My Visit to the National September 11 Memorial

8 09 2012

My Visit to the 9/11 Memorial

Three times I have tried to write this blog. For one reason or another they mysteriously disappeared from my computer. No doubt my son with autism had a role in that. I could imagine him looking at it, saying to himself (because he is nonverbal): “This is crap.” DELETE. So I am trying again.

In July, I headed up to Long Island for my high-school reunion. It was an epic trip. I’ve been up to the New Jersey/New York area many times since 9/11/2001 but it never involved going into the city. I was born in Brooklyn. I went to Patchogue-Medford High School on Long Island. When my son’s godmother asked me what I wanted to do in addition to my reunion, a trip into the city was very high on my to-do list. I needed to go.

I still cannot watch video from that dreaded day without panic rising up into my throat. Many of our friends lived outside the city, but many of them worked in the city. The question was “where?” It took about 2 weeks to locate them all. I found out many years later that I knew one of the people who died there. Class of 1980, Al Maler, was working at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower on that day. His co-worker, Eric Stahlman, also a Patchogue-Medford High School alumni also lost his life, but he had graduated many years earlier. With the passage of time and memories faded, extents of conversation lost, I still do have visual memory of Al, remembering his athleticism, his kindness, his smile. He was around my friend, Phil Bender, quite a lot because of his involvement in the service organization of our school for the guys, “Key Club.” There was a third person I wanted to look up while there–Patchogue first-responder Andrew Desperito, who was from Brooklyn.

As I remember him…

We had tickets to go at 4:30. The tickets are free, but they need to control how many people are going in. Security there is tighter than at the airport. President Obama was also going to be in New York City on this same day, so perhaps it was even more secure than usual. I oddly ran into a person I knew 20 years ago in Sugar Land, Texas who worked at Target; he still lives there, and here we meet up 1500 miles away. I braced myself for the raw emotion. My thoughts were with the families. “Good God, if I feel this way, I cannot begin to imagine the depth of their pain.”

Security is tight.

From the time we walked near the area, I knew I was walking on hallowed ground. When the 7 buildings collapsed, they carried dust clouds. Those dust clouds also carried what was left of some who died, which extended out from the area for blocks. Forty percent of the families have never received the remains of their loved ones.

Circles of the debris field.

The site is beautiful, peaceful. There are plaques that go around the pools of water where the North and South Towers once existed. On those are names of the people who died, not only in this attack on this site, but the people who died on all the planes, the Pentagon, and the 1993 terrorist attack. Below the parapets is a space where you can put your hand in and touch the water. All the sensory features add to the experience–light, touch, sound.

There is a computer over near the not-yet-opened museum where you can look up the names and see what section of parapet their names appear.

The computer area…

As I did with the Vietnam Memorial wall when it visited Houston, I walked around both towers, looking at every single name of those who perished, lingering only at the names of the people for whom I was searching, touching the name to say, “I’m sorry, and thank you.” What I was sorry for? For the evil that existed in the world, for any role that our country may have played in the events leading up to that day, for the politics that rule the world, catching innocent people in the crosshairs. And my thanks–for the contribution that their lives had and will continue to have in generations to come, to their families who were not present when I visited, the example they set of how to have hate touch their lives in the most personal way possible, yet choose to stand up and say, “We will not continue the cycle of hate.” They had many hurdles to overcome just to put the names of those who died onto the final bronze parapets. Thirty-two representatives of various family organizations had to work together to come to consensus. Congress could take a lesson from these people’s collaboration.

Paraphrasing from the book produced by National Geographic, “A Place of Remembrance, Official Book of the National September 11 Memorial”: “By 2006, they came together. The nine groups would be organized by location and circumstances in which the victim found themselves during the attack. Around the North Tower pool, people working in or visiting the tower; those aboard Flight 11; victims of the 1993 bombing. Around the South Tower pool: Those working in or visiting the south tower, those aboard flight 175, the Pentagon victims, Flight 77 victims, Flight 93 victims and first responders. The names of colleagues were kept together; first responders were organized by headings indicating their agency and unit. Then the kin of the victims who asked for specific names to be inscribed together (like husband and wife, or siblings, or best friends, or ‘in some cases entire families’ were honored.”

I found myself lingering on other names, too. I had heard that the babies of pregnant women were also mentioned at the site, but seeing the actual inscription is powerful: …and unborn child. Coming home with the National Geographic book added insight into the names where they show how families were grouped together, sometimes with different names.

The unborn remembered…

Alfred Russell Maler’s name resides at N-54; Eric Stahlman at N-46; Andrew Despeirto at S-18.

