Our World New York’s Ground Zero memorial to 9/11 evokes quiet awe

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Why travellers must remember the nearly 3000 people killed when terrorism struck the heart of New York.

Just recently, DNA testing identified Scott Michael Johnson, a 26-year-old securities analyst, as the 1642nd person among the nearly 3000 killed on September 11, 2001, in New York City.

Terrorists took over four planes. One was flown into the Pentagon, one crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Two were flown into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. 

The dramatic images of smoke streaming from the buildings, and then the towers falling were branded into the memories of those of us who witnessed it and into contemporary history.

Seventeen years on, the work continues to identify and acknowledge victims.

Already hundreds upon hundreds are commemorated at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. Their photographs appear in rows inside the museum; their names are listed in the two pools of reflection, made in the craters left where the two towers once stood.

More than 10 million people have visited since its opening in 2014. Today I am among them.

I am, I have to admit, among the more reluctant ones. It was all so ghastly. It was all so dramatic. It was all so tragic.

This was the biggest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on US soil. It caused the biggest single loss of rescue personnel in American history.

But it is also such a known story. Is there really any more to learn or think about?

Do I really need this?

But then, it would feel disrespectful not to visit Ground Zero, the 9/11 memorial. It would be to ignore a pivotal moment in New York’s history.

It would be to not fully understand and celebrate the essence of New Yorkers — for resilience is part of the DNA of this city and its citizens, and the emotional and physical recovery of the city after 9/11 is New York seen in its raw essence.

The reaction of first responders on September 11, 2001, and the reaction of the wider population since is a defining chapter in the city’s story and history.

For the National September 11 Memorial is a tribute of remembrance and honour to the 2977 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center site, in rural Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, as well as the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993.

We start outside, with those twin reflecting pools, which sit within the footprints of the foundations where the Twin Towers stood. They feature the biggest man-made waterfalls in North America.

Architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker were selected in a global design competition drawing more than 5200 entries from 63 nations. 

The names of every person known to have died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels around the pools.

 Inside the 10,000sqm of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, the 9/11 story is told through multimedia displays, film and audio narratives and a collection of authentic artefacts. 

The lives of every known victim of the 2001 and 1993 attacks are commemorated, and visitors hear about the lives of men, women and children who died.

A good way to fully experience Ground Zero is to take one of three 60-minute tours:

Architecture of Memory: 9/11 Memorial and Museum Tour.

Understanding 9/11 Museum Tour.

Uncommon Courage: First Responders on 9/11 Museum Tour.

The museum contains twisted steel remnants of the buildings, a fire truck with its ladder melted by the heat, and pictures of all who died. 

It brings emotion, but it is tastefully handled.

When Prince William and then Kate Middleton came to pay their respects, the Duchess of Cambridge admitted she was unprepared for just how much the site would affect her. She spoke of her “awe” at what she saw. The Duchess placed a bouquet of white roses — the State flower of New York — on the memorial. With them was a handwritten message:

 “In sorrowful memory of those who died on 11th September, and in admiration of the courage shown to rebuild.”

They signed their names simply “William and Catherine”. For though this is a massive national memorial,  visiting is personal.

Fact File


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