By Ebonye Gussine Wilkins
I was in town for the biggest trade show in the publishing industry. I was trying to promote my novel, Somewhat Close To Normal. The week before, I had heard the 9/11 Memorial Museum had finally opened. It had been almost thirteen years, and I wanted to go. I decided to go after day two of my trade show. I had worn un-supportive shoes, so my feet were killing me from walking around on the hard floors of the Jacob Javitz Center all day. But I knew I had to get to the museum and reconnect with the past. After all, 9/11 affected everyone. I had been writing about it, so it was my duty to go down to the World Trade Center and pay my respects.
I took the E train downtown, and my aching feet finally got a little rest. Even though the World Trade Center wasn’t that far, the train was taking forever to get there. It took 45 minutes to get down there, even though I was only coming from Midtown, not Jamaica Center (which is the first stop on the E train in Queens). We were told that there was train traffic ahead and we would be moving shortly. In my novel, my characters were trying to get downtown and were also stuck on the train. It was familiar but eerie at the same time.
During the ride, I was suddenly struck with an outrageous fit of coughing. I am not sure where the dust was coming from, but it was strong and my coughs were starting to disturb the other passengers. I searched my bag for something to wash the dust down, but I didn’t have anything with me.
When we had finally arrived, I realized that even though the train said we were at the World Trade Center, we were actually one or two train stops before the original final stop. It was yet another reminder about what had happened in 2001. With my chest-pain-causing coughs and my aching feet, I was reminded that thirteen years before, tens of thousands of people were doing the same thing, trying to escape the horror that was unfolding over their heads. I know it wouldn’t even compare to what the witnesses experienced, but I was starting to get a clearer picture of what it might have been like that day.
I had forgotten how impossibly narrow it was around WTC. The streets were tiny, narrow and crooked. There were numerous street closures and construction everywhere. I looked up from the street and saw the Freedom Tower looming over me with two windows missing from one side. It was a sobering reminder of how big the buildings were in such a tiny amount of land. There was more walking to be done, so I kept moving.
When I finally arrived, I walked past the Survivor’s Tree (which has an amazing story behind it) and toward the reflecting pools. Each was an entire acre and the flowing water was emptied down toward a black hole where it couldn’t be seen again. The imagery and message were not lost on me. The pools were so big, and so deep, I was one again impressed and amazed by the size of it all. I think that the contrast of size and space were the most sobering parts of this experience. You’ve seen the horror on television, you’ve heard about it on the radio, but until you’ve seen how large these buildings were and how tiny lower Manhattan is, the scale of this horror is unimaginable.
I was greeted by airport style security upon entering the museum. I don’t know why I was surprised, 9/11 was the exact reason this kind of security was necessary. My cough was only getting worse and I could barely hold myself upright during the 3-D body scan. I found something to wash the dust down and my cough improved.
The museum was built underground where the basement used to be. In order to visit the exhibits, you have to descend down into the darkness. As I took the first escalator down, two of the fork-like support beams, iconic of the original Twin Towers, were on my right hand side. The sight of it made me bite my lip. It was exactly then that I realized, this trip is going to be hard.
Most of the exhibits were down even deeper than I had imagined. I had to take several flights of stairs down toward the bottom of the museum. There were other levels with other pieces there, but I kept going lower. I finally came across the Survivor’s Staircase, or what was left of it. There was an escalator that was built right next to it, so you literally descended the same way the Survivors did to escape the burning buildings.
Even from the top of the Survivor’s Staircase, there is a giant wall of monochromatic blue tiles that bears a quote from Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Each tile is hand-painted and slightly different from the others, and there is a tile for every victim. What is behind that wall is truly heartbreaking.
I tried not to cry as I walked past the wall after reading the inscription on the plaque on the lower right hand corner. I went to look at other things in the museum, trying to forget what was behind that wall. I looked at the photos of the victims, the quilts that memorialized them, the mementos that were left behind by many. But to see the other side of the museum, I had to cross back in front of the wall to get to it, and I read the following plaque again.
Reading that plaque for the second time really got the waterworks going. The museum was designed so that people who didn’t live through it would be able to feel what it might have been like to be there. It was too much for me, and I had gone to the museum alone. I cried very hard, an ugly cry if you will. Most people walked around me, oblivious to my torrential tears. One pregnant lady did stop and try to comfort me. It only worked temporarily. The next thing I saw was the crushed fire truck from Ladder 3 and I cried even more.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum staff are kind people who are well-equipped with tissues and hugs. I cried to a lovely museum staff member who listened to me and allowed me to cry and tell her my story. She was unbelievably kind. After this visit, I returned the very next day to thank her for her kindness, and I met even more staff members. As it turns out, many of the staff members for the museum were First Responders and family members of the victims. It was in the eyes and faces of these people that I found true courage. They were the search and rescuers. They were the cleanup crew. They were the comforters and champions of all they assisted.
The events of September 11, 2001 changed me forever, but that museum changed me again.