My school mate, Al Maler.

I began to get very irritated. I noticed that not everyone was respecting the site for the sacred place it was. There were families taking pictures, smiling and laughing right in front of the names of the dead. Seriously? You couldn’t have turned around and taken it around the tree that is 180 degrees to your current position? I understand taking pictures of the parapet–I did myself–but not having a grand old time as if you were visiting the Statue of Liberty.

According to my friend, she saw a woman doing a “sexy pose” for her boyfriend or husband right in front of the parapet names. I am glad I did not see that because I would have been in her face, admonishing them for their inappropriate behavior.

I went to visit one of the 9/11 Memorial workers to try to help me understand this because it was really bothering me (and writing this, I am still moved to tearful emotion in my search for understanding). Tim told me that when it was just the families and friends at first, it was a solemn place but one of friends coming together, having experienced a similar pain, who had become a much larger family. But as it had become a “tourist site” people do not have a connection with the names and with that came a change in how people acted. I told him I did not buy that argument. I had zero connection to the names on the Vietnam Memorial wall. It was touring and was put in a park. At the wall, there were tears, people speaking quietly, silence, prayer, and that included young children. There was a park area surrounding it and that is where laughter and running and playing occurred. I asked Tim if he could explain where all the buildings were going up. And then I realized I had a video camera and if he could be so kind as to explain that to me again and allow me to videotape. He was kind enough to oblige my request.

On my way out, my hope of treating the site with respect was renewed. A woman was explaining to two children, obviously born after 2001, the magnitude of the tragedy that occurred: “In 2001, this was the site of the most terrible thing that ever happened on US soil…” I was not going to be nitpicky about other horrific events, like the Civil War battle of Antietam where more than 23,100 people lost their lives, or Pearl Harbor, but it was refreshing to see lessons being taught. These children would learn about the other tragedies further away from their tender life span as they grew.

I stood in front of the gift shop and took a deep breath. A friend at my high school reunion said she was put off by the gift shop. I stood there changing my mind yes, no, yes, no, to the point that I drove my friend crazy. I finally decided I needed to form my own opinion and went in. I also felt like I may regret it if I did not go in. I felt myself becoming claustrophobic and quickly scanned the items available. A magnet or a pen that said, 9/11 Memorial? I don’t think so. I knew that the purchase would help maintain the memorial, so a purchase was important. So I quickly picked two items–an American flag that contained the names of those who died, and a golden retriever stuff toy that had “search and rescue” to honor all the service animals from that day and of their continued service when their mission turned from search and rescue to helping alleviate the sadness of the people still trying to clean up the area. And then I saw the National Geographic book.

The flag with all the names on it.

Search & Rescue Dog

Life moves on. In a city as big as New York, where property is at a premium, building anew has to occur. As a Christian, I am embarrassed by people of my own faith who persecute people of Muslim faith just because of the radical extremists. The Mission Statement from the National September 11 Memorial is this: “Remember and honor the thousands of innocent men, women and children murdered by terrorists in the horrific attacks of February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001. Respect this place made sacred through tragic loss. Recognize the endurance of those who survived, the courage of those who risked their lives to save others, and the compassion of all who supported us in our darkest hours. May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.”  Sayings on materials sold in the gift shop are “In the darkness, we shine together” or “United by Hope.” Survivor Bruno Dellinger, from the 47th floor of the North Tower shares in the book, “You had in this building people from all over the world, all religions, all colors of skin. All everything. All social backgrounds and they lived in harmony. Everyone was very proud to be a World Trade Center tenant, one way or another, working in the World Trade Center. And for me, those flags that were in the lobby of the Trade Center represented a utopia that only can exist in New York.”

The commemoration of the 9/11 National Memorial will be on livestream at 8:30 AM Eastern time, 7:30 AM central time. I will get Patrick on the bus for school and will tune in. You do not have to actual visit the National Memorial site to help support it. Donations can be made (click here), or you can purchase items on-line from their gift shop (click here). I will proudly be displaying the flag purchased on our front lawn along with ribbons and flowers. My school mate’s smile will be forever inscribed in my memory.

Someone asked me, “If it so sad, why do you go?” The same reason why I sat through “Schindler’s List” or people go visit The Holocaust Museum or people visit the concentration camps throughout Europe. We must never forget. But we have to take those lessons we learned in those horrific moments in our history and learn from them, or we are doomed to repeat them. And we keep repeating them. We can learn from the words of Mr. Dellinger and the example set forth by those families of the victims of 911. Choose love.



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