Visiting the 9/11 Memorial in New York City

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Ground Zero looked a whole lot different than it had the first time I'd laid eyes on it in 2003.

Then, it had been all fences and rubble and construction tape. Chunks of cement and twisted metal that still sat in piles near where it had fallen as the World Trade Center towers collapsed two years earlier.

When I went back to the site in 2012, it looked completely different.

9/11 Memorial in New York City

Different, but no less striking.

9/11 Memorial in New York City

My first visit to the 9/11 Memorial in New York City came roughly 11 years after the fateful day in 2001 when Americans stared, dumbfounded, at their television screens as a nightmare played out before our eyes. I visited before the official museum was open — before the site was officially the National September 11 Memorial & Museum — but it didn't lessen the memorial's impact.

Designed by architect Michael Arad, the memorial consists of an urban “forest” of 400 Swamp White Oak trees, and two sunken pools with waterfalls in the footprints of the Twin Towers. These pools are meant to act as symbolic voids — representing absence.

9/11 Memorial

Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on September 11, 2001, and all of their names — along with the names of the victims of the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 — are etched into the raised sides of the sunken pools.

9/11 Memorial

Visiting the Memorial in and of itself was touching. But my mom, sister and I also visited the 9/11 Tribute Museum, across the street from the Memorial and official 9/11 Museum. Opened in 2006, the Tribute Museum is a project of the September 11th Families’ Association, and aims to educate and bring together those who want to learn with those who were actually there.

For most Americans, September 11, 2001, and all the raw emotions that went along with it will never leave us. I will never forget sitting in my high school class room, staring open-mouthed at the flames. The ash. The tiny silhouettes of people jumping out of windows. Whatever has happened since doesn't diminish the shock and sadness I felt that day.

9/11 Memorial

At the 9/11 Tribute Museum, we walked through the museum-like exhibit that houses testimonials and photos and other memories from 9/11, collected from family members who lost loved ones, survivors, first responders and rescue workers, civilian volunteers, and community residents. Some of the items brought tears to my eyes.

We are breathing the dead, taking them into our lungs as living we had taken them into our arms.” – Hettie Jones, New York City poet

In one of the last rooms, we were encouraged to write down our own stories. One already hanging there reached out and clamped down on my heart — it was most likely written by a child and just said “I wish that I could get a time machine and go back and stop the plane.

9/11 Tribute Center in New York City

After composing ourselves, we headed over to the Memorial itself with two volunteer guides from the Tribute Museum. Their volunteer-led tours are the only real tours at the site — and they are incredible.

From the Tribute Center's website:

“On our guided tours of the 9/11 Memorial, you’ll experience the stories of 9/11, told by those who were there. Our guides are 9/11 family members, survivors, rescue and recovery workers, civilian volunteers, and lower Manhattan residents whose stories are testaments to the perseverance of the human spirit. They share insight on the history of 9/11 and the memorial pools, the survivor tree and the rebuilding.”

Our guides were both former WTC employees — both had been in one of the towers on the morning of the attack, but managed to get out in time.

Freedom Tower in New York City
Today, the Freedom Tower is complete and towers over the memorial site.

I will never forget when one of our guides told us about going back to work after everything was over, and realizing that more than half of her coworkers were no longer alive.

I don't know how you live with that. I also don't know how you share that story over and over with complete strangers.

9/11 Memorial in New York City

On our tour of the memorial, we learned about the sunken pools, the Freedom Tower, and the “survivor tree” — a callery pear tree that was found burnt and mostly dead at Ground Zero, but that managed to cling to life and survive. The tree has become a symbol of hope and rebirth in New York City, and is now located at the 9/11 Memorial.

9/11 Memorial in New York City
Survivor Tree

I know that non-Americans may not be as connected to Ground Zero as I am; as most Americans are. But, no matter where you come from or what you remember of 9/11, I urge you to visit the 9/11 Memorial if you find yourself in New York City. And, if you want to hear incredible stories told by real people, check out the Tribute Museum and its tours.

Oculus in New York City
The Oculus now also overlooks the memorial, resembling a dove about to take flight.

ESSENTIAL INFO
9/11 Memorial – Open 7:30 am-9 pm; entry is free and passes are no longer required.

9/11 Museum – General admission is $24, and includes entry to the museum and memorial. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to either 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the day of the week. If you have a New York City Pass, you can save on museum entry. Or you can purchase a ticket here.

9/11 Tribute Museum – Guided walking tours plus a visit to the tribute museum costs $25 for adults.

