NEW YORK — The first thing you notice about the stunning but gut-wrenching new National September 11 Memorial Museum is that it isn’t your ordinary museum. It is 70 feet below ground — 70 feet below ground zero.
That’s as it needs to be to understand what held up the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and why they came down in 2001. Seventy feet below the street are the wall that held back the Hudson River and the bedrock and pilings that anchored the 110story structures.
These design features functioned well, even on 9/11. What brought down the towers, my extremely competent guide Stephanie explained, were fires spread by jet fuel that flooded the floors struck by the hijacked airliners. The flames literally melted the steel columns that eventually bent, twisted and failed.
But that’s not what this museum, which opened to the public May 21, is about. At a cost of $700 million, it’s a place of remembrance and a repository. It connects visitors to the shared human impact of these tragic events.
It is also a temporary resting place for 10,000 unidentified bones and tissue fragments that cannot be matched to the 1,115 victims — 40 percent — yet to be recovered in some form.
It is a place to see photos and histories of the nearly 3,000 victims who did not make it out of the buildings. At least 11,000 did escape. There are also posters of the missing, massive photos and thousands of artifacts from that fateful day and those that followed ranging from steel and stone to firemen’s helmets, scarves and shoes.
The sounds of 9/11 are ever-present and videos recount that horrendous day and its aftermath.
A display, criticized by some, reviews the ideological roots of the attackers who flew the planes. It ends with the capture and death of their leader, Osama bin Laden. A gift shop, criticized by victims’ families as crassly commercial, sells books and art but also trinkets like mugs and American-flag earrings. There are plans for an 80-seat restaurant.
Undoubtedly some New Yorkers and outsiders who experienced that day firsthand will resist reliving it, but for others it will bring powerful reminders of what provoked our nation into two wars the past 13 years. Children will be able to know what our country went through on 9/11, how our country came together.
Upon entering, it is quite literally a dark museum about a dark subject. It is also a place to connect with victims like Bennett Lawson Fisher, 58. He was my niece Anna Seaton Huntington’s uncle by marriage. She grew up in Manhattan and went on to fame as an Olympic medal winner, America’s Cup sailor and author.
Ben attended Anna’s wedding here in Kansas. He was a senior vice president of Fiduciary Trust Company, a bank that occupied four of the highest floors of the South Tower. Fiduciary had been headed by Anna’s father-in-law until the year before the terrorist strike. More than 100 employees of the company died when the South Tower collapsed.
Ben was widely known as a colorful raconteur who had flawless comic timing and appreciated humor in all forms. Kind-hearted, he was also a serious leisure sailor and a rock-ribbed Republican who reveled in political debate, according to associates.
He was last seen on the 44th floor pushing people into elevators and sending them to safety while he stayed behind.
I found a vivid color photo of a somewhat younger-looking Ben gracing a wall of a room called “In Memoriam.” Wearing a white boater hat, he was smiling broadly from a large sailboat.
I connected with Ben Fisher, victim and hero. That’s the purpose of this museum.