On a sundrenched afternoon in August, a group of tourists from Asia, Europe, and the United States stood in silence before a bronze mural that honors the 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Finally, their guide to the World Trade Center addressed the crowd.
“I have a friend up there on the wall," said the guide, Peter Tomolonis. Then he asked if there were any questions.
Mr. Tomolonis, who worked in the north tower for nearly 30 years, is a volunteer tour guide at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center. Originally intended as an interim destination for ground zero visitors while the official memorial was under construction, the center now plans to remain open even after the National September 11 Memorial launches this month.
During the past five years, the Tribute Center – with its galleries full of World Trade Center films and artifacts, and its guided site tours – has catered to the two crowds most drawn to ground zero: visitors who want to learn more about 9/11, and natives with intimate stories of the day’s events, which they long to share.
In 2004, a group representing the relatives of firefighters who died on 9/11, the September 11th Families’ Association, moved into a building that overlooks the World Trade Center site. Through an office window, Lee Ielpi, a co-founder of the group, noticed a daily stream of visitors wandering around the fenced-off perimeter.
[ Video is no longer available. ]
“People were here by the thousands,” says Mr. Ielpi, but, “there was nobody here to explain anything to anyone.”
To fill that void, the group decided to lease a store front across the street from ground zero and transform the space into a visitor center.
Over the following 2-1/2 years, the center interviewed hundreds of 9/11 survivors, responders, and victims’ families to produce text and films for its galleries. Construction costs for the center and its exhibits were around $5 million, which was funded by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
In September 2006, the center opened to the public. Since then, more than 2.5 million visitors from more than 130 countries have taken the center’s WTC site tours or passed through its five galleries.
Galleries include audio recordings of firefighters as they communicated calmly from inside the burning buildings, as well as photos of victims interspersed with small mementos – a trophy, a mug, a child’s letter to her mother. Chains of 10,000 paper cranes dangle above a stairwell, gifts from high school students in Hiroshima, Japan.
The guided ground zero tours are led by pairs of volunteers – nearly 500 individuals have been trained – who experienced the events of 9/11 firsthand, as emergency responders, office workers, downtown residents, rescue and cleanup volunteers, or parents.
The idea behind the tours – and the entire center – is that the story of 9/11 is best told by those who survived it.
“This is one of the most historic places in America, and we are the living history,” says Jennifer Adams, the Tribute Center CEO who volunteered at ground zero for several months during the recovery period.
“It’s like sitting down with Thomas Jefferson,” says Ms. Adams, “and saying, ‘What really happened?’ ”
On his tour, Tomolonis shared trivia amassed during his 28-year career at the World Trade Center: the twin towers possessed 43,600 windows, 40,000 doors, and 198 elevators. From his offices above the 60th floor, Tomolonis said, he could watch storm clouds rumble outside the windows.
Lila Speciner, who worked in a south tower office for 15 years, helped Tomolonis lead the tour. She described her escape on 9/11, when she clasped a blind woman’s hand as the two fled down 88 floors and outside to safety.
“My recollection was that there was no panic, no hysteria,” Ms. Speciner told the visitors. “Any people who were afraid were comforted by strangers.”
A decade after 9/11, many people still struggle with the psychological aftermath of the attacks. Some have turned to the Tribute Center as a sort of survivors’ clubhouse, says Adams.
“People who live through that sort of trauma have a real kinship to each other,” she says, adding that, “there was no handbook for how to handle this.”
Meanwhile, for many people with only secondhand knowledge of the attacks, memories of that day grow dimmer with each passing Sept. 11. Many young people have no 9/11 memories at all.
The center, she said, made the events of 9/11 “seem more real.”
'Life was never the same'
If the Tribute Center’s first priority is to educate about 9/11, a close second is to foster reflection on the attacks and their aftermath.
The center’s final gallery offers blank reflection cards that invite visitors to consider the impact of 9/11, as well as the positive actions they can take “in the spirit of Tribute.” So far, visitors have filled in over 230,000 cards in 80 languages – hundreds of which have been collected in a new book, “9/11: The World Speaks.”
Throughout July, the center set up outdoor reflection stations in Lower Manhattan where passers-by could write or illustrate their thoughts on 9/11 in preparation for the 10-year anniversary of the attacks. The reflections – about safety, misunderstanding, loss, and renewal – amounted to handmade memorials.
Included on the 200 or so cards were: “More Security,” “Life was never the same again,” “We, Pakistanis, do feel for you,” “New York will prevail – it always does,” and “Just Why?!”
Faced with the enormity of 9/11, reflection for many people cannot be expressed, only felt.
After the tour, Ms. Schartner and her family lingered awhile to chat with the guides. Then Schartner said to Speciner, “Thank you so much for sharing your story.”
“As hard as it is to remember,” Speciner replied, “it’s a pleasure when people care.”