New York: The 9/11 memorial museum - remembering 20 years on

Caroline Joyner on 10 September 2021
September 11th 2001 is a day the world will never forget. The 9/11 Memorial Museum is a tasteful tribute to those who lost their lives, to heroism and the to resilience of a city that has somehow picked itself up and recovered.

Above ground it's all very serene and relaxing. Water gently cascades into “reflecting pools”, essentially underground waterfalls whose enormous perimeter marks the footprints of the old Twin Towers. The hum of falling water creates a calm, silencing atmosphere. The sides of the pools are inscribed with the names of every victim and roses stand next to some of the names to commemorate birthdays. However, there is little to tell of what actually happened that day and certainly no clues as to the emotional cavern that lies directly below.

The last time I was here in 2008 this was a building side with a temporary memorial alongside it, you could still see the crater left by the destroyed twin towers. Nowadays you would never know the debris-filled hole existed. In its place there are the pristine new skyscrapers of towers 1, 3,4 and 7, 400 perfectly manicured oak trees, slivers of grass, benches and walkways. The “Survivor Tree”, a tree which was recovered from the rubble and then replanted stands by itself as a poignant reminder of what little survived that day.

The only part of the memorial museum which is visible above ground is the Pavillion, a hauntingly angled glass and steel atrium which symbolises the partially collapsed tower. Inside the horizontal pinstriped glass, two rusty columns soar up 80ft from the underground museum below to fill the atrium - the remnants of the first few floors of the original North Tower.

Taking the escalator down from the glorious light of the atrium you are transported into the events of that fateful day with surprising intensity. The dimmed light of the underground museum is punctuated by mangled parts of the wreckage of the towers which are displayed. A part of a transmission mast, twisted pieces of steel with the chilling hallmark of the impact of flight 11. The original “slurry wall” which once protected the Twin Towers from the Hudson River is also exposed to create a powerful feeling of being inside the foundations of the towers.

The route through the museum takes in many artefacts recovered from the site; from the wreckage of a fire engine, dust-covered clothing, a wallet blown onto a nearby building, some blood-stained shoes worn by a survivor as she escaped, to a fireman’s helmet to a mascot doll from one of the offices. There are several separate areas dedicated to other aspects and TV screens showing the footage of the news being broadcast that day. A room filled with the faces of those who died I found particularly moving. Alongside the photos there is a touch screen detailing the lives of each victim, but as with the whole museum it has been designed with the utmost respect to their families. I did find the route through the museum quite disorientating, somehow without realising it I had wended my way a few floors below street level. It seemed as every metre I descended the contents of the museum became more wrenching. However, for me it was only really when I entered a separate exhibit entitled “A memorial” that the events of that day really started to become etched into my mind. On entering staff politely ask you not to take any photos, which should have been a kind of macabre clue to the contents. The exhibit lays out the timeline of events, minute by minute. It explains how every detail unfolded and how little the authorities understood about what was going on and how gradually, they realised with horror that this was no tragic accident. When the first plane hit, President Bush was visiting a primary school. He assumed it was a fateful tragedy and continued his visit. By the end of that day the entire government had been taken to a secret underground bunker.

With each piece of video footage and each picture there comes a story which you didn’t want to know: audio of phone calls made from the doomed planes, stories from government staff, FBI staff air traffic controllers and then of course stories from the ground. The firefighters who ran into the burning towers before they collapsed, the phone calls made by those in the floors above where the planes hit, survivors who walked down 50 flights of stairs to get out, the confused messages on the ground. The exhibit then moves onto the collapse of the towers, with accounts from the few survivors who were buried alive: “I coughed and I thought dead people don’t cough so I must be alive”, recalls one survivor. A few people who had been near the bottom of the towers were trapped in an intact stairwell 6 floors up. They dug themselves out and described how emerging from the debris they became disorientated since the area looked unrecognisable to 2 hours earlier. The scene at ground zero after the towers collapsed is graphically described through audio from survivors: how the inhalation of dust made people think each breath would be their last. In several corners of the exhibit, there are alcoves which are labelled: “The video playing has disturbing content”. That is no understatement. One of the most chilling accounts I came across was from a group of 4 people who were very close to the South Tower when it collapsed. They tell of running through the dust cloud until they reached the makeshift hospital, patiently waiting with rows of empty stretchers and ambulances on standby for the many casualties which were expected. “There won't be anyone else,” they told the paramedics whilst being treated, and they were right.

At one point you discover that the FBI intercepted a call from Afghanistan from an associate of Bin Laden saying “things are looking good”. There is also a description of the process the suicide bombers went through to actually get on those planes.

As I wended my way back up to street level and daylight I realised this had been an important experience. Pretty much anyone over 30 can tell you where they were as they watched the Twin Towers fall on TV; the world changed forever that day. This museum holds back nothing and leaves the visitor with a simple message: never forget and after all, this is a piece of history that many of us lived through. For all the harrowing, un-flinching contents though it certainly does New York proud, a solemn reminder of our vulnerability and a beautiful tribute.