Visiting the NYC 9/11 Memorial

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“Where were you on 9/11?”

That’s a question that doesn’t get asked as much anymore, twelve years after the event. When I am asked, almost no one is prepared for my answer. I was in the air.

In September, 2001, I was working in Washington, D.C., for a small publisher of legal books. I had recently graduated college and this was my first “real” job.

On that fateful morning, I was to embark on my very first business trip. I met a coworker at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport where we boarded our flight to Tampa, Florida. We departed at 8:20 am, five minutes after the first plane had been hijacked, though we didn’t know that at the time. We flew south, directly over the Pentagon.

It was a beautiful, clear day and we remained blissfully unaware of the events unfolding in New York. Our flight crew gave no indication of trouble and cheerfully served the free morning meal (remember those days?). Having taken many flights before, I found it odd that our plane never ascended above the clouds. I said as much to my colleague, but didn’t think much of it.

About halfway through the flight, our pilot announced over the intercom that we were being forced to land in Columbia, South Carolina, due to a national emergency. He was calm and said he would share more information once we were on the ground. Our cabin was abuzz with speculation. I naively wondered if they were clearing the skies for Air Force One.

We descended at a shockingly rapid rate. The lady across the aisle grabbed my hand and started to pray. I had not been afraid until that moment when it became clear something was really not right. We landed so hard I thought we were going to crash, bouncing and jerking from side to side. It was absolutely terrifying. As we taxied to the gate at this small rural airport, we watched as plane after plane put down behind us – United, Continental, FedEx, private planes and major airliners alike. What on earth could be happening?

We listened in disbelief as the pilot broke the horrifying news. I remember tears streaming down my face as I collected my bags and stumbled off the plane. All the passengers huddled around the TV in the terminal, desperate for details. Mobile phone service was down so we queued at the pay phones to let our families know we were okay.

My coworker and I rented a car and headed to a nearby hotel for lack of other options. Later that day, we decided just to make the 10-hour drive back to D.C. The hotel clerk had given us a map of South Carolina and wished us luck. Somewhere around the border of North Carolina and Virginia I got pulled over for speeding and the officer issued me a ticket. The absurdity almost made me laugh! How could going a few miles over the limit matter on a day like this?

We were welcomed back to the office with champagne and chocolate shortly thereafter as tanks and armed security forces took up positions in the streets outside. Our beautiful, peaceful city felt like a war zone. Daily fire drills had us running downstairs and constantly on edge.

One month later, I moved to New York City and stayed five incredible years. I love that city more than any other place on earth and will always consider it “home,” even though I haven’t lived there for years now.

Why am I sharing this story? Because I recently visited for the first time the NYC 9/11 Memorial. It was an emotional visit but one that I needed to make.

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When I moved to New York twelve years ago, the World Trade Center was smoldering rubble. Today the 16-acre site is a lovely park filled with trees and tourists. Waterfalls pour into the footprints of the twin towers, where reflecting pools are meant to wash away the horrors of death and destruction.

The names of the 2,983 individuals who perished in the 2001 and 1993 terrorist attacks are etched into bronze walls surrounding the reflecting pools. Flowers and other mementos adorn the walls and remind one that the site is a graveyard as well as a national monument. 9/11 was the worst terrorist attack to happen on U.S. soil and we must not forget it. By visiting the site, we honor the victims and the brave rescue personnel who gave their lives to save others.

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Wind sprays water over the memorial walls.

Wind sprays water over the memorial walls.

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New construction surrounds what was once Ground Zero, with the Freedom Tower its most notable structure. Officially known as One World Trade Center, the 104-story building is the tallest in America and the fourth tallest in the world. Seven glittering new towers will eventually form the new World Trade Center complex.

A museum commemorating the lives of the victims and providing details of the attacks is slated to open in 2014. Currently, artwork made from pieces of the destroyed towers is displayed inside the gift shop, where a moving documentary about victims’ families and survivors can also be viewed.

I was dismayed to find some tourists, perhaps forgetting where they were, laughing and posing for photos as they might at an ordinary tourist attraction.  As you are visiting the site, I would suggest being respectful of the lives that were lost.

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Artwork made from WTC reckage, on display in the Memorial gift shop.

Artwork made from WTC reckage, on display in the Memorial gift shop.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Address: Liberty St, New York, NY (enter near the corner of Albany and Greenwich Streets)
Entrance Fee: None, though donations are encouraged
Visitor Passes: It is possible to visit the memorial without a pass, but expect a lengthy wait. To skip the line, reserve a visitor pass in advance, either online or in person at the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site at 20 Vesey Street. We went on a Saturday afternoon without passes and the wait was about 40 minutes.

Where were YOU on 9/11?

Heather Hall

Heather Hall

Passionate about travel, food, history and animals, Heather brings a curiosity and fun-loving attitude to most any experience that comes along. The Virginia native has lived abroad since 2011, first in Shanghai, China and now in Riga, Latvia. Follow along as she explores the cultures and cuisines of Europe on her blog, Ferreting Out the Fun!

