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Still going up, 9/11 museum offers raw experience

NEW YORK – The Sept. 11 museum is taking shape 70 feet below ground, a cavernous space that provides an emotionally raw journey and ends at bedrock where huge surviving remnants and spacial voids reveal the scale of the devastation of what once was the World Trade Center.

The museum’s architects, director and two victims’ family members led members of the news media Tuesday on a tour of the subterranean space, which commemorates nearly 3,000 people who died in the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks.

There are no display cabinets yet, no exhibits. It is still a construction site. But it was easy to visualize the intent of the spaces, clearly articulated by the acute voids created by the fallen towers.

Authentic structural elements that survived the terrorist attacks are there: the slurry wall that kept the Hudson River from inundating the Financial District; the last column of trade center steel ceremonially removed from the site in 2002; the survivors’ staircase that served as an escape route for hundreds; and foundational box columns that anchored the building.

The $45 million museum occupies about 120,000 square feet beneath the 8-acre memorial plaza, the centerpiece of which is “Reflecting Absence,” two square reflecting pools set above the footprints of the north and south towers.

If the museum were above grade, said architect Steven Davis, “you’d be saying ‘Wow, how cool.’ But because it’s underground … the progress is less than evident.”

When the museum opens in 2012, the tour will start at an above-ground glass pavilion, where a 665-foot long “ribbon,” or gently sloped ramp, will carry visitors through the site.

The ribbon – reminiscent of the ramp that workers used to build the original towers and during the recovery efforts following the attacks – will wind down 45 feet to the Memorial Hall, or lobby, past a three-pronged trident column recovered from the trade center rubble.

The memory of the twin towers is triggered from different areas of the museum by the depth of the memorial pools in the cavernous site. The pools will be clad in a recycled aluminum material similar to that used in the original towers. Special lighting will make them appear to be floating over the space.

Parapets of varying heights along the ramp will reveal different parts of the museum as visitors go down. Stairs or an escalator will provide the final 25-foot descent to bedrock, and to a trapezoidal expanse containing the 60-foot high slurry wall that held back the Hudson.

The last standing 36-foot steel column that was removed from the trade center debris at the end of the nine-month recovery effort in 2002 stands in front of the slurry wall. It became a spontaneous memorial to the victims; construction workers and family members covered it with tributes, photographs and inscriptions.

The final descent runs parallel to the Vesey Street stairs, known as the survivors’ staircase. The 37 steps served as an escape route for people fleeing.

There are also several places where visitors can stand between the remnants of the two towers.

Thousands of unidentified remains of 9/11 victims will be stored in the museum, in an area reserved for the medical examiner’s office; an adjacent room will be set aside for family members. These areas will be off limits to the public.

A quotation from Virgil’s “Aeneid” – “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time” – will be incised into the wall that separates the private and public spaces.

“The wall is only a membrane that separates us from them, and it’s our obligation to remember,” said museum director Alice Greenwald.

Anthoula Katsimatides, whose brother died in the attacks, said she hoped visitors will “learn something about one of those beautiful people who passed away on that day” and come away with “a sense of peace and a sense of hope.”


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