This is going to be a difficult one to write considering it’s such a sensitive subject, but I feel like my experience at the 9/11 Memorial is an important one to share for that exact reason.
I’m not here to give you a retelling of the tragedy that unfolded 16 years ago – we all know the story. We all know how many people were killed, how many lives were affected, and how many are still feeling the pain even to this day.
Heck, it’s such a major event in history that for those of us old enough to remember, the most common question asked is still “What were you doing when the Twin Towers fell?”. For me? I was awoken by the sound of the news just after the 2nd aircraft hit. It’s a memory, like for so many of us, that will never be forgotten. So why on earth would anyone ever want to visit a place that’s associated with so much heartbreak?
To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to at all. Other than the months I’d spent down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, as an Australian, visiting the 9/11 Memorial was never on my to-do list. I don’t know if that makes me sound cold-hearted, but I can assure you, it’s not that I didn’t care. It was more that I felt completely disconnected to what had occurred, other than the general feeling of sadness that any normal person would feel. To be fair, I was just a kid when it happened – 8 years old, to be exact. I didn’t understand the concept of terrorism then, and if it weren’t for some rather intense classes associated with my University degree, I’m not sure that I would now.
So, my mind was made up from the beginning that during my very limited time in New York City, I would not be trekking all the way out to Lower Manhattan just to walk around feigning an emotional connection like some stranger crashing a funeral. There would be actual people there mourning a tragic and personal loss, what gives me the right to stand beside them? But then I did go. And I don’t regret it for a second.
I was there exactly a year ago now, just a day or two after the 15th anniversary of the attack. My friends and I decided on a whim that it would be a good idea to pre-book tickets for the One World Trade observation deck for some unbeatable views of the City. Despite an anxiety-inducing mistake on our first and only attempt at Subway travel, lots of swearing under our breath, and an angry Security Guard yelling at us for trying to enter the wrong door, we made it just in time for our allocated time slot to head up to the top of the Freedom Tower. Cue the Hagrid ‘Stick to your ticket’ voice over. It is important. Stick to your ticket.
We’d been to many an observation deck before, so we all knew the drill – waiting in line for a long and boring elevator ride, followed by elbowing your way to the front for a few quick photos before being groaned at to move out of the way. But that didn’t happen there at all. The wait in line was informative and interactive, the elevator ride was a breathtaking (literally) 60 second shoot to the 100th floor, and viewings are staggered so that there should never be ‘too many’ people up there at once. Not to mention, the 360 degree floor-to-ceiling views were just downright bloody gorgeous.
But of course, there was still a general vibe there that was hard to ignore. Nobody was talking, and I mean nobody. Aside from a few whispered comments about the stunning skyline, you could hear a pin drop up there. I even found myself just staring out the window once or twice, contemplating life and morbidly wondering what it would have been like there 15 years ago – what it would have been like to get that phone call, or to be running down the street in disbelief and confusion over what had just happened. I found myself crying. Yep, single tear down the cheek, stifling sniffles and snot so my friends wouldn’t hear me – crying. It was overwhelming and a little bizarre.
Why was I reacting this way when I’d been so positive for so long that none of it would affect me? I mean, I’d heard from friends and family who had gone to the memorial before that it was an emotional and moving experience, but I didn’t believe them. I should have.
After maybe an hour or so of sombrely walking around at the observation deck and grabbing a quick bite to eat from the café, we headed back down towards the actual memorial itself. For those who haven’t been before, the footprints of the towers have been replaced by reflecting pools nearly an acre in size, surrounded by engravings of the names of every single person who died in the attacks. It’s a powerful reminder of the incredible loss of life, and awe inspiring work of the rescue personnel who tragically lost their lives helping others.
It was then that it finally hit me… everyone wasn’t just being quiet. Everyone was actually, legitimately speechless. There’s just nothing you can say in that moment that could possibly do justice to the event. Nothing can make it better, or make it go away, or make it all make sense. I’m struggling even now! But it’s also so much more than that. I always thought I wouldn’t feel a connection to the memorial because I’m not American, but I was forgetting that simply being human transcends country and race. It wasn’t loss of American life, it was loss of HUMAN life. And that realisation hit me hard.
So, if you’re not a U.S citizen and you’re second guessing whether it’s worth your time to pay the 9/11 memorial a visit – just do yourself a favour and go. It’s a beautiful and respectful commemoration of what the human race is really capable of, both good and bad. And most of all, it’s living proof that even when tragedy strikes, us humans are a damn resilient bunch. We can recover, we can rebuild, and we’re all in it together.
I think everyone needs a reminder of that every now and then.
Our thoughts go out to everyone affected by 9/11 today (and always).