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21 thoughts on “Visiting the NYC 9/11 Memorial

  1. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to be on a plane or working on an airline on that day…crazy. Lovely photos…seems very calm and peaceful.
    Edna recently posted…Endings and BeginningsMy Profile

    • Looking back, I can’t imagine what it was like for our flight crew who were probably wondering if they had terrorists on board. It was a while before I could fly again, and even today, I say a little prayer of gratitude at every take off and landing. The memorial park really is lovely. The water is very soothing.
      Heather Hall recently posted…Visiting the NYC 9/11 MemorialMy Profile

  2. Thanks for posting this, for remembering those we lost on 9/11, and the great photos. I never tire of hearing and reading from literally thousands of Americans about there they were that day. One need not to have survived or be a close witness — we know a good many of both — to be thankful for making it home that day; we all were attacked. We have been to the memorial in NYC yet I did not realize the wind sometimes causes water to spray up and over the engraved names. Seeing your photo of it reminded me of the 1st anniversary morning down in the then cleared “Pit” with the dust swirling hard around us and rising beyond the “Bathtub” walls to the thousands listening to the names recited. It was as if the spirits of the dead were within those whirlwinds trying to embrace their assembled loved ones. We remember.

    • Thank you for your kind words! It’s interesting you say that about the dust swirling around the site. I had a similar reaction upon seeing the water spray, imaging it to be the spirits of the victims. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to be down in the Pit. I lived near the Port Authority Bus Terminal and still remember the sounds of the trucks – endless trucks – carrying the debris from the city. I’ll never forget.

  3. Beautiful post. I was mowing the grass when my father said, “New York City is on fire.” What!?! It was hard to believe what I was seeing on television. I was on my way to Cambodia that week and I think I had to scrap a week in Hawaii because of the flight groundings. I still watch youtube clips of 9/11 from time to time and try to imagine what those trapped in the towers must have felt. Devastating.
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    • My friend and I talked about the people trapped inside the towers while we were visiting the memorial. I can’t imagine the desperation they must have felt. You’re parents must have been even sadder to let you go that week! Mine were quite upset when I said I was moving to New York!

  4. Thank you for sharing your story with us and for writing so compassionately about this. I am always so appalled at the lack of tact and decency some people show at memorial sites—when I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, a bunch of teenagers were similarly goofing around and behaving really inappropriately. That was perhaps even more confusing (though no less upsetting) because you actually have to pay to visit that building.

    Great photos and as strange as it is to say, it seems like a really lovely, peaceful place. I think that’s sort of the best kind of tribute one can hope to come out of what happened.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Adventures with Durian: A (Sort-of) Photo EssayMy Profile

    • Thanks Steph. I didn’t set out with the intention of sharing that story, but as I started to write about the memorial the words came tumbling out. Even with the insensitive tourists (don’t you just want to shake them?), the park is wonderful space. The water spraying over the walls was almost spiritual. I think (hope) it will become more meaningful to those who weren’t directly affected by the tragedy once the museum opens and they are visibly reminded of what took place.

  5. Heather,
    All I can say is wow! Thanks for sharing. To think I remember you when you were 10. Fantastic job you have done here.

  6. If there’s one thing that drives me barmy it’s people being disrespectful in places of memorial or where tragic events have taken place. Mostly it’s kids, and whilst you feel like they could (maybe) be forgiven for being too naive to understand the full emotion of the matter, it shouldn’t allow people to goof around.

    Just yesterday I saw a kid jumping from pillar-to-pillar at the Memorial to the Murder Jews of Europe in Berlin and it really got to me. Just as I was about to say something thankfully he stopped, but it did make me think; should be just stand and be quiet to remember people or smile and laugh and celebrate a life that so many never had, that being silent only makes the matter worse. I find myself split.

    • Seeing that behavior would have gotten to me too. But you make a good point. We want to be respectful, but at the same time, life goes on and we should celebrate that too. Maybe that’s why I liked the 9/11 Memorial so much.

  7. I visited NYC for the first time a couple months after it happened. And though I visited ground zero then, I have never gone back to see the memorial. Your photos though make it look like a beautiful spot to remember those who are lost, and I will make a point to see for myself next time I am in the city. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Shannon! I would definitely recommend a visit to the memorial! Seeing the place transformed like that is truly inspirational.

  8. What an amazing story to share! I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the air on 9/11. The memorial looks so beautiful and peaceful. While I’ve seen ground zero, I’ve yet to be back in New York to see the actual memorial. I’m glad you were able to make the visit you needed.
    Casey @ A Cruising Couple recently posted…Giveaway: Win a FREE Hoboroll!My Profile

    • Thanks Casey. I went down to Ground Zero when I first moved to the city, and then maybe just once more after that. It was a great feeling to see the site so transformed! NYC is nothing if not resilient!

  9. I had a similarly unnerving experience that morning but not nearly as crazy as yours! I was working in San Francisco for a major oil company and remember arriving at work, only to be shooed off the floor by a coworker and told very sternly to basically get out and go home. She looked terrified. I got on the phone with my mother on the bus ride home and she told me what happened. It was so surreal. I too moved to NYC shortly after that. I haven’t been to the WTC since they put the fountains in so thanks for the great photos!
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    • That must have been scary, not knowing what was going on. I remember how much misinformation and wild speculation was being discussed on the news. How long did you live in NYC? What did you do there? I worked for a small publishing company in Union Square. Wonder if we ever ran into each other?

  10. Thanks for the great photos! Dad and I were home and were glued to the TV. Thank goodness we had forgotten you were flying that day! We were sad when you moved to New York, but I sure did enjoy all our visits! There is just so much to see and do there. What a tragic time 9/11 is in our history.
    I’ll never forget!

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