President Barack Obama dedicated the National September 11 Memorial Museum Thursday to the innocent lives lost, the survivors saved by selfless heroes and the nation's unshakable resolve to transcend the unspeakable horror of the terrorist attacks in 2001.
Delivering a requiem for the nearly 3,000 who died, Obama vowed the nation would "tell their story, so that generations yet unborn will never forget" and declared:
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"No act of terror can match the strength or the character of our country. Like the great wall and bedrock that embrace us today, nothing can ever break us; nothing can change who we are as Americans."
Obama, survivors and Sept. 11 families gathered in the museum's Foundation Hall, 70 feet below street level at the cavernous bedrock where the World Trade Center once stood. It was 4,629 days since terrorist-hijacked airliners slammed into the Twin Towers and Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
"Those we lost live on in us," Obama said. "In the families who love them still. In the friends who remember them always. And in a nation that will honor them, now and forever."
The memorial and museum, with a cost that exceeds a billion dollars, is opening after years of delays fueled by disputes over funding, the final resting place of the unidentified remains, admission fees and which entity should maintain control.
Yesterday, though, was not about the false starts or the squabbling, but rather to remember the dead and honor the heroes. The museum will open to the public on Wednesday.
"It is a witness to tragedy. It is an affirmation of human life," said former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the memorial and museum's chairman, and a driving force behind its fundraising.
Before speaking, Obama joined Bloomberg, his companion, Diana Taylor, first lady Michelle Obama, and Bill and Hillary Clinton on a private tour of the museum. Their path into the underground space, which was just recently completed, smelled of fresh paint.
They saw three pieces of wreckage recovered from the site of the attacks, a destroyed fire engine, and artifacts such as the north tower's antenna and an elevator motor.
"We can touch their names and hear their voices, glimpse the small items that speak to the beauty of their lives -- a wedding ring, a dusty helmet, a shining badge," the president recalled.
Mayor Bill de Blasio described the "ordinary, everyday objects" on display at the museum -- a wallet, a ring, an ID card, a telephone, a pair of shoes -- that "are unlikely but powerful keepsakes, which help us understand the events of that day in human terms."
Rudy Giuliani, mayor at the time of the attacks, recalled the senselessness of that day.
"We will never understand why one person escaped, and another didn't -- how random it all seems, how powerless it makes us all feel," Giuliani said. Sharing the podium with past and current officials were survivors who managed to escape with their lives -- and stories of heroes who paid with theirs.
Among them were Port Authority Police Department Lt. Stephen Butler of Kings Park, whose brother, FDNY firefighter Tom Butler, was killed. Working in recovery operations in Ground Zero, he placed his brother's photo on a 36-foot piece of steel that was called "the Last Column." Many more such tributes to the lost were affixed to the beam, and it is now on display.
Pia Hofmann of Inwood, an excavator operator who helped recover human remains, spoke as one of the civilians who were vital to recovery efforts.
Obama recounted how moments after the attacks, a stranger in a red bandanna -- later identified as Welles Crowther, 24, an equities trader -- rounded up survivors, shouted for fire extinguishers, tended to the wounded, led survivors down the stairs, then climbed back up to rescue more people. Crowther didn't make it out.
His mother, Allison, appeared hand in hand with one of those her son saved, Ling Young, a tax auditor.
The stories of Welles Crowther, Ling Young and Allison Crowther were just three of hundreds that are told through the museum's exhibits.
On the plaza outside, the ceremony was shown live on giant TV screens. Diane Wilson, 52, of Phoenix, teared up.
"All I kept thinking was I wish this never happened," she said.
With Maria Alvarez