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June 16, 2014

Sept. 11 Museum is sobering, inspiring

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The Daily Star

---- — I visited the September 11, 2001 Memorial Museum in New York City last weekend.

It is a very sobering place.

Located several stories below Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, the museum accomplishes the nearly impossible. To somehow, in some magical way, tell the story of the 9/11 terrorist attack in a calm, sensitive way without ever diminishing the abject horror of the event.

On the morning I arrived at the museum, the weather was eerily similar to that fateful day of the attack. Stunning, deep blue skies, a gentle breeze blowing in from New York harbor, lots of people milling about in shirtsleeves, and street vendors selling the ubiquitous hot pretzels and roasting chestnuts. Once you began your timed-entry descent into the bowels of the museum, however, your surroundings could not be more different.

The total absence of natural light begins to close in on you as you walk down into the several subterranean environs of the museum. The colors, so gay and vibrant above ground, now morph into grays, blacks, shadowy stone and concrete hues and faint indirect lighting.

The first thing you notice are the voices. Nobody would ever accuse me of having great hearing, but at first I thought it was the murmurings of the large crowd entering the space with me. Then I realized that the voices were being transmitted, slightly above a whisper, to all in the museum. Voices. Pleas. 9-11 calls. Phone messages. Emergency radios. Broadcast news reports. These voices would be your near-silent accompaniment throughout your visit.

The displays are well-thought out and cover all aspects of the attack on America, including the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. Obviously, the assault on the Twin Towers is the main focus of this museum.

The by now well-known icons of that sad chapter in American history are everywhere. The crushed fire trucks, the soot-covered turn-out gear, the stopped watches, and the towering steel beam in the shape of the cross. The missing persons fliers. They are all here, illuminated by muted lighting as if to say, “We know you have seen this before, but we really must show you this.” Like I said, sensitive.

There are three things that I will never forget about my visit to the museum. One is the huge slurry wall. This is an original massive wall of concrete that was put into place when the World Trade Center was built in the early 1970s. There was fear then that the Hudson River could come pouring into the construction site, destroying everything. It held then, and it held again in 2001. It now stands proudly against one tower footprint several stories below ground as if to declare, “Unbreached. I did my job.”

The second unforgettable impression from my visit is the so-called Survivor Staircase. This is a set of concrete stairs that withstood the collapse of the towers and offered a few hundred survivors a way to clamber to safety. The stairs — worn, chopped, chipped, dinged and burned —are a centerpiece of the museum. I cannot imagine what that staircase means to those who used them on Sept. 11, 2001.

And finally, perhaps the most overlooked and misunderstood feature of the museum.

At the very bedrock is a jarringly bright, beautiful wall of blue backlit tiles. It rises two stories and runs about the length of a New York City block. The inscription on the wall reads: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

At first you think this warm, colorful area is just there to give the visitor a respite from the inherent grimness of the subject matter of the museum. That is until you read the identifying plaque that describes the wall’s purpose.

In essence, it is a grave. Behind this Wall of Remembrance repose the remains of 1,115 unidentified victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. It is their tomb. Here, 70 feet below ground. Buried where they died.

It fails even the most accomplished writer to try and plumb the depths of the emotions of that terrible day. How does one describe the enormity of it all? I have been trying to do that ever since 2001.

But here, at this memorial museum on this gorgeous, sunny June morning, the enormity of it was right in front of me. The terrorist attack on our country was so significant, so total that it actually left 1,115 humans without an identity.

This is a somber, hallowed place. And a place all Americans should see.

I’ll catch you in two ...

“Big Chuck” D’Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find him on Facebook by searching "Big Chuck." He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.