On Sept. 11, 2001, we Midwesterners shared in our nation's grief and horror during that day's terror attacks. We were shocked, scared and mad.
But a television screen provided some emotional distance when we watched the World Trade Center towers crumble that day, and later when we saw the recovery workers find bodies, or nothing at all. We couldn't appreciate how it felt, on a gut level, to witness these events.
However, a little museum in a Manhattan loft gives visitors a good idea.
In the 1,100-square-foot Ground Zero Museum Workshop in the Meatpacking District, more than 80 poignant photos, numerous artifacts and video from the World Trade Center site document the recovery efforts and attack's aftermath.
The images, some of which are posted on the museum's website (www.groundzeromuseumworkshop.com) are chilling in their simplicity and emotional impact: A senior firefighter looks for his missing firefighter son. Recovery workers carry the flag-draped remains of a peer. A child's soft teddy bear sits expressionless on an exposed beam. A weary firefighter kneels in the rubble with a look of disbelief.
The images were taken by Gary Marlon Suson, an actor and playwright who started photographing the events at Ground Zero on 9/11. Three months later he was named the Official Photographer at Ground Zero - a volunteer position - by the Uniformed Firefighters Association & Uniformed Fire Officers Association of New York's fire department.
He was given access to all areas at the site and worked there six days a week, 17 hours a day, according to the museum website. There were caveats: Suson couldn't photograph human remains, he couldn't release any images until the recovery was finished and he had to give some of his future earnings from the work to 9/11 charities.
Suson saw it all, from nights when he was there alone in the early morning hours to days when the alert sounded, notifying busy workers that remains had been found and work had to stop out of respect. He even climbed 100 feet down to the lowest level at the World Trade Center site and walked on the last subway car that entered the station before the attack. Although officials said no one died down there, he found otherwise.
His images tell the stories.
"They've done everything possible to present the horror without showing anything graphic; no corpses are portrayed," says Amy Green of Springfield. She and three friends from this area visited the museum last fall. "It was incredibly moving, almost too much."
While the museum says its intent "is not to be a harrowing experience," but "a beautiful and touching way to remember the fallen and those that struggled to recover them," Green and her friends had both reactions.
"It made me nauseated, and I had to leave because I had such a visceral reaction to the destruction and evil and the pain (the attack) caused. I couldn't bear it," Green says.
"It was very solemn. I walked in and took a deep breath," says Julie Croak of Chatham. Her father had been a fire department battalion chief, so the experience "hit close to home."
She was the one who recommended the women visit the museum.
"I wanted to see this because I know how I felt the day it happened ... Everything changed, how I felt changed about living here and taking things for granted."
Croak got "teary-eyed," but did not have to leave the museum like Green and another friend. Instead, she wanted to stay longer. She took photos of Suson's images (which is permitted) and has some displayed in a special room in her house where she also keeps her father's firefighting gear.
"I went to Pearl Harbor, and it was the same feeling," says Cindy Moreno of Springfield.
Tears ran down her cheek as she described some of the photos she saw.
Suson was at the Museum when the women visited, and they had a chance to talk to him. Moreno says he told them he was inspired to create this museum by a 2004 visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. (The Ground Zero Museum Workshop opened in July 2005.) She asked him how he chose which images to display, and "he said he wanted to select photos with extraordinary stories, either of courage, brotherhood or contrast. I think he accomplished that."
"There were so many personal stories that grabbed your heart and wrenched it," Green adds. An audio tour explains the images and artifacts as you view them.
"The story that most moved me was of two brothers who spent nine months digging and never found a trace of their brother, and one got throat cancer" from the insidious dust.
The museum refers to itself as a "workshop" because it has artifacts you can handle. Suson retrieved them, with permission, from Ground Zero debris that was headed for the landfill, according to the website.
He stored them for years, not sure what to do with them.
One that particularly touched Green was a small pile of dust, maybe a cup's worth, she estimates. "(After the attacks) everything vaporized in the heat and collapse, and what was left was dust. That dust killed all of the search dogs (who worked at Ground Zero) and a lot of the recovery workers."
Yet some items were unharmed. One is a clock that stopped at 10:02 a.m. that morning and now hangs on a wall of the Museum. "It was random how some things were intact and others were pulverized; that added to the unease of it," says Patsy Wappel, another Springfieldian in the group.
She said Suson told the women he has a lot of other items and might get a bigger space for the museum.
While Wappel says she's glad she saw the museum and would recommend it, she wouldn't visit it again. Like Green, she had to leave after a while.
"I started to get physically ill," she says.
Nonetheless, she says the images and stories are "important for people to see and hear, especially for those who weren't old enough to remember 9/11." Still, the women advise not taking anyone younger than 13 years old because of the emotional intensity of the experience.
Want to go?
The Ground Zero Museum Workshop is located at 420 W. 14th St., second floor, (between Ninth Avenue and Washington Street) in Manhattan.
It is open every day but Wednesday. Tours are given at specific times, are limited to 25 people and last from one and a half to two hours. Tickets must be purchased in advance.
Direct family members of 9/11 victims can arrange for private tours, which are free for them.
Admission is $25 for adults and $19 for seniors and children 12 and younger. (The women interviewed for this article recommend that parents not take children 12 or younger.) Portions of the ticket sales go to the New York fire department and 9/11 charities that are listed on the Museum's website.
For more information, visit: www.groundzeromuseumworkshop.com. You can see images from the museum and learn more about the museum and Suson.
Story published Friday, September 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 5 )