Do you ever step outside into a beautiful morning, look up and think, “That’s a 9/11 sky? I do. It was an endless blue with a hint of green, the air was dry and warm and slightly crisp. It was a summer sky, mixing with fall air. It was the most beautiful a day could be on a late summer morning, on any morning, really. The New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, described it as a crystalline sky, a gorgeous blue fall day, the brilliance of a late summer morning. Michael Lomonaco, head chef of Windows on the World, who luckily was late for work on 9/11, commented that it was a clear, blue sky, and would have been a perfect day at the restaurant.
I thought I remembered the color of that sky until I saw Spencer Finch’s piece Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, which is an installation at National September 11 Memorial & Museum. It is made up of 2,943 pieces of paper, painted the color of the sky on that day, which meteorologists would call severe clear. One page for each person killed in the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Like the “Where were you when JFK died?” People remember the sky.
I have never been to a memorial museum that wasn’t about events before my time. I recently visited the fabulous National WWII Museum in New Orleans. I learned a lot but had none of my own knowledge or experience to add to my visit. I was a repository for the museum’s information. When 9/11 happened, I was living in New Jersey, a young wife with three little kids. I was born in New York and my dad worked on John Street from the 1970s until the 1990’s. I worked for him throughout college and often made the commute through the World Trade Center. I dined in Windows on the World. I think the museum does a beautiful job of displaying the artifacts. The fountains are spectacular, especially at night; they look like liquid silver. I noticed a white rose next to someone’s name and later found out that the museum places a fresh flower on each person’s birthday.
The part of the exhibit that is alleged to be upsetting is not bad. I wish they made it more disturbing so that people can really experience the horror of that day. Would that build empathy and prevent another attack? I don’t know. I think the powerful images of the rows and rows of empty cots, waiting for wounded who never arrived, the unclaimed cars at the train stations, and the people falling to their deaths, tells us the horror of that day. I felt that the small video screens were trying to protect the viewer. Why? I would have put the video and photographs on larger-than-life size screens. When you don’t allow people the opportunity to see the results of a horrible event like 9/11, Sandy Hook, or our soldiers coming home from Iraq in body bags, then you take away their opportunity to know what really happened. The recent image of Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on the beach in Turkey, wearing his little sneakers, may well galvanize the world to do something about the Syrian refugee crisis.
I did not have a television on September 11th, so I saw virtually no live coverage of the attacks but I did read all the newspapers. I saved The New York Times from September 12th to the 14th. I have never looked at them again until this week, when I reread all of the articles. I was searching for an image that has haunted me for fourteen years. It is a Pulitzer prize-winning photo by Brian Manning for The New York Times and appeared in the Thursday, September 13th edition. My memory of it was of a man in a polo shirt and khakis standing in a gaping whole in the side of what I think is the north tower, the fire raging up and to the left of him. I remember thinking, “He is someone’s dad.” He looked like he could’ve been my dad, who had died three years previously. That personal connection is what makes us respond so strongly to images created by photographers.
I found the photo in my old papers and it was different than I remembered. It is still as disturbing and as powerful but I added my memory of the day to the photo, juxtaposing a man seemingly casually standing on the side of the building, that blue sky next to the building, him waiting to be saved. Perhaps, thankfully, no one had a telephoto lens powerful enough to capture the anguish, fear, terror and pain that those waiting, falling and jumping must have felt. And I’m sure lone man hoped to get rescued, certainly no one thought those towers would fall.
The 9/11 Memorial is spectacular and beautiful and a living memorial and tribute to those who died, those who worked to rescue, those who lost loved ones and those who participated in the search for bodies. If you are visiting NYC, I would definitely recommend that you go to the museum. My family and I went this year. We did not do the audio tour but did go to the short video with interviews with George Bush, Condi Rice, the Fire Chief and Rudi Giuliani. Conspicuously absent are Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The one comment that stuck with me from this presentation that brought home the horror of that day was a remark by Rudy Giuliani, which I was surprised wasn’t edited.
He talked about seeing a person jump. The jumpers or fallers have caused the rest of us much anguish. Why would they choose suicide? They didn’t. They were forced. Many find comfort in saying they fell. Some did but about 200 people jumped, mostly alone. In 2002 Erich Fischl’s Tumbling Woman, a memorial for those who died in this manner was installed in the lobby of Rockefeller Center. It was promptly removed when there was public outcry against it. At the 9/11 Museum there is a small alcove dedicated to the more than 200 jumpers or fallers. It was tucked away so well that I missed it on my visit. I’ve since watched a 9/11 documentary where you hear the thump, thump, thump of bodies falling. I’ve seen the gruesome pictures and watched anguished interviews with family members. These people didn’t have a choice. I cannot imagine the fear, the heat and the pain, that forced these people to courageously step, into that sky.
The beauty of the 9/11 Museum is that it is a living memorial. The people who volunteer there have a connection to that day. After the short film there is a question and answer session with two people directly affected by the events of 9/11. We heard a firefighter and the widow of another firefighter speak. We learned some interesting things about 9/11. Did you know that one firefighter a week has died because of health problems since 2001? That was shocking to me but with 2500 ground zero workers who currently have cancer, I think his estimate maybe low.
Not only is the 9/11 museum a memorial, it is also a burial ground. Under the current plan, 8,354 unidentified human remains are currently stored in a repository, controlled by the city’s chief medical examiner, adjoining the underground museum. The repository will not be open or visible to the public. The remains will be kept there permanently or until new forensic technologies permit them to be linked to individuals who died in the attacks.
Do you remember the color of the sky on that day fourteen years ago?
Kathleen Thometz is an artist, freelance writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a mobile art program. She has one husband, four children and three doodle dogs, Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. She blogs at kathleenthometz.com and has contributed to the mid.