Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Visiting the World Trade Center Memorial


World Trade Center Memorial

I’ve wanted to pay my respects at the World Trade Center Memorial since it opened, but it has eluded me up until now.  Visiting requires booking a visitor pass in advance, and when I had tried, it had been sold out for weeks at a time.

Maybe that was just because it was the summer, or maybe they’ve since made more passes available.  At any rate, when I arrived in New York this February, plenty of passes were available for nearly every time slot.

I met up with my friend Wandering Earl and we went through several levels of security before being admitted to the memorial.  Snowstorm Nemo was scheduled to hit that evening; it was already wildly windy and rainy.

In 2003, a contest was launched for a memorial design at Ground Zero.  More than 5,000 people from all over the world sent submissions.  The winning design, by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, turned the outlines of the Twin Towers into fountains, the water falling into a void.  Names of the victims are embossed on the edges, grouped by where they were on that day.

World Trade Center Memorial

My first thought?  They did a wonderful job.  It couldn’t have been easy to memorialize something so raw, but this memorial hits all the right notes: it’s simple yet powerful, somber, and the size of the fountains underscores the seriousness of the tragedy.  It’s a beautiful memorial — one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Emergency personnel are honored as well.

World Trade Center Memorial

Walking through, Earl and I talked about where we were on 9/11.  Earl happened to be in India.  American tourists there were freaking out, he told me, thinking the airspace over Pakistan and Afghanistan would be closed and they’d be trapped in India for weeks.  Their worries were unfounded.

My own 9/11 story was more conventional, but a bit unusual.

I was 17 and had just begun my senior year of high school.  I remember snippets of that day in vivid detail: how my friend Beth grabbed me in the hall and told me that she had overheard the guidance counselors saying that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

How we spent our entire Field Bio class listening to the radio, everyone afraid to speak as more horrifying details unfolded.

How my heart broke for the family members of the victims, especially those who took desperate phone calls from their loved ones moments before their deaths.

How I was terrified that we would break into war.  Would war come to America?  Would people be attacking us?  Would it get so bad that we’d need a draft?  Could women be drafted?

How Beth, our friend Lisa, and I ran to our fourth period English class and told our friend Alexa.  She didn’t believe us at first.  How the principal got on the intercom at the end of fourth period and announced what had happened.  By then, planes had crashed in New York, in Washington, in Pennsylvania.

World Trade Center Memorial

But as stunned and frightened as I was, it wasn’t enough to pull me away from the drama club.  That day, as the drama club’s vice president, I had volunteered to help out with the male callback auditions for our production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Was my presence there necessary?  Not whatsoever.  All I had to do was press play on a boombox again and again as each of the boys called back for the lead role of Joseph sang sixteen bars of “Close Every Door.”  Why did I do it?  Because every single move I made since the seventh grade was calculated precisely to put myself in the best graces of the director.

We had only one director, and he didn’t just direct productions: he also managed every single aspect of the shows and the drama club itself.  I was one of many drama club members who walked on eggshells around our director with huge smiles on our faces at all times, doing anything and everything we could to paint ourselves into the most positive light possible, hoping that would eventually lead to the ultimate prize: a major role in a production.  And it wasn’t just the students.  You should have seen some of the parents.

So I wouldn’t dream of letting a national tragedy, the single most important news event of my lifetime, pull me away from a chance to be helpful to the director.  I went to the auditions.  I pressed the play button.  Every guy who had earned a callback was there.  Not one of them skipped it.

“Is there anything else you need me to do for you?” I asked our director as we finished up.

“No, Katelyn.  You can go home,” he replied, then half-smiled, half-grimaced.  “It’s an important day in history!”

I walked into my house to find my mom, my dad — home early from work — and my thirteen-year-old sister sitting on the couch motionlessly, watching the news.  The screen was filled with a loop of fiery explosions of the Twin Towers against the bright blue sky.  They didn’t even look up when I walked in.

That’s when it hit me.  This was far more serious than I even imagined.

World Trade Center Memorial

I’ve never written about this before.

I’ve always been deeply ashamed about my behavior on that day — how I couldn’t tear myself away from “helping” at the male callback auditions to go home and be with my family.  I knew that 9/11 was bad — but it wasn’t enough to get me to shake my ridiculous commitment to the drama club for one afternoon.

But I was just a 17-year-old doing what a 17-year-old thought was best.  Even if it was doing nothing but pressing play on a boom box.

Essential Info: The World Trade Center Memorial requires reservations to visit.  You can reserve visitor passes here.  Entry is free, but they request donations.

