For 13 years, the streets around the World Trade Center have been surrounded with chain-link fences. Those fences come down on Thursday, opening up the area where more than one million visitors have already visited the footprints of the twin towers — waterfalls ensconced where the two buildings once stood.
After years of delays and financial woes, the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum opens its doors to the public on May 21, offering access to artifacts, images and documented memories of the attacks that killed 2,983 people.
The day before President Barack Obama visits the site for its dedication, city leaders and family members gathered at the museum to preview its grand opening.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was elected to his first term weeks after the attacks, called the completion of the $700 million memorial project a reminder for the city, country and world alike.
"It will help ensure that all future generations know what happened on that day and why it happened, so they will never again allow the country to ignore those who wish to destroy us," he said as the sound of power tools and hammers filled the building.
Come next Wednesday, visitors can access the museum with a $24 ticket. Bloomberg also announced that a donation from the Helmsley Charitable Trust will ensure New York State school groups can access the museum for free for two years.
The museum's primary exhibition spaces are buried 700 feet below streets-level, housing some 110,000 square feet that 9/11 Memorial CEO and President Joe Daniels described as a "living testament to our nation's resiliency."
Architects and curators designed the space so that it would tell not only the events of Sept. 11 but also the personal stories of those who died and survived the attacks. Timelines of events guide visitors through the days before and after the day the towers fell.
Boxes of tissues are spread throughout the exhibit, and designated exits allow visitors to step into a broad hall boarded by the concrete walls that reinforced the towers' infrastructure.
Witnesses and family members alike donated much of the content within the museum, capturing stories of survivors and loved ones lost after the terrorist attacks.
The underground facilities also includes a private, city-managed repository for the 7,930 unidentified fragmentary remains of 9/11 victims — an idea that unsettled a group of family members upset about decision to place the remains in the museum instead of a tomb.
However, there were some family members who call the move appropriate. Charles G. Wolf lost his wife Katherine only two weeks after she started a job at WTC's South Tower.
While there were no remains of his wife, Wolf — who participated in the museum's family advisory council— said that the idea to place the unidentified human remains at the site of the attack was not the museum’s but the families.
"This was our idea," he said. "So anyone who tries to tell you that we weren't consulted is wrong."
Ahead of the museum's opening, critics also voiced concern over the content of one section of the exhibit detailing the rise of terrorist group al-Qaeda.
Specifically, Muslim leaders are worried that a seven-minute video detailing how al-Qaeda came to be, might not properly distance the faith from an extremist few.
Paula Grant Berry, also a member of the family advisory council, said that the museum reached out to scholars and experts to make sure the video underwent careful consideration.
"We in no way want to convey that the perpetrators were anything but extreme fundamentalist and not in any way representative of an enormous religion in this world," Berry explained.
Despite the complications, the now-complete memorial represents a feat Bloomberg praised as the culmination of more than a decade's worth of thought and work.
"It's a solemn day," he said, "but it's also a day that should put, if not smiles on our faces, satisfaction in our hearts."
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