9/11 museum offers sights, sounds of tragedy

AP, AFP-JIJI

The museum devoted to the story of Sept. 11 tells it in victims’ last voice mails, in photos of people falling from the twin towers, in the scream of sirens, in the dust-covered shoes of those who fled the skyscrapers’ collapse, in the wristwatch of one of the airline passengers who confronted the hijackers.

By turns chilling and heartbreaking, a place of both deathly silence and distressing sounds, the National September 11 Memorial Museum opens this week deep beneath ground zero, 12½ years after the terrorist attacks.

The project was marked by construction problems, financial wrangling and disputes over the appropriate way to honor the nearly 3,000 people killed in New York, Washington and the Pennsylvania countryside.

Whatever the challenges in conceiving it, “you won’t walk out of this museum without a feeling that you understand humanity in a deeper way. And for a museum, if we can achieve that objective, we’ve done our job,” museum President Joe Daniels said Wednesday.

The privately operated museum will be dedicated Thursday with a visit from President Barack Obama and will be open initially to victims’ families, survivors and first responders. It will open to the public next Wednesday.

Charles G. Wolf, who lost his wife, Katherine, planned to be at the ceremonial opening.

“I’m looking forward to tomorrow, and I’m dreading tomorrow,” he said Wednesday. “It brings everything up.”

Visitors start in an airy pavilion where the rusted tops of two of the World Trade Center’s trident-shaped columns shoot upward. From there, stairs and ramps lead visitors on an unsettling journey into 9/11.First, a dark corridor is filled with the voices of people remembering the day. Then visitors find themselves looking over a cavernous space, 70 feet (21 meters) below ground, at the last steel column removed during the ground zero cleanup — a totem covered with the numbers of police precincts and firehouses and other messages.

Descend farther — past the battered “survivors’ staircase” that hundreds used to escape the burning towers — and there are such artifacts as a mangled piece of the antenna from atop the trade center and a fire truck with its cab shorn off.

And then, through a revolving door, visitors are plunged into the chaos of Sept. 11: fragments of planes, a teddy bear left at the impromptu memorials that arose after the attacks, the sounds of emergency radio transmissions and office workers calling loved ones.

“Visitors come with their own memories, we wanted it to be very gradual,” said Carl Krebs, an architect on the project.

Visitors, who are barred from taking photographs, can hear the last telephone messages to loved ones left by New Yorkers trapped in the towers, as well as audio excerpts from the final moments inside Flight 93, before hijackers crashed the plane in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

“Baby, listen very carefully. We’ve been hijacked. Tell my children that I love them very much,” air hostess CeeCee Ross-Lyles said in a call to her husband.

A fire truck with a twisted ladder recalls the sacrifices of 343 firefighters who died in the deluge of fire and steel that accompanied the towers’ collapse.

The visit ends in a room where a seven-minute video narrated by NBC Nightly news anchor Brian Williams explains “the rise of al-Qaida.”

The video has been criticized, amid worries it could lead museum visitors to associate al-Qaida with Islam in general.

But museum president and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rejected those critiques, hailing a museum that “more than any history book, will keep that spirit of unity alive.”

“I’m still processing” the impact of seeing the museum, said Anthony Garner, who lost his brother Harvey on 9/11 and visited on Wednesday. He said it will show visitors “that they’re in a very sacred place and a very historic place.”