Image: Construction at WTC site
Seth Wenig  /  AP file
A 70-ton perimeter column for One World Trade Center is lowered into place at ground zero in New York earlier this month.
updated 8/19/2009 11:59:00 AM ET 2009-08-19T15:59:00

Tourists coming to ground zero to see the Sept. 11 memorial often peer through a fenced-off construction site for a glimpse and ask street vendors when it will be built.

It will be at least two years before the memorial to the 2001 terrorist attacks opens to the public. But in an old camera shop northeast of the World Trade Center site, visitors will be able to watch live video of the construction, record their 9/11 memories and even leave with a souvenir.

The foundation that will run the finished memorial and museum built the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, hoping to attract the hundreds of thousands of tourists a year who come to ground zero looking for a 9/11 story and finding a giant construction site. The Tribute WTC Visitor Center, a small gallery on the south side of the site, charges $10 admission and says it brings in 300,000 tourists a year.

It won't cost anything to get into the preview site, although the foundation will sell memorabilia, including 9/11 memorial pins, books and DVDs, to raise money for the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

The foundation also wants to present an alternative to stories tourists hear on the street about the plans for the site, president Joseph Daniels said.

"Every single day, I'm walking by these guys who are selling the flip books to tourists," Daniels said. "These tourists are asking questions about what's getting built. ... We see a tremendous interest in what's happening here."

The 3,000-square-foot (280-sq. meter) space will feature models and renderings of "Reflecting Absence," the design for twin reflecting pools with cascading waterfalls where the trade center towers had stood, surrounded by nearly 3,000 victims' names.

Live webcam video of the construction will be displayed on a giant screen. In a recording booth, visitors will be able to speak for 3 minutes about where they were, and what they remember of Sept. 11, 2001. The recordings — visitors can share their stories in any language — will enter the permanent collection of the 9/11 museum and become part of an introductory exhibit.

Laurie Arrow, an Auckland, New Zealand, tourist who peered into the site on Liberty Street, said he'd like to record his 9/11 story.

"I was due to fly to America the day after," he said. "It never happened."

Arrow was surprised to see the level of construction activity at the site. "There's quite a lot of activity going on."

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Builders say the first skyscraper will be completed by 2013; a transit hub, the memorial and a second tower are under construction.

Although the site will focus on the memorial plans, there will be renderings of the office towers and transit hub as well. A few pieces from the museum's permanent collection also will be on display, including a 7-foot (2.13-meter) Statue of Liberty covered with photos, dried flowers and 9/11 condolence cards that stood for months outside a midtown Manhattan firehouse after the attacks.

The Starr International Foundation, a Swiss charity that has donated $1 million previously to the foundation, donated $600,000 to build the preview site.

More than $350 million has been raised privately for the 8-acre memorial, which would set the waterfall-filled pools in a cobblestoned, tree-covered plaza.

Builders said the memorial will open to the public on the attacks' 10th anniversary, although some parts of the aboveground plaza won't be finished. The museum, being built underneath the memorial, is slated to open a year later.

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