Golis: Grim images of 9/11 — and the lesson we forgot
Eighteen years later, the wrenching memories come flooding back — the World Trade Center towers gleaming in the morning sun, explosions, fire, billowing smoke, men and women running for their lives, first responders risking their lives to save others, the shocking collapse and plumes of toxic dust.
In this dark and solemn place — the 9/11 Memorial Museum — people sit or stand in silence, lost in their thoughts. This must be the quietest place in New York City.
We are here to bear witness to one of the most terrible and unimaginable days in American history. It’s a task that hurts the heart. Many refuse to visit the museum because it’s just too painful.
A sign on a nearby door seems to anticipate the anguish: “Use this door,” it reads, “to leave the exhibition early.”
Here’s the New York Times critic Holland Cotter: “The first thing to say about (the museum), and maybe the last, is that it’s emotionally overwhelming, particularly, I expect, for New Yorkers who were in the city on that apocalyptic September day.”
We are here to mourn the people who died. In the footprint of the south tower, we read their names, see their photos and learn that they were fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, Little League coaches and school volunteers. They were people who enjoyed fishing with their buddies and growing vegetables in the backyard. We see the small possessions that help tell their stories.
Counting the people who died when hijacked planes crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, almost 3,000 people got up and went to work on that sunny Tuesday and never came home.
“Here we tell their story, so that generations yet unborn will never forget,” President Barack Obama said at the museum’s 2014 dedication.
We are here, too, to honor the heroism of the first responders. In a day filled with unimaginable outcomes, there is this: 412 emergency workers — including 343 New York firefighters, 23 New York police officers and 37 Port Authority police officers — were killed trying to save others.
From the toxic air they breathed during the first days after the towers collapsed, many others would later be diagnosed with cancer.
While contemplating their courage, we think about the politicians who later balked at proposals to pay for the first responders’ health care. Some died before Congress — four months ago — got around to approving a complete compensation fund.
What kind of cynicism would cause a politician to think these people don’t deserve help when they risked everything?
In the main exhibition space, 70 feet below street level, we see remnants of the World Trade Center, including fragments of steel and the massive slurry wall that kept away water from the nearby Hudson River. We see the Vesey Street stairs, the “Survivors’ Staircase” many World Trade Center workers used to escape.
We hear snippets of recordings that tell of shock and then desperation.
And we see the wreckage of a firetruck from Ladder Company 3. In his last transmission from the 35th floor, Capt. Paddy Brown reported, “Three truck, and we’re still heading up.” He and 10 others from Company 3 died when the building collapsed.