Staircase, also known as the Survivors’ Staircase. Hundreds of people fled down its 38 steps to safety on September 11.
The cavernous Museum houses two main displays:
the Historical Exhibition and the Memorial Exhibition.
Located at the site of the North Tower, the Historical Exhibition features artifacts, photographs, first-person accounts, and archival audio and video recordings. They tell the story of September 11 in three parts: “Events of the Day”, “Before 9/11”, and “After 9/11”.
The Memorial Exhibition is located in the spot that housed the South Tower. It commemorates the lives lost in the 2001 and 1993 terrorist attacks, with portraits of all those murdered and some of their personal effects.
One of the most striking artifacts is a mangled fire truck. Moments after Flight 11 hit the North Tower, 11 firemen of FDNY Ladder Company 3 responded to the scene. Several of the men had just finished over-night shifts and were technically off-duty. Leaving their truck parked near Vesey Street, they rushed to the North Tower. Flight 175 hit the South Tower at about the same time. It would collapse within an hour. As civilians streamed down stairwells to flee the North Tower, the Ladder 3 firemen were climbing up, in their doomed mission to rescue victims trapped above. Then it too collapsed, killing all 11. Their truck bears witness to the devastation.
Steps away, a mosaic mural titled “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on that September Morning” comprises 2,983 squares hand-painted in different shades of blue. It alludes to the beautiful sky that morning before the attacks. And it honors the uniqueness of the nearly 3,000 individuals killed that day in 2001, and in the 1993 bombing. Behind it lie the unidentified remains of more than 1,000 of the murdered.
After taking in so much sorrow, the atmosphere of the Memorial above is hopeful and refreshing. Tall buildings all around proclaim renewal. More than 400 swamp white oak trees create a park-like feeling. The hardy species grows in all three areas where the hijacked planes crashed and killed on September 11:
New York City; Arlington, Virginia, and Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
The twin Memorial Pools sit in the footprints of the Towers. The largest man-made waterfalls in North America flow down their walls.
Bronze parapets stencil-cut with the names of the 2,983 immediate victims of the 2001 and 1993 terrorist attacks surround the Pools. The names are organized by relationships, so that people who shared their lives and their deaths remain connected by the Memorial. The North Pool parapets honor the victims killed at the North Tower, including those aboard Flight 11, and in the 1993 bombing. The South Pool parapets honor the people murdered at the South Tower, including those on Flight 175; at the Pentagon, including those on Flight 77; the first responders, and the crew and passengers of Flight 93.
The Memorial Glade honors people who remain sick or have died from exposure to toxins in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. They include first responders and recovery workers at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Flight 93 crash site, relief workers and volunteers, WTC survivors, and lower Manhattan residents, students, and workers. The Glade is a peaceful green area vibrant with grass, ivy, and swamp white oak trees. It features six stone monoliths inlaid with steel recovered from the WTC. Their rough edges and large size reflect the lasting sufferrings of those who rushed to help others in the immediate rescue and long recovery efforts.
The Survivor Tree proclaims resilience and rebirth. In October 2001, recovery workers discovered the badly damaged but still living Callery pear tree at Ground Zero. Workers removed it from the site. Local arborists nursed it back to health. The Survivor Tree was replanted at the Memorial in 2010. On the day I visited, blue and yellow ribbons in support of the people of Ukraine bedecked its protective fence.
During the Survivor Tree’s long rehabilitation, arborists gathered some of its seeds and propagated 450 descendants. Today, these saplings average three to four feet in height. Every September, three communities that have recently suffered tragedy each receive one of the saplings, under the Survivor Tree Seedling Program.
Boston received a Survivor sapling after the 2013 Marathon bombing. It is now growing in the city’s Public Gardens, the oldest botanical gardens in America.
September 11 is more than the day when Islamist terrorists tried to intimidate America, and failed. It’s more than the day when 19 thugs murdered nearly 3,000 people.
It’s the day when a tree survived, and now gives hope and a sense of support to other hurting communities. It’s the day when fire fighters, and police officers, and doctors and nurses, and volunteers risked their lives and their health to rescue others. It’s the day when the heroes on Flight 93 sacrificed themselves and saved possibly hundreds of lives and an iconic landmark in Washington, D.C.
It’s the day when the worst in human nature picked a fight with the best, and lost.
What to Know Before You Go to the National September 11
Memorial & Museum
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum are located at the
World Trade Center in New York City.
The Memorial is open and free to walk around. The Museum requires tickets; there are multiple options available. The Museum can be very crowded. I recommend purchasing advance tickets and printing them out and/or downloading them to your phone, so that you don’t have to stand in line to obtain them. Even with tickets, you will likely have to wait in line in order to enter the Museum. You will also have to go through a security screening. I suggest arriving as early as possible. Allow two to four hours.
Leslie Carbone is a former Cabinet speechwriter who’s having much more fun as a lifestyle blogger.