The sight of throngs of people milling about ground zero so freely, in a spirit of wonder and
recreation, is a pleasant shock upon arrival at the National September 11 Memorial Museum, now a booming part of the tourist season. Here, a decade of no-go security and endless reconstruction has yielded to innocent crowds strolling around what was once scorched earth.
A visitor may wince in glimpsing new arrivals instinctively posing for smartphone selfies by the cascading memorial pools where the twin towers crashed to Earth in the terrorist atrocity. Then again, some of the posers do seem to moderate their smiles as they lean on the parapets where the names of 2,983 lost souls are etched.
“My son walked out of the museum when he saw people taking selfies,” Don Hill says amid the crowd, explaining that his son, Scott, a Wall Street worker, had his own grim memory of 9/11, having raced for his life with the crowds fleeing the giant debris clouds that rolled out from ground zero that day. Everyone brings his or her separate recollection to the reconstructed landmark. “Life rebounds,” the father noted, watching sun-drenched crowds seize the day, mixing emotions and snacks in a sprawling scene worthy of Bruegel.
Down below the ground, the mood is more that in a sacred catacomb. Crowds work their way past graphic and devastating mementos in the new 9/11 Memorial Museum. Some visitors gasp at the audio loops of final recorded phone messages from passengers realizing their jet was doomed. “Pick up, Sweetie!” the desperate voice of a woman says. “I love you! ... There’s a little problem.”
Myriad fragments of the tragedy — crushed emergency trucks, ferociously bent girders, video of the second plane slicing into the second tower with hallucinatory thrust — can leave a visitor staggering back up and out, grateful for the sunshine and ordinary life.
One World Trade Center gleams nearby like a platinum monolith, formerly called the Freedom Tower and designed as ground zero’s ultimate symbol of recovery. Much more reassuring, however, is the busy construction site of the World Trade Center’s new transportation hub, an enormous yet airy structure with giant steel wings that look as if they could flap upward.
The hub will be as roomy as Grand Central Terminal when it opens next year to serve as a crossroads for countless workers and tourists, coming and going. The sight of its rising amid welders’ sparks adjacent to the dark memories entombed in the museum summons nothing so much as the mythical phoenix, the bird reborn from the ashes of defeat.
Francis X. Clines is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times.
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