One World Observatory – The observation deck atop the “Freedom Tower” (One World Trade) is now open. Admission starts at $34 per person. Go up just before sunset for some amazing views.

Tours to check out: The following tours encompass many of the above experiences:

If you want to understand the memorial and museum better, I highly recommend taking a tour.

Have you been to the 9/11 Memorial? If not, will you go someday?

Visiting the 9/11 Memorial

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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39 Comments on “Visiting the 9/11 Memorial in New York City

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  1. While I’m Canadian and I don’t know anyone personally who died, I think everyone can say that they remember where they were when this happened, and how we were glued to our TVs watching in complete shock and horror. I can’t imagine how the tour guides can give their personal stories day after day without breaking down… I can’t imagine how anyone must have felt having a loved one die that day. That child’s note is heartbreaking. Thank you so much for sharing this.

      I imagine for some people it’s probably somewhat cathartic to share their stories. But I give these people so much credit. And, even though it had me in tears, I’m really glad I took that tour.

        I am Canadian as well and took a trip to New York City for my grade 11 trip back in 2007. I remember the memorial was still being built at the time. Our tour guide took us to the church, I can’t remember what it was called, but it was set up during the attacks as a base for the emergency services to get food and water. They had set it up as a memorial and tribute to the emergency services who lost their lives. As a girl with two police officer parents, that hit me hard. I remember I could hold back the tears, I wasn’t sobbing, but just like a dear in the headlights with tears running down my face as I read all the memorials people posted. Then we saw the giant gold globe that had been crumpled in the damage. It was a grim and heavy part of the trip.

          Definitely an emotional experience. I’ve been to so many somber sites in the past couple of years (9/11 Memorial, Auschwitz, the Killing Fields in Cambodia), and it hits me hard every time to be reminded of how cruel we humans are capable of being to one another.

    We visited last year and yes it was very impressive and sobering experience. However we found it very sad that is also very commercial. The museum was not open back then but the souvenir stands where as well as the push for donations to get a “special” bracelet. Now i read that the museum cost 24 dollar, that’s crazy, A place like this should not be about the money but about remembering.

      I agree, but I also have been to similar sites all around the world. Even at Auschwitz you can buy books and postcards, and there’s even a concession stand. People were all up in arms about the gift shop in the museum, but it’s honestly not out of the ordinary.

      I definitely hope it doesn’t get OVER-commercialized, though.

    I visited the memorial just this year. A friend, who I met at a tefl course in NYC, and I took the subway there. It was hard to walk through there. We both barely spoke and just stood quietly at each memorial. Only taking a picture or two of each memorial. We decided against the museum because we were both feeling emotionally drained outside, let alone how the museum would feel, and neither of us could handle the people laughing and taking selfies.
    Today I was working at my elementary school, where I was when the towers fell.
    My heart still goes out to everyone who lost someone.
    Thanks for writing this article, I think it sums up the experience of the memorial well.

      It definitely IS an emotionally draining place, but I’m glad they created a space that welcomes remembering. (But yes, the inappropriate selfies drive me NUTS.)

        I hate inappropriate selfies. Maybe next time I’ll actually go to the museum. I’ll probably cry though.

          I wrote a whole post on inappropriate selfies a couple weeks ago. 🙂

          And yeah… I cried at the Tribute Center. I’m sure I would cry in the museum, too.

            Haha. Really? I don’t think I saw that post. Ill have to go look for it.
            Yeah, I was tearing up a bit at the memorials, wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with the full water works the museum would have inspired.

    Beautifully written, Amanda. I went to visit the memorial the same year as you actually and it just broke my heart all over again. However, as eerie as it was, it was rather peaceful too. I think they’ve done a beautiful job and I want to go back and visit the museum that’s now open. Thanks for sharing your experience. It truly was a day we will never forget.

      I think they did a beautiful job, too. The memorial definitely is striking, but the surrounding park-like atmosphere makes it serene, too.

    It is definitely moving, especially the Museum. Even in New Zealand, so far away from where it happened, we all stayed riveted to our TVs watching it unfold. Everyone knows where they were when they first heard about 9/11

      It’s crazy that it was such a global event. But yes, I think you’re right – nobody will forget where they were on that day.

    I haven’t been been to Ground Zero since it was rubble and construction tape, but clearly I need to go back now. I hope that running the tours has helped people heal – it’s amazing how connected people (not just Americans) can feel when discussing 9/11. Thanks for the beautiful post!

      I think it’s great that the Tribute Center runs these tours – they have hundreds of volunteers, I believe, so clearly there are plenty of people who want to share their stories. I would definitely suggest going back now that the memorial is finished!

