The museum devoted to the story of Sept. 11, 2001, tells it in victims’ last voicemails, 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, 121/2 years after the terrorist attacks.
The privately operated museum —built along with the memorial plaza above for $700 million in private donations and tax dollars — 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 May 21.
The project was marked by construction problems, financial squabbles 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.
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 a journey into the events of the day.
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 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 artifacts such 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 one of impromptu memorials that arose after the attacks, the sounds of emergency radio transmissions and office workers calling loved ones.
“We wanted a very gradual, quiet descent for that connection to actually emerge,” said Carl Krebs, an architect on the project.
The project recently faced objections about how Muslims are depicted in a documentary and complaints from some victims’ relatives about the decision to place unidentified remains behind a wall at the site.
“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 “they’re in a very sacred place and a very historic place.”
Ron and Lucy Willett of southwest Missouri have been getting mail about the museum opening. But because of health reasons and their age — both are in their 70s — they’re unable to travel so far. Since their son John was killed in the north tower that September day, they have been to New York and the World Trade Center site two or three times.
“I think it’s going to be hard on a lot of people to see some of those things,” said Lucy Willett of Walnut Shade. “It will be a tough thing. … We never got any of John’s remains.”
John Willett, who earned his master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was working on an upper floor when a plane struck the tower. All his parents received was a vial of ashes from the site.
The Willetts have received recent videos about the attacks, but Lucy said they remain unseen.
“I just haven’t felt like watching them,” she said.The museum
Exhibits tell the stories of the more than 2,700 people who died in New York, those who survived and how the world has changed since the attack. Museum director Alice Greenwald said the museum is “about understanding our shared humanity,” while former mayor Michael Bloomberg called it a reminder “that freedom is not free.”
The museum occupies 110,000 square feet on the 16-acre trade center site, tracing the foundations of the twin towers 70 feet underground.
Below the Sept. 11 memorial plaza, with its two fountains outlining the footprints of the towers, the museum reaches down to bedrock, where the towers’ steel columns were anchored. It’s bounded by a slurry wall that kept back the Hudson River after the attack.
The plaza and museum together cost $700 million to build, subsidized with $390 million in tax-funded grants. Officials hope the $24 museum entrance fee expected to generate about $40 million a year will help cover operating costs, expected to be about $60 million a year. Fundraising will cover the rest, for now.
Artifacts: There are more than 10,000 artifacts, 23,000 still images and 500 hours of video and film, plus 1,970 oral histories.