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Visiting the 9/11 museum, 15 years on from terror

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Of all the things you’ll probably do in New York, visiting the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is likely to be the most bizarre.

It starts on the Subway, where the nearby station is still, eerily, named World Trade Center. It’s jolting: the name is the same; the station is the same, the ticket barriers and stairs up to the street and (probably) the crowds of hassled people look the same. The heat, pumped out of trains’ air conditioning vents, is oppressive in the morning rush. World Trade Center workers, bustling out of the E train at 8am on September 11th, 2001, would have seen exactly what we see. Nothing changes.

Except, it does.

Two huge memorial pools now stand where the North and South Towers once were, ploughing deep into the ground and proving an endless flow of water, imposing and yet somehow calming, into the void.

Around the marble edges of the fountain, the names of those who died – not just in the towers, but also on the hijacked planes and on the previous attempt to take down the towers, on 26th February 1993 – are engraved.

Nearby, a surviving tree is held up by wires and fenced off, in a spot between the fountains. A few hundred yards away, One World Trade Center – the observation deck that stands a watchful guard close by where its previous incarnations once were; now New York’s tallest building – rises high into the sky, a symbol of rebirth, but also of defiance.

(An aside – as we later saw from the Liberty Island ferry, there is a huge, deliberate void in the New York skyline, where the towers have left their indelible gap in the sky. One World Trade stands respectively to the left. It does not replace what was there before. The void speaks for itself; deliberate.)

Inside, we watch on loop as a news anchor interrupts the interview he is in the middle of, apologetically, because he is hearing reports filtering in to his brightly-lit studio of a major incident, “right here in New York City.”

The exhibition tells us stories that we might know of, but mostly ones that we don’t. Of Zoe (aged eight, loved dancing and Girl Scouts) and Dana (aged three, fuzzy-haired and smiley) Falkenberg, on the way to Australia with their parents Charles and Leslie. Of head teacher Ada Rosario Dolch, who led her pupils to safety in Battery Park that morning – whilst knowing her sister Wendy had been working for Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower. Of 27-year-old firefighter Gerard Baptiste, who had spent the summer procrastinating over the repair of a “fixer-upper” motorbike – which his colleagues later restored fully in his honour.

The surrounding walls and cabinets are filled with salvaged artifacts: children’s clothes retrieved from fallen luggage. Twisted foundations ripped from the earth. A burnt fire truck. A leaflet from a business marketing event due to take place later that day.

(Aside two: two years ago, a friend and his new husband moved from London to New York for work. The said leaflet, we later find out, promoted an event planned by the husband’s company on the afternoon of September 11th. It’s an event close in tone and location to those that the company still run. “It hit me,” says the friend. “A few years before, he would’ve been there.” Nothing changes.)

A photograph, taken early that morning from across the river and billed as the last photograph of the towers before they were irrevocably tarnished by history, looms large. There is not a cloud in the sky, this morning.

It’s 15 years on, and the images from that day – the bright blue sky on the final morning, the initial, scorching orange impact, the unknown, upside down man falling to his death - haven’t ceased to shock.

At least, I thought they hadn’t.

Because then - there’s the gift shop.

I’m sure it’s there for a reason. Proceeds going to the families of those killed, maybe, or to fight extremism or hatred. Maybe it’s only there to give a cash boost to the running of the museum itself. I don’t know. I didn’t go in. Something about it rang distasteful.

It’s not the only jarring aspect of the experience, either. As we queue for admission, two women in the line in front of us smile for selfies. Many, many people take photographs of themselves beside the fountains.

Just this week, a group of tourists from London – allegedly on a stag party – caused outrage by visiting the memorial armed with a blow up sex doll. It’s just a stag party, though. They said.

The truth is, not two decades on from the event that irrevocably changed the Western world and set the tone for how we see the United States’ near-history, Ground Zero has opened as a an essential stop on the New York tourist trail – and rightfully so. It’s an ode to our recent history, to America in the 21st Century, and to those who unexpectedly, violently lost their lives that day. To ignore it would be an insult. To walk past it without wanting to visit, to learn more about such a cataclysmic event, would suggest either ignorance or a distinct lack of curiosity. Maybe they’re the same thing.

But there is a difference between an essential stop on your city itinerary - a place of sombre reflection, a place where thousands of innocent people died, a place that lives in our collective memory and ensures that we don’t forget about vital world events - and a tourist attraction that you’ll remember fondly when flicking through your holiday Facebook album two months on. You wouldn’t take a selfie at Auschwitz… would you?

As we leave, a family with two bored looking children enquire as to where the gift shop is. We don’t have an answer.

 

The New York skyline, as seen from the Liberty Island ferry. One World Trade Center is the building on the far left.

Of all the things you’re likely to do in New York, visiting the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is likely to be the most bizarre.
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