Reservations can be tough to come by, so try to reserve them as soon as you know when you’ll be in New York.

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37 Responses to “Visiting the World Trade Center Memorial”
  1. Mike C says:

    Hey Kate, great retrospective piece. All I can say is don’t be too hard on yourself. 9/11 was an event that shocked the whole world, if we knew what was to come in the ten or so years that followed I’m sure many of us will have reacted differently. As you say you were 17, you were doing what 17-year-old Kate thought was right.

  2. Edna says:

    You’re not the only one who was doing what they thought best. I was 11 and couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of the event, when my mom told me as we watched the tv, “You’re watching history being made.” Sept 11 was a half-day at our school, which meant I had my school photos taken that morning (the teachers all got an email but weren’t allowed to say anything about it to us), then I got home in time for lunch and went to the big annual county fair that afternoon. To me it was another day in middle school. Anyway, it’s nice to see they’ve done such a quiet but grand tribute with the space in NYC.

    • Interesting that they weren’t allowed to say anything. I remember something similar happening when a guy died who had graduated from my high school a year or two before, and his younger brother was still at the high school. Rumors were flying, the teachers all knew but weren’t allowed to say anything, two guys burst into tears in my math class and my teacher took them out of class and talked to them. A really sad day.

      • Noelle says:

        I was the same age, and our teachers weren’t allowed to tell us either. I grew up only 25 minutes or so from the Pentagon though, so a lot of kids were pulled out of school as parents were scared of where may be targeted next, and some had parents who worked at the Pentagon.

  3. Jack Norell says:

    Don’t worry about your reaction to 9/11. I was working that day, and both me and the people working with me ended up in front of the TV with our jaws on the floor. We all reacted differently and you getting on with your day wasn’t unlike any of the others doing the same. Nothing to be ashamed of at all.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Seventeen year olds are immature and 9/11 was an event far bigger than any child – or teenager – could really fathom. I certainly didn’t understand the magnitude of the first WTC bombing or the Oklahoma City bombings when I was a teenager.

    I was an adult and an adult engaged to someone in the military. It was a scary morning as I was in horror on the tv from our apartment in Las Vegas. I never wanted to let my fiance go to work that day because I was unsure if he’d be a target or even coming home that evening.

  5. I’ll never forget that day. I was on a plane that left Washington National Airport at 8:20am. I was taking my very first business trip to Florida for my very first job out of college. We flew over the Pentagon after taking off thinking that it was just routine flight. Our plane was forced to land in South Carolina where I rented a car in a state of shock and started driving home. Can you believe that I was actually pulled over for speeding near the Virginia border and issued a ticket? That officer was just going about his day, oblivious to my distress, but perhaps trying to forget about his own.

  6. Jen says:

    Thanks for writing this Kate. I, too, beat myself up over my actions that day, also as a 17 year old, high school senior. I remember watching the coverage in my school’s library, being scared and upset, but not fully grasping the magnitude of the events. Our after school activities were all cancelled, so my friend and I decided to go to the mall. When we got there, it was closed, and I remember being irritated. Why on earth would they close the mall?? It was only when I got home that night, and watched the coverage for hours and hours, did I truly understand what had happened. But like you said, we were 17. We were kids. I don’t know if you were in the States during the Newtown, CT shootings, but I was so overtaken with grief and sorrow for those families, and was just so stunned and horrified that I could not tear myself away from it, and I truly did not feel like myself for days after, let alone even crack a smile. That’s the difference between our 17 and 28 year old selves… we’ve grown up (as much as I hate to admit that!) and see the world differently than we did back then, and that’s ok 🙂

  7. Tom Bartel says:

    I was teaching that day and we pretty much stopped and watched the television and discussed how the media were covering it. (I was teaching journalism at the University of Minnesota.) It was a sort of dry discussion, though, as most of us were just sitting there with our mouths open. Don’t beat yourself up. It was too much to process too fast.

  8. Tanya says:

    I remember my brother woke me up and told me what was happening. I was only like 11. I remember watching the news all day that day as a family. It was sad..

  9. yliharma says:

    I was home with my mom (unusual because at the time I lived in another city to go to college) and I remember the tv was on as a background noise, nobody was listening to it.
    Suddenly there was a breaking news announcement, then the images of the World Trade Center showed on the screen…we froze.
    We spent the whole afternoon in front of the tv, crying and worrying, trying to understand what was going on overseas (I’m Italian) and if a world war III was about to come.
    It was too much for anyone to bear and it required hours (days…) to finally understand the meaning of what happened! You were only 17, don’t be ashamed!

