National 9/11 Memorial Museum Reflection

In 2001 I was part of a team who was planning a series of customer events that would take place in cities all across the United States. One of the events was to be held at the Marriott World Trade Center in New York City on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and I was scheduled to be there. A few weeks before the customer event, we had to re-schedule it to a different date and location, and on Sunday, September 9th I fell ill. So on the morning of September 11th, when it became clear that the U.S. was under terrorist attack, I was crying and praying for the safety of my fellow humans, and counting my blessings. 

The Last Column from Ground Zero

The Last Column from Ground Zero

The news coverage in the days following the attacks of September 11th gave me even more reason to feel grateful I was not in New York City on that awful day. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and we were told to expect that the West Coast would also be attacked. The anticipated attacks on the West Coast never happened, although everyone seemed to know someone who was directly impacted by the acts of terrorism in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. After all, most of the planes used on September 11th were bound for the West Coast.

At that point in my life I was traveling about 80% of the time for work. Getting on a plane and safely arriving at my destination was something I valued, and I was determined to not let the attacks of 9/11 change that. Much to my family’s dismay, I made a point to get back in the air as soon as possible. And then I decided that I would go to Ground Zero. I needed to see it with my own eyes, pay my respects, spend money in New York City and show the terrorists that the United States doesn’t back down that easily. I didn’t for a moment think that I, alone, could change the course of history or make a huge difference. But I did believe in my heart that if I could make a pilgrimage to Ground Zero, it would matter somehow, even if only to me.

I went to Manhattan six weeks after September 11th. Ground Zero was still smoldering, and the 24-hour recovery efforts were in full swing.  I watched as distraught mothers and husbands passed out flyers with the names and pictures of their missing loved ones. I saw the convoy of dump trunks – the only vehicles on the roads south of Canal Street other than emergency vehicles – carry load upon load of debris. I saw melted awnings and phone booths right next to green, unblemished trees. I heard the unsettling silence of a once bustling downtown. I watched as soot-covered recovery workers made their way into St. Paul’s Chapel for a bit of respite, tear trails visible on their cheeks. I spoke with firefighters in firehouses that were now covered with flowers, cards and pictures; most of the firefighters were from other states, as each of those houses lost at least a few, if not many, of their own.  I saw, from behind a barricade a few blocks away, the twisted metal that had once held up those magnificent towers. It was all right in front of me. And with each experience I became even more convinced that making the trip to New York had been the right thing to do.

I returned to Ground Zero in 2003 with a friend, and again in 2011, with my husband and children. Each time was a new experience, but none was less impactful than the others. In 2003 a lot had changed, and nothing had changed at all. Ground Zero was under construction, but most everything immediately adjacent to it looked untouched.  The scars of fire and destruction still remained somewhat ominously. In 2011, however, the metamorphosis was amazing to behold. Having never been to Ground Zero before, my family didn’t have the same context for the changes to the area. But their reaction to Ground Zero and to the walking tour was no less emotional for them. Even our youngest son, who was 10 years old at the time, was in awe.

Fast forward to 2014: I’ve been to Ground Zero three times, been through my own resiliency journey, watched the amazing documentary film, Rebirth, and I’ve become a member of the Project Rebirth team. In other words, the draw I feel to those impacted by September 11th, and to Ground Zero in particular, has only deepened. So with the opening of the National 9/11 Memorial Museum and Project Rebirth’s immersive film exhibit, I knew I had to make another trip to New York.

My cousin and I paid a visit to Ground Zero on Saturday, June 27th. Here are just a few of our impressions:

  • As one descends below ground on the escalator to enter the museum, a hush falls upon the crowd. We were immediately struck by the sacredness and solemnity of this place where so many lost their lives.
  • The museum does a wonderful job of relaying the scale and magnitude of the attacks of September 11, 2001 by displaying everything from crushed emergency vehicles to the shoes of people who escaped and perished that day, as well as numerous other artifacts one might not have otherwise considered. Case in point, the single pane of unbroken glass from the Twin Towers is on display; of the 40,000 panes of glass in the two buildings, it was the only one to remain intact. Additionally, the exhibits include the other far-reaching effects of the terrorist attacks to include social, economic, political and, certainly, the emotional impact.
  • We often forget that the World Trade Center was not the only location of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that day, and that the Twin Towers had been the target of terrorist attacks before. The September 11th plane crash into the Pentagon as well as Flight 93’s heroic crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, are also included in the museum’s exhibits, as is the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing. Especially heart-wrenching was the story of a woman who survived the 1993 bombing only to perish on September 11, 2001.
  • The exhibits can be emotionally overwhelming, but are always done tastfully and with a respectful nod to the memories of everyone whose life was lost that day: men, women, children and even animals. The memorial wall – with pictures of each of the individuals who died in each of the attacks – is particularly moving, and humanizing.
  • Rebirth at Ground Zero, an immersive exhibition that screens shorts from the film, Rebirth, is, of course, not to be missed.  The short film is approximately 10 minutes in length and is shown every 15 minutes.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were horrific. But if we do not learn from them – and there is much to learn – then nearly 3,000 people died for nothing. I encourage you to learn more and pay your respects at the National 9/11 Memorial Museum, and by watching the documentary film, Rebirth.

Project Rebirth creates scalable and measurable programs that facilitate healing, foster hope and build resilience. We focus our efforts on those who work as first responders, military and veterans, medical and mental health professionals, educators and all who serve in a leadership role within their community. Our educational tools and program models are teachable, adaptable and easy to scale, allowing our program participants to share them when they return to their own communities. We are committed to collaboration and cooperation to serve as a catalyst for the development of simple and effective models for coping with grief, loss and trauma and for building resilience. And we pledge to share those models with all those who align with our mission. Cathi Mason is the Wellness Advisor for Project Rebirth.

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