I followed my friend’s advice, though, and made the memorial visit the last on my list. He said the experience takes its toll and stays with you. He was right.
The memorial and museum are fitting tributes to the nearly 3,000 lives lost that day.
The outdoor memorial — at the former site of the Twin Towers — is beautifully constructed and gives everyone a chance to pay their respects. Gone are the original World Trade Center buildings. In their place are two massive square holes in the ground that have been converted into fountains. The names of the people who died Sept. 11, 2001, are engraved along the rim of each fountain.
The sun was shining Sunday when my friends and I visited. As a result, people were laughing, smiling and having an otherwise fine day outside.
That wasn’t the case for the inside portion of the memorial.
There must have been a few thousand people making their way through the 9/11 museum, which takes you underground, beneath the site where the Twin Towers once stood. Despite the massive crowd, most of the museum was as silent as a tomb. The tour guides kept their voices to a whisper.
The experience was somber, beautiful and chilling all at once. The exhibits bring you back to Sept. 11, 2001. Any memories you have of that day swell to the surface.
The museum shows you the big things: destroyed fire trucks, crumbled remains of the towers and video of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.
It also shows you the small things: recovered ID badges from firefighters, jewelry worn by someone who worked in one of the towers and voicemails sent to loved ones by passengers of Flight 93 after they realized their plane was hijacked.
I had a particularly hard time looking at the faces of the lives lost. The museum has a room showing the faces and names of each person killed that day. A recorded voice reads the names of the victims and shares a few insights into each person. I know which of the victims loved to play golf and which ones liked football. I know some were active members of their communities and others were dedicated parents. They were real people. I didn’t last long in that room. For me, it was too much to take.
The museum had the same powerful effect on everyone.
I noticed a young girl, who couldn’t have been older than 11, crying in her mother’s arms as she looked into the faces of each victim. She was sobbing beyond control. And it struck me. She wasn’t alive when the attacks happened. She carries no memories of watching the planes strike or seeing the people jump to their deaths from the burning towers. And yet, she felt it as powerfully as those of us who remember the attacks.
Seeing her cry broke my heart and made me angry. The actions of the Al-Qaeda terrorists 18 years ago still have a devastating impact. How dare they make this little girl cry. How dare they kill all of those people.
And that’s when I felt the same sense of unity that I imagine the majority of Americans felt Sept. 12, 2001. We’re all the same, really. Democrats and Republicans; all of us shared the feelings of despair, sadness and anger in that museum Sunday. If nothing else, the memorial teaches us that even if we have different backgrounds, our hearts beat as one.