On Monday, the 9/11 memorial that Joe Daniels has overseen for five years will be unveiled to the public.
"I've thought about this for a while: the idea that one morning, I was just going to wake up and tell my wife, 'I'm going to the memorial opening,' " said Daniels, 39, president of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. "It just seems so surreal."
The memorial will become a reality a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- a goal that at times seemed elusive as controversy and acrimony marred the project.
From his 20th-floor office in lower Manhattan, where he has watched the World Trade Center plaza being rebuilt, Daniels recalled the morning of the attacks. From the sidewalk at another corner of the plaza, he watched transfixed after American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower and smoke billowed from the gaping hole.
"It went from a really bad situation to something that was sort of incomprehensible," he said.
Next came "this massive, massive, massive fireball" as United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower, he said, and "this roar, basically, this rumble that ripped through lower Manhattan."
That's when he and others ran for their lives.
In 2005, Daniels left his job at the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity dedicated to fighting poverty, to join the memorial as general counsel. He was named president the next year.
"For me, the ability to come back and help do something was an absolute no-brainer," he said. "As hard as this job has been, it's been a privilege."
The 8-acre memorial -- which with the museum has cost an estimated $700 million -- will officially open to public ticket holders Monday -- one day after today's 10th anniversary ceremony.
Under Daniels, the memorial has raised $400 million. Construction costs are supplemented by government funding, but more money must be raised for maintenance and operation costs, estimated at $50 million a year.
Daniels, a Morristown, N.J., native who lives in TriBeCa with his wife and children, admitted to anxiety as the opening neared. And he said he most anticipates the expressions on family members' faces when they find their loved ones' names that have been etched onto the edges of the memorial's reflecting pools.
"Hands down, the most important thing is the families, the silent majority," Daniels said.
The memorial has weathered criticism, including about the salaries of executives (Daniels is paid $325,000 annually), the decision to place unidentified 9/11 remains in the underground museum, the project's price tag and a series of missed deadlines.
Port Authority executive director Chris Ward described the process of reshuffling priorities at Ground Zero, where competing projects include a transit hub and the World Trade Center towers, as a "game of pickup sticks."
As a result, the Port Authority, which is co-owner of the site, and which oversees contractors and construction at the site, and Daniels have sometimes been at odds.
Ward said Daniels has a difficult job.
"Joe took over an incredible task and brought a managerial capacity to an emotionally and politically complex project," he said.
Memorial architect Michael Arad said: "You have to juggle a lot of balls at the same time to make this operation work . . . I'm sure his phone rings hundreds of times a day with demands and requests, but if you make your case and convince Joe, he'll do everything he can to make it happen."
Jimmy Boyle, 72, is looking forward to seeing the results of Daniels' and others' efforts. His firefighter son Michael, 37, who was raised in Westbury, died in the attacks.
"A lot of families were bickering about it, yelling about the bedrock and the design, what to do and how to change it," Boyle said. "I tried to stay out of it. They tell me that the final product is special, so I hope it is."