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Never Forget: An emotional visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum

The following is an excerpt from the Home Run On Wheels book, now available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The world was forever changed on September 11, 2001. Most people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when two hijacked airliners slammed into the sides of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Thousands had been killed in the attack and the United States has been in a perpetual war since.

As first responders rushed toward the rubble to save whomever they could find, I was sleeping in Pamlico County, North Carolina.

It was after 3 p.m. before I even learned what happened seven hours earlier. I had my first post-Marine Corps job – as a sports reporter at the New Bern Sun Journal. I worked the night before and didn’t get home until 1 a.m. I got up the next morning around 7 to get the kids off to school, then went back to bed. I woke up around noon, made coffee and ate some cereal at the kitchen table while reading that day’s Sun Journal. Nobody had called or texted. I didn’t have a smart phone and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist. I did not turn on the TV or the radio. I was enjoying a quiet afternoon before I had to go to work.

After going through the paper, and making sure the sports section didn’t have any typos, I read a book for about an hour and then got ready for work. I don’t remember if there were any typos or what book I read. Those details were soon lost once I learned of the day’s news. When I got in my car and turned the ignition key, the radio came on immediately. A Nirvana song was playing on the local alternative rock station – which one, I don’t recall. The song ended and another one began.

Then the DJ cracked his mic, “In light of today’s events,” he began.

“Today’s events? What happened?” I said aloud to myself.

My question wasn’t answered before a new song filled my car’s speakers. I began flipping to other stations – “What the hell happened?” – I said again. FM – nothing but commercials or songs. I switched to AM and landed on a news station. That’s when I heard. I nearly drove off the road. I was stunned, angered and saddened. I was just seven months removed from the Marine Corps and had thoughts of re-enlisting even though I knew I had fulfilled my eight years of obligatory military service – all active duty. My feelings were not unique and there were many recently separated Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen who returned to the military. Some who had never before served soon found themselves at their local recruiting station.

When I walked into the newsroom, every eye ball was fixed on the handful of televisions in the office. The sports department had its own TV, which was mounted on a back wall. There were four desks in the Sun Journal sports department and, in order to get to mine, I had to wiggle my way through the group of people gathered in front of the TV. Once I set my bag down, I joined them. I had yet to actually see what happened. The sports TV was tuned into CNN. Footage of the attack from WABC in New York was re-aired. My mouth dropped. Tears began to form. I sat down in my chair and cried. Images of the damage at the Pentagon and the downed plane in Pennsylvania were shown. It was 4 p.m. by now and I was seeing everything for the first time.

My mind leapt to Gunnery Sergeant Ricky Heyward, who was my boss at Camp Lejeune before he was sent to work at the Pentagon. I called around and learned he was OK. Gunny Heyward had been very good to me and I was relieved to learn he was unharmed. I stayed on the phone, either making or receiving calls about that day’s scheduled sporting events – all of which were now canceled. Most would be rescheduled, though nobody was concerned with the dates.

Patti was also driving to work when she heard the news. Only she was hearing it in real time. She spent much of that day with her co-workers at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis clustered around the breakroom television.

One of the memorial pools at the 9/11 Memorial

Every emotion we felt that day came flooding back when we entered the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Manhattan on May 1, 2018. A week earlier, Patti and I had visited the two reflecting pools located where the Twin Towers had once stood. The North and South pools are recessed and water cascades over the coated granite walls into the basin before spilling into a deep hole at the center. The two waterfalls are the largest man-made falls in the United States.

The names of every victim are listed on bronze parapets surrounding each pool. Flowers had been placed near some of the names – presumably by loved ones. A forest of more than 400 swamp white oaks fill the plaza. The one exception is a callery pear tree, planted in the 1970s. It was badly burned and had just one living branch following the 2001 attacks, but was replanted and now stands tall as a symbol of hope and rebirth. “The Survivor Tree” had grown from eight feet in 2001 to over 30 feet in 2018.

One World Trade Center, aka Freedom Tower

Patti and I visited the pools at night, taking the subway in from Jersey City. It was only two stops away. The museum was closed, but the plaza is always open to those who want to pay their respects to those lost. The buzz of the city seems to disappear in this solemn place. The new One World Trade Center towers over Memorial Plaza. Also called Freedom Tower, it is the tallest building in the United States at 1,792 feet. We didn’t make it to the observation deck on the 102nd floor (of 104). Gazing up, the tower’s illuminated spire set against a starry backdrop seems to touch the clouds.

