9/11 museum opens: New York pays tribute to those who died on the day that changed the world

The opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum has been dogged by controversy, with victims’ families opposed. So has it the necessary gravitas?

US Editor

It was moments after I had stepped out of the Brooklyn Bridge subway stop on that sunny September morning almost 13 years ago when I came to some quick conclusions. The smoking destruction I saw before me was surely the work of Osama bin Laden; everything I knew about New York – and the world – was about to change.

Much else I couldn’t predict, including the depth of horror I would witness before that day was out. I think I speculated if it might mean war in Afghanistan, though not in Iraq. Something I certainly didn’t see then: that Bin Laden had just ensured that Ground Zero would one day become one of Manhattan’s top tourist attractions.

This week I spent a short hour at the site during a break from the Abu Hamza trial a few blocks away. With my head already set spinning by testimony about al-Qa’ida, jihad and Mujahedin fighters, it was unsettling to jostle for space on the pavement with chattering French teenagers and families from the Midwest.

It has been like this for years, in fact. Even when all you could see was a huge hole with not very much going on except for the ballet of excavation vehicles, the city erected viewing platforms for tourists to get a glimpse.

The congestion doubled in 2011 when at last the memorial park itself opened. Maybe you’ve seen it already – two square voids in the footprints of where the towers once stood, their black walls cascading with water.

 

All our minds will turn to lower Manhattan again today with the unveiling of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, seven storeys of cavernous exhibition halls immediately beneath the park. Barack Obama is coming and hundreds more, including current and former political leaders of New York and New Jersey and some family members of the roughly 3,000 who died. There was a lottery draw for them to attend.

Getting here has been a long journey. The memorial, and now the museum, were only realised after years of struggle. Struggle for consensus over the designs, struggle to raise funds and struggle to balance the need to pay permanent tribute to those who died – not just here but also at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field where two additional hijacked planes crashed – with the sensitivities of those with a stake in the tragedy, the families above all.

Still today controversy is not extinguished. When roughly 7,000 human remains were solemnly transferred from a medical examiner’s facility to a repository on the lowest level of the museum last Saturday – 1,123 of the victims’ bodies, 40 per cent of the total, still have not been identified – a few of the families complained, precisely because the final resting place of their loved ones will now partly be the property of tourists even though they will be kept in a sealed room that only they will be allowed to visit.

Thus the reaction of Sally Regenhard, whose 28-year-old son, Christian, was among firemen who were killed that day. She said she couldn’t stomach the thought of the remains being “put in a museum, really for gawkers”. She added: “My entire family, we will never go in there. This is a post-traumatic stress situation waiting to happen.”

Columns from the destroyed World Trade Centre recovered from the wreckage are on display in the museum (AP) Columns from the destroyed World Trade Centre recovered from the wreckage are on display in the museum (AP) I witnessed people diving from the towers to escape the fires and walked before dawn the next day through ash-filled streets to the “pile” smoking with pulverised concrete and corpses. But it was nothing beside the experiences of so many others – the emergency responders who clawed with bare hands searching for survivors and of course the families. However the museum and memorial came out, some among them were always going to be offended and we can’t be surprised. And don’t get me wrong. A tourist crush there may be but that the two projects are completed is something to rejoice about. Few memorials have stirred me as deeply as those two mysterious, water-clad holes in the ground.

And of the museum Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor who stepped in to save both projects when they were foundering several years ago, said this to Politico this week: “For 3,000 families, it is a place to grieve. But for the rest of the city, state, country and the world… this is the way to educate the next generation that freedom isn’t free.”

America is brilliant at making museums, from oddball halls of fame beside interstates to the Holocaust Museum in Washington to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York. Visitors to the 9/11 museum, some of whom won’t have been born in 2001, will see a crushed fire engine, twisted pillars from the wreckage, pictures of the perished and one inscription, studded in steel from the towers, on the wall behind which the unidentified remains will be hidden, taken from Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

It will educate. It will put in context our daily troubles and even those that stood in the way of its completion for so long. Some of us will shed tears, but the good kind that tap into pain hiding inside and let at least a bit of it out.

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