The 9/11 Museum, Energy, Tears and Booze

The 9/11 Museum, Energy, Tears and Booze


“As day turned to night, and our collective sense of history had changed: there would now be a before 9/11 and an after 9/11.”
~ The 9/11 Museum

After forty eight hours and three thousand miles, I still can’t shake off the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

I had to hold back the ugly cry for over two hours. My lip was swollen from biting it to keep from blubbering.

It started with the fountains.
They inhabit the exact foot print of each tower, and are stirring and haunting and beautifully done. I first got choked up as I read that the names engraved in the granite around each fountain are not in the usual alphabetical order, but in groups requested by the families.

All the firefighters are listed with their station buddies, same with office co-workers.
“Put my husband’s name with all the people at Cantor Fitzgerald.” I can’t even imagine saying.

As you ride the escalator down seven stories under the World Trade Center site, it hits you – this is so much more than a museum. It is a sanctuary.

Although you’re allowed to take pictures with your phone, after I took the one above, I stopped. It felt sacrilegious. It’s not that kind of place.

There is energy locked there. 
An overwhelming amount of sadness, fear and shock.
Residual shock feels like fear on steroids. Imagine fearing for your life, yet not knowing what is happening. 
It was palpable – for both of us. Places and things absorb those heavy emotions. We pick them up. Oh goodie.

Short side story: we were riding motorcycles in Spain, in the Basque Country, on our way to Bilbao. Oh happy day, right? No so fast.
“What is this place? It feels awful here.” I was tugging at my husband’s jacket, yelling into his helmet, as we slowed down to ride through a town center.
I had been hit by a wall of sadness, a tidal wave of despair…and shock.
“I know” he said and pointed to the sign as we left town and that horrible energy behind.
I got chills. My chills got chills. 

Back to the Museum.

When we got to Foundation Hall, with the original retaining “slurry” wall and it’s cavernous appearance, we both stood there for a long time. It felt like church.

It has in its center, the “Last Column” a 36-foot high steel column covered in mementos, memorial inscriptions, and missing posters placed there by rescue workers and others at the site.

Tears ran down my face. The lump in my throat felt like a soccer ball. The ugly cry was lurking.

My mind couldn’t even begin to grasp the severity of the damage to these immense steel structures. You think you’ve seen every TV special and book, every image and report, yet, unless you are there, standing in that spot, it is incomprehensible.

There are sections of steel ten feet wide, curled up like a piece of saltwater taffy.
They have a section suspended in mid air – from the plane impact zone.

It is sobering. I stood there again – staring – lost in thought – for a long time.

Same with the last remaining “survivors staircase” used by hundreds of people who ran for their lives. You could feel their fear.

In front of a huge chunk of one of the elevator motors, a remnant bigger than a car, (it is estimated that more than two hundred people died inside elevators that day. Ugh, I could have done without knowing THAT) a Docent told a great survivor’s story and the fact that these were the first elevators in their day, that could carry you from the lobby to the 100th floor in under a minute.

Inside the Historical Exhibition (which was fascinating) you are bombarded on all sides by that day, Tuesday, September 11th; from its ordinary start, all the way through the subsequent events, in a series of timeline galleries.
This is where my bottom lip got a workout.

There’s a section where they have a series of phone messages left by a husband to his wife, telling her the other tower has been hit and “don’t worry.” In the third or forth message (I was too emotional to remember) he’s loosing his cool. You can hear the public address system and chaos in the background as he cuts it short “I gotta go.”
He didn’t make it out.

In the section of the timeline where the towers have both collapsed, you hear all the alarms, the shrill whistles, that emergency personnel wear. These alarms go off if a firefighter is motionless for over 30 seconds. It’s a sound no fireman wants to hear, and there were hundreds of them.

Where’s the damn Kleenex” someone next to me said out loud, looking for the tissue stands they have strategically placed throughout; I handed HIM one of mine – avoiding eye contact. 

Inside this exhibit are things that will not only blow your mind, they will blow your heart – WIDE OPEN. Don’t go if you can’t stand feeling emotion, it’s unavoidable.

I gasped out loud, my hand flying up to cover my mouth a few times. People turned around, but then just gave me a knowing look. For over two hours we did that – for each other.

As the anthropologist I am at heart, I was mesmerized by the endless displays of everyday “stuff” they’ve recovered.
Wallets, dry cleaning tickets, eye glasses, flight attendant wings, stuffed toys, drivers licenses, pictures, keys, gym passes, paperwork, tons of paperwork… and shoes. So many shoes.
Shoes get to you. Someone picked out those shoes that morning, put them on and somehow, in the course of that horrible day, became separated from them.

Some looked perfect – others had a story to tell.

At around the 2 hour mark, I ran into Raphael.
We’d become separated and he’d been doing the galleries in reverse order. “I’m done, I can’t take much more” he whispered. “Then don’t go in those rooms, it’s INTENSE” I cautioned, pointing behind me.

This whole thing’s intense.” He was walking forward, staring straight ahead, shaking his head. There in front of us was a truck that looked like Godzilla had stepped on it, fighting for his attention.

That was the thing, just when you’d swear you couldn’t take one more minute, you’d turn a corner and see something completely unbelievable.
We knew how the story ended, yet, we couldn’t tear ourselves away. Well done 9/11 Museum.

About a half hour later he texted “out in the front where it starts.” He’d had enough.

I picked up my pace, and we both took the escalator up, up, up, to the sunny surface in silence. It was three thirty in the afternoon. 

I wish I’d cried. I wish I’d let the ugly cry take hold, squishing my eyes, distorting my face, having its loud and sloppy way with me. I’d feel better by now.

Instead: Plan B
“I need a drink.” 
“Me too.”

We caught a cab, grabbed a late lunch and a bottle of wine. Then we walked the HighLine.

Saturday afternoon drunken exhaustion trumped feeling emotion, and I DON’T recommend it.

I should have cried. I know better.


  • wishing4peace says:

    Your writing of this experience game me goosebumps and teary eyes. Thank you for adding another place to my bucket list. As much as I may dread the emotional response it may illicit, it is something I must see, feel and experience. I promise, I will shed enough tears for both of us.
    ((BIG HUGS))

  • Dominator says:

    Tears of sorrow are the only way to reconnect reality with an experienced horror.
    The 9/11 Memorial touches deep emotions of dismay and consternation.
    The destruction and damage is so far beyond our imagination that you are left with an unbearable feeling of helplessness and terror. The pain and sadness is palpable.
    I experienced a similar overwhelming hopelessness going through the Torture Museum in San Gimignano, Italy and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Sobering experiences.

  • bwcarey says:

    american people lost the greatest opportunity to bring peace to the world when their government went to war over the 9/11 tragedy, inciting hatred fear and all that’s wrong in the world to justify war, i get the creeps when i read so me of your blog, it’s cruel what they have done to this awful tragedy, blessings

    • jbertolus says:

      I agree. We had so many other ways to respond to that disaster. We had mixed feelings about the museum. There was a section, albeit small, dedicated to the killing of Bin Laden. It felt inappropriate.
      Thanks for the comment!

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