This was our first night in Manhattan and we wanted to explore the area. A permanent barricade next to a security booth limits traffic to One World Trade Center. The other World Trade Center buildings create a boundary for the plaza and museum. The white Oculus PATH station spreads its wings in the northeast corner of the plaza. Centered in the station’s roof is a giant skylight that runs the length of the building. A steady stream of passengers enter and exit through the street-level doors day and night.

The Oculus PATH terminal behind one of the 9/11 Memorial pools.

A few hundred yards to the south, past 3 and 4 World Trade Center, is the FDNY Memorial Wall along Greenwich Street. The wall, which was dedicated in 2006, honors the 343 firefighters who lost their lives trying to save people from wreckage of the fallen towers. We slowly walked by, examining the bronze frieze, which is cleaned regularly. Across the street was a bar we were told is a popular hangout for police and firefighters. We spent over an hour walking around Memorial Plaza and the World Trade Center complex. It was approaching 8 p.m. and our stomachs were reminding us that we had not yet eaten dinner. Steve’s Pizza was a couple blocks away and did the trick. We grabbed a couple of first New York Style slices – one of which, of course, was just cheese and pepperoni – and stood at one of the high-top table to eat. Steve’s is a small, counter shop that shares the space with a sandwich shop. Eating gave us time to sort of process our initial visit to the World Trade Center. Our hunger satisfied, we then took the subway to see the Empire State Building – we did go to the observation deck there. One World Trade stands out among the Manhattan skyscrapers.

It was daylight when we returned to Memorial Plaza on May 1. We walked from Battery Park after taking the ferry from Liberty Island. Our day began back at Liberty Harbor, where we had stayed for three nights beginning April 23.

May Day would be spent as New York City tourists, beginning with Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. We had originally planned on taking the Liberty Harbor cruise during our stay in Jersey City, but didn’t have enough time. The cruise terminal in Liberty State Park was walking distance from the RV park. We did walk over there with Holmes early one evening.

There isn’t enough time and/or money to see everything New York has to offer in just a few days or even a month. It’s the city that never sleeps and, whether it’s shopping at Times Square, going to a baseball game, visiting Central Park and the multitude of museums there, the Central Park and Bronx zoos, going to see a Broadway show, or simply wandering through a neighborhood to sample some local cuisine, New York is fantastic. The City Pass is a great way to see many sights for a discounted fee, and bypass some lines.

Just don’t drive. Use the subway and you’ll be much happier. That is, unless you’re trying to get back from a night game and they’re doing some work on the track line you need.

Patti took this Tuesday off from work and we still nearly ran out of time to do everything we had planned before we heading to Queens to see the Braves beat the Mets at Citi Field. Liberty Harbor would be followed by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and the Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Met before the Mets.

The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island form the Statue of Liberty National Monument. The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration is in the main building of what was once the hub for migration to the United States. Here those hoping to live the American dream were screened for illnesses and other eugenics principles. The screening process was sometimes cruel, but an estimated 12 million people passed through Ellis Island and eventually found roots in the U.S. Ferries from Liberty State Park and Battery Park in Manhattan drop you off right in front of the main building. Glass panes atop a steel frame cover the ramps leading to the center doors.

Inside the lobby are various interactive exhibits and informative displays. But the second floor is the location most visitors seek. This is home to the Registry Room – or Great Hall. A third of the current U.S. population can trace their roots back to this rectangular room, where hundreds of people stood in line every day waiting to speak with immigration officials and doctors. Encircling the room, which is 200 feet long and 102 feet wide, is a balcony that is popular today for tourists to better appreciate the magnitude of the space. Each level has various side rooms, many of which are open to the public. Old photos of how the hall appeared when full of families awaiting entry to the U.S. are at either end of the balcony. Even today as tourists wander about, noise carries well under the high, vaulted ceiling. It was even worse when in use as an immigration center was often a loud, confusing and frightening place.

Back on the first floor is a room where you can search for ancestors who were processed at Ellis Island. Outside is the Immigrant Wall of Honor, a permanent exhibit that contains over 700,000 names. Visitors scan the wall looking for either names of their ancestors or simply their surname. We found several Wright and Clements, but only one Cavadini – my maternal grandmother’s maiden name.

