The National September 11 Memorial and Museum is a tribute to life and courage and sacrifice. It’s built in the footprint of the Twin Towers that once stood tall and proud in New York City. The memorial outside and the museum inside honor the 2,977 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993.
After visiting the memorial, you will enter the museum through a pavilion. Descending on an escalator to the ground, you will arrive at the heart of the museum, where the foundations of the North Tower and South Tower once stood. Here you will find fascinating archeological sites, historical information, and personal stories.
It would be difficult to spend time at this memorial and museum with a detached mindset. This is a moving and somber experience. But in the end, you will remember the displays of courage and compassion, and you will leave with hope.
Here are some of the most moving experiences offered by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
1. Pay Your Respects At The Reflecting Pools
As you approach the museum, you’ll arrive first at the outdoor memorial. The memorial pays tribute to those who lost their lives here.
The twin reflecting pools, each nearly an acre, feature the largest man-made waterfalls in North America. The names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993, are inscribed in bronze on the edges of the pools. More people were killed in the 9/11 attacks than in any other attack on American soil. That fateful day also saw the greatest loss of rescue personnel in the history of the country.
This is a place to reflect on name after name, each someone’s family or friend, and all deserving remembrance.
An audio guide that details the events of 9/11, the victims, and the design of the memorial is available. You can also use the guide to locate the name of a loved one.
2. Marvel At The Survivor Tree
One pear tree was discovered still living in the rubble of the towers. With its broken branches and roots, it was dug up and planted outside what is now the museum. It has since flourished among the many other trees that have been planted in the plaza. A plaque declares that the tree is a “living reminder of resilience, survival, and rebirth.”
3. Look Up At The Towering Tridents
Entering the museum through a glass atrium, you go down a ramp watched over by the two towering tridents. These are 70 feet tall and were a part of the exterior of the North Tower. The tridents were moved to the museum area in 2010. Salvaged from the tower wreckage, these tridents symbolize the resolve to overcome devastation.
Downstairs, you’ll come to a welcome area with information and restrooms. Now you are ready to start your tour of the museum.
4. Ponder The Sky On 9/11 At The Memorial Hall
The Memorial Hall occupies the space between the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Pause to reflect on the amazing artwork that stretches across a large wall. The Virgil quotation, made from steel recovered from the World Trade Center, proclaims: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” The tiles that surround the quotation form a mosaic titled Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning. The mosaic is made of Fabriano Italian papers hand-painted in different shades of blue to represent in watercolor the clear sky on 9/11. Each of the 2,983 squares honors one of the victims.
5. Move To The Bedrock Level At Foundation Hall
Next, move along to the largest space in the museum, Foundation Hall. The backdrop for this North Tower expanse is the slurry wall. This concrete retaining wall was constructed to hold back the waters of the Hudson River when the towers were built in the 1960s. After 9/11, the slurry wall remained standing, and it is part of the museum today, symbolizing strength and resilience.
In the center of Foundation Hall, the Last Column rises 36 feet into the air. It was the last piece of steel removed from Ground Zero. Rescue workers paid tribute to the heroes and victims of 9/11 with inscriptions and signatures covering the entire column. The spirit of the museum is captured in one of the scribbled tributes: “God bless them all.”
You can take a seat on one of the benches in the hall while you ponder the North Tower that once stood here, the Hudson River nearby, and the people who once spent so much time in the massive building.
6. Peruse The Collection
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum’s permanent collection contains more than 70,000 items and records that document the lives and fate of the victims, survivors, and first responders.
Most memorable to me was the twisted New York City Fire Department Ladder Company 3 fire truck recovered after the attacks. The Ladder Company 3 was assigned to rescue those in the North Tower, and all 11 firefighters entered the building. They all lost their lives, and their truck is on display as a memorial. To me, this was a tangible reminder of the bravery of the firefighters and just how perilous the scene was as they rushed into the towers.
7. Imagine The 9/11 Scene At The Survivors’ Stairs
One of the remnants of the towers is known as the Survivors’ Stairs. On 9/11, this staircase at the edge of the elevated World Trade Center Plaza provided an unobstructed exit for people fleeing the site. Hundreds of survivors used these stairs to arrive safely outside. After 9/11, the stairs were slated for demolition but were saved during the federal review process of the site’s historic assets. An escalator adjacent to the stairs allows you to follow them as you imagine people rushing down in fear for their lives.
8. Understand The Force Of The Attack At The Impact Steel
The famous steel beam bent back on itself is called the Impact Steel. It was outside of the North Tower at the point where the plane hit floors 93 through 99. The beam weighs 8 tons. You’ll find no cracks. It apparently melted and defied what even steelworkers thought could happen.
9. Learn About Life Before, During, And After 9/11 At The Historical Exhibitions
The museum features historical exhibitions in the footprints of both the North and South Towers. The story of 9/11 unfolds with artifacts, people’s stories, and interactive technology. This area covers 110,000 square feet, so if your time is limited, you can figure out before you go what interests you most.
The historical exhibitions focus on three periods: the events of the fateful day itself, the years leading up to the attacks, and the years after 9/11. The exhibits on the years after 9/11 focus both on what happened right after the attacks and the ongoing effects of the tragedy on the nation.
I found this last part of the historical exhibitions especially enlightening. At Ground Zero, less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, thousands of rescue personnel, investigators, engineers, laborers, and volunteers had arrived to join the effort. Over the next nine months, recovery workers cleared approximately 1.8 million tons of debris. The extent of the damage could be measured not only in human lives but in the widespread destruction of seemingly indestructible buildings.
10. Meet The Victims At The Memorial Exhibition
In the South Tower footprint, the memorial exhibition commemorates the victims of the attacks. The floor-to-ceiling photos of 2,983 people give an overwhelming feeling of the enormity of the loss. On these walls are those ages 2 to 85, hailing from more than 90 nations. If you want a more intimate experience, go into the gallery’s inner chamber. Here, profiles of victims are projected on the wall, and you’ll hear recorded remembrances of family and friends.
11. Honor Dog Heroes At The K-9 Courage Exhibit
Hero dogs are honored in the newest exhibition at the museum, K-9 Courage. Hundreds of dogs aided in the response to the 9/11 attacks. K-9 teams searched the wreckage for survivors and victims. And they comforted both responders and the families and friends of those who were lost.
The exhibition showcases the photography of Charlotte Dumas, who traveled around the country to find the 9/11 dogs 10 years after their service. Locating 15 of these dogs, she photographed them in their retirement years. The lovely portraits are now on display at the museum, along with stories of K-9 courage.
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is a place of dignity and respect. After touring the museum, as you emerge into the memorial area outside, take time to visit the Survivor Tree again. You may be overwhelmed by all you’ve seen. But focus for a time on how, in the middle of unthinkable chaos and grief, this tree somehow hung on to life. It flourishes today, reminding us that even at the darkest times, hope prevails.