  10. Danica says:

    Hi Kate!
    I was just in fourth grade on 9/11, and living in California. I remember being woken up by my little brother who said my parents were sad and acting weird, and I remember watching the TV and being confused. However, as a nine year old little girl, I was much more excited because 9/11 also happened to be the day that our cat had kittens…. I went to school where my class was half empty and spent my day excitedly telling everyone about the fact that i now had a baby kitten! Some days in history are memorable. Everyone can tell you where they were and what they were doing on the day that Kennedy was shot, on the day man first walked on the moon, and on 9/11. Some of us were just to young to grasp that it was a day that would be etched in our memories forever. Don’t be to hard on yourself.

  11. Amanda says:

    I wouldn’t be too hard on yourself, Kate. I don’t think most of us realized at the time how much influence that day would have on the rest of our lives as Americans.

    I visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time back in October (haven’t written about it yet), and agree that it’s one of the best memorials I’ve ever been to. They did an amazing job.

    If you ever go again, I highly recommend paying for a volunteer guide through the WTC Tribute Center. We saw the memorial with 2 volunteers who had been in the South Tower on that day, and it was very moving to hear their stories as we walked around the site. Made it much more real.

    • You know, honestly, as wonderful guides as they are, I wouldn’t have chosen to have a guide that close to the tragedy. I have a limit with 9/11 — I refuse to see movies about it, for example. Too much. (If it were a friend or someone I knew, however, that would be different. Of course I would have listened to them. But I wouldn’t have chosen a guide telling me those stories.)

  12. Antoinette says:

    Just like you, I was a senior in HS, but our school had a clear, unobstructed view of the burning Towers all the way from the Bronx. It’s one of those days no one will never forget; none of us had service on our cellphones. The only thing that worked were the Nextel walkie-talkie’s. The entire subway system, bridges, and tunnels were shut down. We were let out by 10-11am, went home only to find out my cousin died in the Philippines that same day. I was more worried about my sister since she lived in the LES at the time; I later found out they watched everything happen on the rooftop of their building. Tragic tragic tragic. Yet you know what I ended up doing – shopping for back-to-school last minute stuff in the afternoon. Like you said, I only did what a 17-year-old thought was best, and back then, it was shopping.

  13. My story is that I was driving to the store to get the brand new Ben Folds CD (See, a CD was this archaic method of holding music…). I turned on the radio and they were talking about a plane crashing into the pentagon. I hadn’t been to NYC at the time and the pentagon made a much bigger impression on me at first. I couldn’t believe somebody could get to our top place for military intelligence. Once I got home and turned on the television, I understood how serious the twin towers were. To this day, when I hear that album, I still think of 9/11. The chorus of my favorite song on the album was, “You were not the same after that”. Kinda fitting

  14. Sid says:

    No one, not even the president grasped the essence of what was unfolding. Obvious now, years later, even now, uncertainty still exists. For me personally, at 8:05 AM I was taking off next to flight #77, next to flight # 77 in Wasington DC…I was lucky!

  15. Erica says:

    I thought this was a terrible piece: totally pointless and borderline offensive. “So I wouldn’t dream of letting a national tragedy, the single most important news event of my lifetime, pull me away from a chance to be helpful to the director.” You’re not 17 anymore, so why does it sound like you are? Maybe next time stick the topic of visiting the memorial and its impact and leave the anecdotes about drama club nonsense behind.

  16. I’m right there with you. I was 17 and so ticked off that football practice was cancelled, we had a game on Friday! I had not comprehended the magnitude of the event either. The event affected everyone differently. My co-worker was in Spain and everyone said how sorry they were for him. He responded, “Don’t feel sorry for me, feel sorry for the families of the poor people that were jumping out of the windows.”

    Anyway, the memorial looks amazing and I can relate with your post.

  17. Alexa says:

    Erica, I’m confused. Either you didn’t read this part or it was posted later:

    “I’ve always been deeply ashamed about my behavior on that day — how I couldn’t tear myself away from “helping” at the male callback auditions to go home and be with my family. I knew that 9/11 was bad — but it wasn’t enough to get me to shake my ridiculous commitment to the drama club for one afternoon.

    But I was just a 17-year-old doing what a 17-year-old thought was best. Even if it was doing nothing but pressing play on a boom box.”

    Kate is admitting she’s ashamed about the drama club nonsense at age 17.

    Part of every discussion of 9/11 includes people sharing stories of where they were and what they were doing, no matter how stupid or mundane. I think it’s part of a public catharsis of this horrific experience we all watched unfold live or on tv.