An entire day could be spent at Ellis Island, but we didn’t have an entire day. We were back on the ferry in less than an hour for a short ride to Liberty Island. The ferry takes you to the opposite side of the Statue of Liberty, giving riders an all-sides view of Lady Liberty as she strikes her impressive pose over the Upper New York Bay. We really wanted to get tickets for the crown, but those have to be purchased months in advance. The same is true for tickets to enter the statue’s pedestal. Our visit to Liberty Island would be restricted to the island itself.

When we got off the ferry, a line had quickly formed at the Crown Café. We weren’t interested in dining on the island. We walked at a brisk pace past the café and made our way to the front of the statue. We stopped a few times along the railed sidewalk to get a few photos. One of the many birds gathered on the island’s rocky seawall had a fresh catch in its bill.

As you face Lady Liberty, the Manhattan skyline is in the background. It really is quite stunning to see the 150-foot statue up close. We had viewed it from Liberty State Park on our walk with Holmes a week earlier, but now we were right there. Her right arm extended above her head with the torch lighting the way to the American Dream. There were so many people from around the world joining us in our admiration. I took photos of people from Vietnam and France. They, in turn, snapped a couple photos of us. Some selfies were also taken because we finished our lap around the statue. An image of “The New Colossus” sonnet inside the pedestal is displayed in the causeway behind the statue.

“‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’” cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”

Instead of taking the ferry back to Jersey, we hopped on the Battery Park ferry to Manhattan. The World Trade Center site was our next stop and was a short walk away.

The two trident columns at the entrance to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

As soon as we entered the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and passed the last remaining trident support columns of the old World Trade Center, we were humbled. Just as it was on September 11, 2001, the sky was a clear blue. Sunshine gleamed off the windows of the new One World Trade Center as we took an escalator down to the museum’s main floor.

The recessed lobby is below ground level. A pair of reception desks are at the bottom of the escalators. A coat room and the restrooms are around the corner. Continue walking straight from the escalators and you find yourself in a hallway filled with voices. The words you hear are not of tourists, but the real-life voices of the victims’ families. Some tears were shed as we walked through the wood-floor corridor. Photos of the Twin Towers before and after the attacks are displayed side by side. Graffiti painted as tributes to first responders is prevalent on much of the debris inside the museum. One column in particular honors the 37 officers from the Port Authority Police Department and the 343 New York City firefighters who lost their lives that day. More could have died had the slurry wall collapsed. That wall, which reinforced the soft earth near the Hudson River, prevented a mass flooding in Manhattan. It is still intact and lures most museum visitors, including us.

The victims’ flag.

We spent two hours inside the museum that occupies what was once the foundation for the World Trade Center towers. As the path takes you deeper, you walk past an American flag created from pictures of each victim’s face. Across from the flag is a mangled iron beam from the South Tower. A portion of the antenna atop the North Tower is on display nearby. You can see the Vesey Street stairs, where hundreds of people escaped death by fleeing the building. The steps are now known as the “Survivors’ Stairs.”

But the one exhibit that stopped each of us in our tracks was a mangled FDNY truck. Patti immediately thought of her nephew, Kristopher, who is a fire chief in Illinois.

FDNY Ladder 3

“It took my breath away. It was overwhelming,” she later said. “That was so emotional, especially when I thought of Kris.”

The truck from FDNY’s Ladder Company 3 is in the bottom level of the museum and is one of the last things you’ll see before the exit. Eleven of the company’s firefighters were lost that day after leaving JFK Airport to respond to the North Tower. Most of the firemen killed were last known to be on the 35th floor when the building came down. The truck was parked on West Street and the rear of the vehicle took the brunt of the damage. The ladder was folded over a disintegrated back end. The rear wheels were gone. The front tires were shredded. Open storage compartment doors were charred. The cab was crushed. But the yellow block letters and white numeral that spell out “LADDER 3” on the side of the telescopic ladder are still clear, as is the image of the soaring bald eagle to the left of the “L” in “LADDER.” The truck was lowered into the museum in 2011 and represents all of the FDNY casualties.

There really aren’t any words or photos that can do the 9/11 Memorial and Museum justice. We would like to return and spend more than just a couple of hours there, but our schedule this day was tight. We were in a rush to get to the Met before it closed at 5:30. We should have had an hour at the Met. We had 15 minutes.

Home Run On Wheels, Home Run On Wheels

Trace the footsteps of Ron and Patti as they traveled in their RV to all 30 MLB stadiums in 2018. Along the way, they wrote stadium reviews, talked about food, baseball and life in an RV, and how you can help a child in need.
There were also podcast interviews with MLB players, musicians and people involved with foster care.

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