    I will definitely visit the place, when I’m in New York next month.

      It is definitely worth visiting.

    It’s a beautiful memorial, it must bring some comfort to the families to see that their loved ones are commemorated like this. I went to the Museum of Memory in Santiago, Chile and the stories there made me cry even though I knew nothing about the events before I went to the museum. I imagine the 9/11 memorial would be the same.

    However, I’m shocked that they’re charging so much money- or anything at all. I know London is one of the few places that doesn’t charge entrance to most museums, but $24 for the museum is pretty disgusting. I don’t care if it’s common in other countries- I personally think it’s so wrong. Unless the money goes to relatives of the deceased and healthcare for the first responders?

      Yeah, $24 for the museum IS kind of a lot (and I don’t know where all the funds go). But the memorial at least is free. Which, in America, is saying something. 😉

    It’s the one thing I didn’t do in NYC and I really regret it. I think you’re right though – non-Americans will find it much harder to put it all into perspective.

      You’ll have to make sure to visit next time!

      I think 9/11 was a big enough event that most people around the world are familiar with it. But you’re right – the perspective is definitely different.

    We have had numerous terror attacks here in Mumbai where I live and it is horrifying whenever it happens. This is a beautiful tribute to all those who lost their lives on that fateful day.

      I think it’s a really nice tribute, too.

    I visited back in 2008 and it still wasn’t ready, but went again last year and was very impressed. They did such a good job honoring the victims and it’s an experience everyone needs to have. I have a picture of my in front of the twin towers from when I was a little kid, one year before the attack. That’s a picture I’ll hold on to forever.

      I’m glad that the consensus seems to be that they did a great job with the memorial – I really think the same!

    This is somewhere I want to go someday… I don’t know anyone who died in the twin towers but someone with my name (as in same first and surname) died there that day with her twin sister & I’m determined when I go to find their names…. I think it’s somewhere I’ll be super emotional

      Oh wow, that’s quite a unique connection! The memorial is very moving – definitely be prepared to feel all the feels.

    We visited last year, having seen it in 2008 and 2011 in several stages of construction, and found the whole experience very moving. Having seen the tragedy unfold as a 13 year old in the UK is upset me and I feel changed how I viewed the world. To pay my respects was something I had wanted to do since that day.

      I think it changed the way a lot of us view the world. Things certainly changed that day here in the US. 🙁

    its so sad! certainly a must see of a museum. Very eye opening and heart wrenching, no doubt!

      Yes, it was definitely an emotional place to visit.

    A very enjoyable read and good pictures too. We visited in 2008, was a major construction site then, but hope to go back some day to see the new memorials. Hard to believe how much time has passed so quickly since then. Thanks.

      It seems like it was just yesterday, doesn’t it? I’d like to go back sometime and visit the museum – it was open yet when I was there a few years ago.

    I visited the site a week ago and it truly took my breath away. I was 10 when the towers fell and as I stood in that place I couldn’t get the images out of my head. You’re literally standing on graves. Where human beings had to make a choice between jumping and burning. The area is so quiet. I thought about all the businesses that were affected around the area too. Restaurants that no longer had commuters working in the area. I didn’t have it in me to visit the museum. I saw some other mentions to how commercial it has become. While I understand that it was bound to happen it makes me sad. The teenagers taking selfies all around are a little out of control too. (Don’t get me wrong I love a good selfie but there is a time and a place). I do hope as generations who weren’t alive during the horror continue to have some respect.

      I wrote a whole post once on times/places where it’s really not okay to take a smiling selfie – and I would agree that this memorial is probably not an appropriate place. I still think it’s beautifully done, though, and probably will visit the museum someday.

    I know this post was written a few years back, but I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts on your site since I broke my leg and basically can’t move much all summer. It makes me feel as if I’m traveling from home a bit. I wanted to react to this post though. I’m from Belgium, Europe and I was 17 years old at the time of 9/11. When I saw the news on TV I was shocked obviously, but I didn’t feel as connected to it as I imagine Americans felt. Thirteen years later my boyfriend and I visited the 9/11 Tribute Museum during a NYC City Trip, and the whole exhibit was just so emotional. I literally cried. This museum does a great job of showing how much this horrible event effected American lives and I must say that after this visit I do feel much more connected.

      That’s very interesting, Ines! I actually did a lot of research on “dark tourism” in graduate school, and I concluded that people do tend to connect more with places where tragedies have taken place if they were a. alive during the event, and b. felt like they have a personal connection to it.

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