    I wrote my own posts on the 10 year anniversary documenting my thoughts, actions, and feelings on the day of 9/11 and the days following so I can remember them forever. They’re insignificant, but I’m glad I wrote them down because even now rereading them there are details I had forgotten.

    There’s just something about grappling with a shared trauma that makes us want to share. (as evidenced by the other people in the comments saying where they were) There’s gotta be some sort of psychological explanation for this.

    • Erica says:

      I realize she made excuses for her 17 year old self, but I still thought it was a horribly written and trite post with little to do with travel, which I thought was the purpose of this blog.

    • I agree with you that this is something that people want to share — I’m surprised by how many people are sharing in the comments.

  18. I was away at my Freshman year of college. I had an early class — I always took early classes so I could be done by early afternoon — so I didn’t even know it was happening until the second tower fell. Honestly? I don’t remember what I did for the rest of the day. I do remember getting into an argument with my roommate from Sri Lanka about her ill-timed comment about how it was a good thing something like this had finally happened in America. Of course, she didn’t mean it was good all of those innocent people had died — but growing up in a country torn by civil wars, she was trying to portray that she thought an event like this would somehow keep America’s youth from distancing themselves from important world events. And I guess, in retrospect, I can see her point.

    I don’t think you should feel ashamed. Like most other people in our country at the time, you were just in denial that something that serious – that huge – could really be happening to us.

  19. John Walsen says:

    Back then i was only 15 years old.I didn’t quite felt it back then i have to admit.But now I realise the grief and the anger that all this tragic incident caused.I hope some day people from all around the world understand that hate generates more hate and we should all contribute to stop that circle of hate or that kind incidents will hapen again and again and again and so on….

  20. Elle Croft says:

    I’ve been to Ground Zero twice since 9/11 but haven’t yet seen the memorial…it looks like it’s really beautifully done though.
    I think everyone will always remember where they were that day, but I don’t think you need to be too hard on yourself. By not going to drama club, the result wouldn’t have been any different…glad you could pay your respects this time around though!

  21. When I went to NY in 2008 they were still building the site, so I have never seen the finished product. I think it looks beautiful. Very serene and the perfect way to remember all of those victims.

  22. I was 16 and on the west coast, so we woke up to the news. I didn’t even get it. It took months to really sink in. Now that I’m older, I’d freak out for sure, but at that age, I was like you – caught up in my little bubble at the time. Such is high school.

  23. zebrafeet says:

    Erica, I really don’t get your comment. History is perspective. I was out of college, having just moved to Colorado the year before from DC. I knew instantly it would be overplayed over and over on tv and opted to remain at work. I knew I couldn’t handle the constant news. It was only when I got home I realized the bone chilling, terrorizing aspect of the day. In some ways, I’m glad I don’t have the video tape of that day in my head. I can’t tell you what project I was working on – I’ve long since forgotten. I can tell you who I was with. Maybe in some sense I hold a bit of guilt for not being one of the millions who watched tv and waited for phone calls – but I don’t regret my choice. The world has borne the scars of the terrorists and the actions since for over a decade. As my friends and I say, do you remember what you were doing before you realized 9/11 was 9/11? Let go of any guilt, Kate. Traveling is the betstway to counter act the hatred that has come to rise post 9/11.

  24. Kristine says:

    I’ve had the SAME exact guilty thought. I was 13 when it happened. I live in a commuter town in NJ and I remember the group of kids standing by the main office waiting to be picked up, crying hysterically. I remember driving home and seeing a bunch of cars pulled over on the hill, watching the smoke of the towers. I remember how the radio station stopped playing music and people called in to check in with their family members. I had totally forgotten about this, but your post made me remember how we were all scared of being drafted, of terrorists bombing our little town.

    But the magnitude of what happened didn’t hit me for a while. What I remember thinking about on 9/11 was how some guy was flirting with me. I just wish I had been older when it happened so I could have helped, because I didn’t do anything. But–as a lot of the commenters have been saying–you were young, we were young, and we didn’t know better.

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  28. I remember the day of the OKC Bombing vividly. At the time, we were living in a small town in Eastern Oklahoma, and I was in fourth grade. On this particular day, as was tradition at my elementary school, all of the 4th graders were reenacting the Oklahoma Land Run. We only found out after lunch that something terrible had happened in Oklahoma City. It’s probably a testament to my love of the news that the first thing I did when I got home was turn on CNN. Even at nine, I felt the enormity of the situation. I know what you mean about trivial events in life on days like this.

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