Vacation time allows us to explore, relax and indulge. Sometimes, though, it’s important to visit places that are sobering and serious. Flanders Fields. The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. The Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial. While it is painful to recall violence and carnage, it is part of our human responsibility to honor the dead and to be unrelenting in our search for truth and a meaningful path forward. Ideally, we can learn from the events commemorated at the sites, and can also find hope in stories of compassion and resilience. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City is such a destination.
As its name implies, the site has two parts: the memorial, outdoors at the plaza level, and the museum below. The memorial’s two recessed pools, each almost an acre in size and located within the footprints where the Twin Towers once stood, are poignant reminders of what was lost. Water cascading down the perimeter, then disappearing down a square hole in the center, is a metaphor for the lives and structures that drained away on 9/11. A low wall is inscribed with the names of everyone who died in the 2001 and 1993 World Trade Center attacks. Offsetting the beautiful yet somber pools is a park-like expanse. Trees, including the “Survivor Tree” rescued from the site and restored to health, are living symbols of renewal.
The first artifacts on view are in the glass pavilion that serves as a bridge between the plaza and the museum. These two 80-foot-tall steel columns once formed part of the exterior façade of the North Tower. About five stories up, each column branched into three prongs—tridents—then continued up the full 110-story height of the buildings.
In the museum proper, “The Ribbon” leads down a wide ramp that turns as it descends 70 feet. “The gradual procession down to bedrock is intended to be a contemplative experience,” says Davis Brody Bond’s Carl F. Krebs, architect and partner-in-charge for the Museum design. “Wood on the floor gives warmth to the large space, while foamed aluminum cladding on the opposite wall has an indefinite aspect that makes it almost ethereal.”
For Krebs, the project was personal. “Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, New York was a place we went often,” he says. “We felt like the city and the Towers belonged to everyone.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Krebs was living just four blocks from the World Trade Center. He watched the fires from the roof of his building, reassuring a neighbor that the Towers couldn’t possibly fall. And then they did. “We were left with a feeling of profound shock and absence,” he recalls. “For many of us, working on the project was a way to handle the loss.”
I recommend experiencing the Exhibition Level of the 110,000-square-foot museum by taking an hour-long guided tour, then exploring on your own. On a recent visit, a docent led our group past the slurry wall that was built when the towers were constructed to hold back the forces of landfill and river. We continued downward alongside the 58-ton Vesey Street Stairs, known as the “Survivors’ Stairs” because hundreds of people used them to escape to safety. Although we tend to focus on the number of people who perished on 9/11, more than 14,000 people got out of the Twin Towers alive.
The cathedral-like Foundation Hall and the more intimate Memorial Hall house significant artifacts, including the “Last Column.” This was removed from the site, escorted by an honor guard, on May 30, 2002, marking the official end of the recovery effort. Covered with names, pictures, mementos and messages, it is a reminder of the work done and the people lost. Columns that were once part of the North Tower’s façade from the 96th to 99th floors, “Impact Steel,” are twisted and mangled where hijacked Flight 11 crashed into them. A truck from FDNY Ladder Company 3 had its front end crushed by falling debris.
Site-specific art installations include a quote from the Roman poet Virgil, its letters forged from remnant World Trade Center steel by blacksmith Tom Joyce: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
When your tour ends, take a deep breath and enter “In Memoriam,” a room dedicated to the victims, including 441 first responders. Their pictures cover the walls—the sheer number of faces is overwhelming. A 9/11 timeline presents an unflinching look at the day’s events. There are projections of the plane crashes and the towers falling, and voice-mail messages left for loved ones by the passengers on Flight 93. The photographs of people jumping or falling from the buildings are no less upsetting now than they were on that day.
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is not just a place to mourn the dead, but also a tribute to public servants and civilians whose bravery inspires us. Think about the heroic first responders who ran into the Towers while workers fled. Consider just how courageous the passengers on Flight 93 were when they attempted to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers. Remember the selfless acts of New Yorkers and of people from all over the country and the world who pitched in to help.
On September 11, 2001, we saw humanity’s worst. But we also witnessed its best. Look up as you exit the building. One World Trade Center, rising to 1,776 feet, shimmers nearby, a powerful symbol of resolve and resilience.
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum, 180 Greenwich St., New York, NY 10006. Visit 911memorial.org for information, including hours, ticket prices, tours (indoors at the museum and outdoors at the memorial), and transit options. There is a free app, 9/11 Museum Audio Guide.