A visit to the World Trade Center Museum -— and how it moved me more than I anticipated.

Evacuation route.

Evacuation route.

I didn’t hesitate when my American friend, Barb, suggested a visit to the recently opened World Trade Center Museum. Not because I had any sense of morbid curiosity — we’ve all seen the horrific TV footage and read witness accounts — or because I’d never been to Ground Zero. I had. But because paying one’s respects via a hole in the ground had felt a tad disconnected, and visiting the memorial and museum now seemed the right thing to do.

Most of us can still remember exactly where we were when we heard the news of the twin towers being attacked on 11th September 2001.

I was waiting outside a dance hall for my happy-go-lucky three-year-old while speaking on my cell phone to a pal in the UK. She was watching Live coverage of the scenes in New York on BBC television. Right there and then, in the middle of updating me on the news reports, I heard her long intake of breath, followed by: the North Tower has collapsed.

And it was in memory of that jolt of horror, that incomprehensible realisation that the second tower had collapsed on all its occupants, all 110 concrete floors of it, that found us navigating a snaking ticket queue and in through the museum door.

The contrast between the hot climes outdoors and the cool interior seemed fitting. This is where souls were lost. But more than that, we were now working our way underground. While a good deal has been made of the height of the towers, I had not fully grasped just how many floors were below ground level. Until now. The ground below had been excavated to a depth of 70 feet…

One route down to a lower floor took us past a damaged set of stone steps. Most of the damage, explained a museum representative, was incurred during their removal from the carnage, storage and transportation to the museum. But these were actual steps people had run down to get out of the burning building. These steps were narrow. Seriously narrow in terms of an evacuation route. Add smoke, dust, panic, fear, screams. And firefighters trying to make their way up rather than down. A wave of nausea rolled around my stomach. I hadn’t anticipated that vivid mental image.

We moved on.

A mangled fire truck spoke of the bravery of its men. No words required, the bent steel and crushed metal spoke its own language. But nevertheless, a plaque explained that Ladder Company 3 had been despatched to evacuate civilians from the North Tower. They had reached the 35th floor by 9.21 a.m. and were still moving up. All 11 responding crewmembers were still inside when the tower collapsed at 10.28.

I looked across at Barb’s daughter, Sandra. She was a young child in 2001. Her knowledge about the attack on the WTC would have been learned long after the dust settled in New York. She looked as stricken as the rest of us.

Initially, visitors were welcome to take pictures inside the museum, but now we reached an area where photography was strictly prohibited. And rightly so.

The area was divided: one section was lined with a picture of each victim. Most anyway. A few were represented by an oak leaf above their name. Counters with touchscreens housed data banks containing personal details about each victim. A small glimpse into who they were before 11 September 2001. Before they became official victims.

Two older ladies were sadly pointing at faces. I knew him, and him, and her, and…

There were other display cabinets too. These contained personal possessions that had belong to the victims, including those on the plane that crashed into the field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, brought down by the brave souls onboard who had tackled the terrorists and prevented an even bigger disaster.

Some of the children on the four flights, all bound for California, had been heading to Disneyland. Others to visit family. One little girl had won her trip in a competition. Her now dirty and damaged library card is perhaps the saddest exhibit of all.

And I felt a real rush of hot anger when disrespectful tourists needed to be reminded twice that the families had requested no pictures were to be taken of this private debris.

The other section on this level was a darker room. Literally. With seating that encouraged folk to sit a while. The set up reminded me of the Holocaust Museum in Berlin. The name of a victim is projected onto a wall, and a voiceover gives a little background information. Then a new name is projected. It’s a fine mechanism for reminding visitors that these people were individuals and should be regarded as such.

“But you must remember,” said the museum representative, “that 87% of all those inside did get out.” It could have been so much worse. Had the day of the attack not coincided with the first day of school for some children, a further 20,000 workers would have been inside the building. 13% of 20,000 is 2,600.

We left, of course, via the gift shop. It felt right to support the museum, so I bought a mug honouring all the dogs who had been drafted in to help with the search and rescue. Man’s best friend.

Back in glorious sunshine and having walked past the two huge waterfalls bearing all the names, we had one last port of call.

“Somewhere,” said Sandra, “is the Survivor Tree.” A callery pear tree that was salvaged from among the rubble. The tree, badly damaged and with just one living branch left, was nursed back to health then replanted at the museum.

We found it. Standing tall and proud and in full bloom.

It seemed a fitting last image from our visit to the World Trade Center Museum.

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