One of the darkest moments in the nation's history is illustrated in overwhelming detail and honesty deep inside the bowels of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opens Wednesday.
"This is a tribute and eulogy to all those we lost," said former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, chairman of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which operates the museum. "We have fulfilled our commitment to the 9/11 families that we will never forget the lessons we learned on that day."
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will tour the 9/11 Memorial Museum Thursday, and it will open to the public next week.
At a news conference Wednesday, museum officials ceremoniously opened the long-awaited museum that has been shrouded in controversy practically from its inception.
"It was never easy, but essential," Bloomberg said. "This museum was built to be a landmark that will withstand the test of time."
He said opening the museum "is an important day for New York, the nation and the civilized world."
Joe Daniels, museum president, said it is a symbol "of heroism that people will see around the world what this city, this nation did to help those in need. . . . These ties that bind us strengthen us under the most unimaginable odds, something that the terrorists did not know."
Alice Greenwald, museum director, said when visitors see the mangled fire trucks, ambulances and personal belongings recovered in the debris and rubble, "they will wonder what happened to those people; to the firefighters who were in that engine; whether they survived and maybe what they were thinking on that day. . . . The museum is about people."
Visitors begin the 2 1/2-hour tour by descending seven stories below ground level. They hear the anxious telephone calls made in the early minutes of the attacks, from people in disbelief who witnessed the planes separately crash into the Twin Towers, to a person who sees it on television from a coffee shop in Knoxville, Tennessee.
"I couldn't believe what I was watching," a voice that echoes through a dark corridor explains. The words are projected onto screens with photographs of people's horrified faces staring into the sky.
Visitors continue their descent to view the famous slurry wall that continues to hold back the waters of the Hudson River in the west chamber.
Adjacent, shiny surfaces emerge -- the two tower volumes. The aluminum-surfaced walls together are "a memory of the towers, which occupies the same space where the north and south towers once stood," said Carl Krebs of Davis Brody Bond, the museum's architects.Walking farther along the wide, wooden ramp, visitors can walk up to rusted, steel remnants of the towers. On the corridor walls are photos of the burning Twin Towers after their attacks by hijacked jetliners, and projected images of missing people, fliers that covered the city's public places posted by loved ones who searched for survivors.
Allen Miller of Port Jefferson, a construction manager at the museum, said crews have come up with a saying that reflects the museum -- "Stronger Than Before."
"People will come out of here feeling a sense of pride -- feeling stronger than before," he said.
Behind a memorial wall with a quote from Virgil -- "No day shall erase you from the memory of time" -- are photographs of those who died and the controversial placement of unidentified human remains recovered from Ground Zero.
An exhibition room includes thousands of artifacts displayed, each telling stories of the recovery, cleanup and aftermath of Sept. 11, including film footage of construction grapplers sifting through debris to encased dust-covered shoes of those who were caught in the ash and debris that swept through lower Manhattan. Several controversies have marked the museum's creation.
Top among them is the placement of human remains inside the museum. Some families who lost loved ones in the attacks say it is inappropriate to keep the remains of their loved ones in a museum. A bronze sign reads: "Reposed behind this wall are the remains of many who have perished at the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2001."
Other controversies range from the $24 admission fee that will finance the museum's annual $60 million budget, to a movie that will be shown that Muslim groups say uses "anti-Islamic terminology" rather than criticizing the terrorists, who were Muslim.
"The Rise of Al Qaeda" is narrated by NBC anchor Brian Williams.Only time will tell if museum architects and decision-makers made the right choices when creating the museum, said Daniels, noting the differences of opinions that have surfaced. "But I know once this city and the country sees this museum, it will be something that will make people feel proud."