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 , 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  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.

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 , you can save on museum entry. Or you can .

9/11 Tribute Museum – Guided walking tours 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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