A wet and grey December afternoon, close to dusk, and several hundred people are waiting in the rain to view the 9-11 Memorial at the WTC site in Manhattan. The line moves slowly past large signs that depict the finished layout of the new World Trade Center: modern, gleaming glass towers surrounded by trees with two square memorial pools in the center.
Looking at the huge sign displaying the names of the board members for the 9-11 Memorial, you can’t help wonder why, after ten years and counting, the memorial is still not finished.
The forty-seven person board includes some of the most powerful and influential people in the country. Honorary members include four former U.S. presidents, two former and two current governors, and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Certainly there is no shortage of leadership. Perhaps though, conversely, there are too many leaders. Getting 47 people to agree on anything is hard enough.
The entrance is makeshift, as is the security screening area, and the museum is not yet ready to open. A few days ago New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that due to a funding dispute, the museum would not be able to open “on time.”
The gloomy weather adds to the somber setting. A line of people snakes down Church Street to Cortlandt Street and into the security screening area. Everyone sheds their wet coats to pass through the metal detectors.
The names of those who perished are carved into the beveled metal perimeter that forms a square around a 360 degree waterfall that spills inward and disappears into a square in the center of the pool. There are two of these, one north and one south, about 150 feet apart.
A large diagram shows with color coding around the perimeter of each pool where you can find names by category – North Tower, South Tower, flight 11, and so on. The longer the section, the more people that section represents. Red denotes the section for first responders, and your eye takes in the shocking length of that section.
The carving of each name was done in such a way that the bright light underneath would shine through the letters. The thickness of the metal and the metal’s golden inside core combine, in a dark setting, to create a golden glow from each name.
Within the square itself, water pours down 30 feet at all sides into a pool, then just disappears down a center square, and you wonder where it’s going. It is one big drain, and the image isn’t all that comforting. Does the water represent time washing over, or so many memories come and gone? Or all the names flowing into eternity? Maybe it means different things to different people. If the 9-11 families like it, I’m all for it.
Just beyond the north pool the glass-enrobed Freedom Tower, known as 1 World Trade Center, rises into the fog shroud. It appears a little more than half complete, as does 4 World Trade Center, to the south. Outside the memorial, on the sidewalk and in St. Paul’s churchyard, people stare up at these towers, thinking who knows what.
Two other towers are under construction, in the beginning stages.
The unfinished museum is situated between the two waterfall pools, and looks like a rectangular box angled upward at one end. Through the thick glass you can see the damaged steel framing from the North Tower that was saved, just for this purpose, as a remnant of the great landmark it once was.
Several years ago I visited a 9-11 exhibit at the National Museum of American History. It featured some stunning photos, pieces of debris, some personal stories of those who were there, and recordings of voice mails received from those who were caught in the tragedy. It was a small exhibit, but powerful and moving.
I didn’t get the same feeling here, at ground zero. Maybe that’s because it’s not finished, but in any case it lacks that story, or collection of images, that draws you in and makes an impact. The opening of the museum may change that.
The wind started to pick up water from the pools and spray it up over the edges of the perimeters, soaking visitors, cameras and all. We headed toward the exit, pausing again to look at some of the 2,983 names.