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Relics that tell a story: 9/11 through the objects left behind

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amny Photo Credit: amNY Photo Illustration

A workplace ID card. A Christmas tree ornament. Lottery tickets and business cards.

These mundane objects were touched by the horror of 9/11, turning them into remarkable relics that help tell a larger story about that day.

"Memories and Meanings: Objects Speak," an exhibit at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, displays artifacts from 20 people connected to the attacks.

"We wanted to pick objects we thought would resonate with outsiders," said Meriam Lobel, the exhibit's curator, who has lived near the World Trade Center for 30 years. "Most of them are very regular things … but they have enormous meaning because of the mental connections."

The exhibit is also therapeutic for those who contributed artifacts.

“Telling it and retelling helps them feel good that they can help others understand through their story," Lobel said.

The exhibit, at 120 Liberty St., runs through the fall. amNewYork spoke with some of the people who contributed items.

***

In 1967, Joe Bradley was 21, a construction worker assigned to spend 18 months helping to build the foundation of the Twin Towers. He put in his time and moved on.

But 34 years later, a day after the towers crumbled, Bradley was back at that exact same spot, manning cranes to help collect the smoldering remnants of the towers he helped build.

"It was like waking on the moon," he recalls. "Take a step and a huge cloud of dust erupted in front of you. … You never could really escape from the scene."

A few days later, one of his two sons gave him a hard hat to wear, and that helmet now sits in the exhibit.

"That was the only thing I had to give, so that's what I gave," he says. "Having it there, it's almost cathartic to be able to share my story with all these people."

Today, Bradley, 65, of Oceanside, Long Island, remains at Ground Zero, serving as the foreman for the construction sites of 3 and 4 World Trade Center. He works there with his sons, ages 44 and 41.

He says the hard hat is a symbol that New Yorkers will survive.

"My hard hat's a little banged up," he says. "But you know, I’m not."

***

Milton Rosa-Ortiz, an artist whose work is on display in the exhibit, was living in south Park Slope when the towers were destroyed.

"I saw the cloud coming straight for us after they fell," he said. "I couldn't see across the street, it was that thick."

Two days later, he collected hundreds of papers – everything from lottery tickets and business cards to checks and bank records — that floated from Ground Zero to Brooklyn, and he stuffed them into a bag that sat unopened for five years.

He eventually decided to build "something beautiful out of something so tragic," turning all those papers into a collage that outlines what he calls the Tree of Life, which is part of the exhibit.

"I feel that my making this piece is helping 'us' as a community recover," he says. "When I see the change in the tone of someone's voice when they see it and their eyes brighten up, that's my catharsis."

Rosa-Ortiz remembers the distinct odor when he opened the bag for the first time, but through all that pain, he hopes to help others get over their own.

***

Tammy Perconti was pregnant when her husband, Jon Perconti, 32, died in the Sept. 11 attacks. He was a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, where he’d put in 12 years.

The only trace of him ever found was his wallet — almost completely untarnished — and inside of it, his Cantor Fitzgerald identification card.

So when Tammy, now 39 and a volunteer at the Tribute Center, found out about the exhibit, she loaned his ID, so her husband could be "part of the history they're telling there."

"Still nine years later, it helps my grieving process to talk about it. When I tell the story, I see the impact it has on people, and it's nice to know that people haven't forgotten those who were lost," she said.

Months after the attacks, Peronti gave birth to Julia, now 9, and she says her child "understands a lot more about what happened than any 9-year-old should."

"She's proud to have her dad's ID there," Perconti, of Rumson. N.J., said. "I think it helps both of us."

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