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First Look: 9/11 Museum to balance grief with remembrance

Visitors to the 9/11 Memorial peer into the atrium of the 9/11 Museum as work continues.John Makely / NBC News

The first thing visitors to the National September 11 Memorial Museum will notice when it opens next year is a pair of striking, iconic emblems of that day – two 80-foot pieces of steel, known as ‘tridents,’ that formed the base of the original World Trade Center, still reddish brown from the fires that burned for 99 days after the attack. The tridents rise into the museum's atrium and appear to lance the sky, framing the memorial plaza outside and the gleaming new skyscrapers that line the parcel of Lower Manhattan formerly known as Ground Zero.

For Joseph Daniels, the chief executive of the memorial and museum foundation, the tridents provide a powerful starting point for an experience that will take visitors 70 feet below street level to the very bedrock to which the original World Trade Center was anchored. “For people to see the tridents contrasted against [One World Trade Center], the tallest building in the country, is for them to remember the past but see the present and what’s been rebuilt, the regrowth of the site,” he said.

NBC News was granted rare access inside the underground museum as construction teams and curatorial staff work to have the installations and exhibitions in place for a spring 2014 opening. Designers were faced with the unique challenge of creating a space intended for remembrance and education while also being cognizant of building on sacred ground, Daniels said. “The emotional complexity of this place is something we are constantly grappling with.”

The "Survivors' Stairs," down which hundreds of people were able to escape from the towers before they collapsed.John Makely / NBC News

Survivors' Stairs

As visitors descend from the memorial hall to bedrock level, they will walk beside the ‘Survivors' Stairs,’ a concrete stairwell that provided a means of escape for hundreds of people fleeing from the burning towers. The stairs, which led from the World Trade Center plaza to an adjoining street, remained intact after the towers' collapse and will guide museum visitors to the major exhibits. The staircase is particularly striking, Daniels said, because it is a reminder that the people escaping the attack that day “could have been any of us.”

Steel beams formed in the shape of a cross were recovered from the World Trade Center site.John Makely / NBC News
These religious symbols, cut from steel from the site, were given to victims' family members.John Makely / NBC News

World Trade Center Cross & Symbolic Gifts

Among the more notable artifacts is a large cross made of an intersecting steel column and crossbeam found in the rubble of 6 World Trade Center two days after 9/11. Workers at “the pile,” as the site was known at the time, regularly gathered for mass at this cross during the nine-month recovery period. 

Also on exhibit: Small religious symbols that iron workers cut from steel found at the World Trade Center site. The figures were presented as gifts to victims' family members.

The original "slurry wall" still holds back the the Hudson River.John Makely / NBC News

The 'Bathtub'

Museum President Joseph Daniels unveils Engine 21.John Makely / NBC News

Foundation Hall, the vast, main cavern of the museum, is formed on one side by a 60-foot piece of the original “slurry wall,” an integral part of the World Trade Center’s foundation. The slurry wall was engineered to keep the Hudson River from flooding the site by creating a “bathtub” in which the towers would be built. Against all odds, the slurry wall held on 9/11. Had it not, the devastation in Lower Manhattan could have included a massive flood, Daniels said.

Engine 21

Scattered across the exhibit halls and galleries will be artifacts that reflect the human scale of the destruction on 9/11, including several first responder vehicles that were mangled in the towers’ collapse. Visitors will come across one of those vehicles, Engine 21, from the back, where it looks like any fire truck on any New York street. When visitors reach the front of the rig, they'll see it crushed and split with its cab burned out, making apparent the force of the towers’ collapse.

The burned-out cab of Engine 21 as it appears from the front.John Makely / NBC News

Impact Steel

That jarring feeling is amplified in a far corner of the museum, where what looks at first like a sculpture in the distance reveals itself to be another massive, contorted steel column from the World Trade Center. This piece, known as "impact steel," is a fragment of the north façade of the North Tower at the very spot where Flight 11 crashed into the building, ripping a six-story gash in the building exterior from the 93rd to 99th floor.

A piece of steel from the point of Flight 11's impact on the North Tower.John Makely / NBC News

The Footprints

The museum incorporates the footprints of the original towers, which are now memorialized as sunken waterfalls cascading into reflecting pools on the memorial plaza at ground level. The underbellies of these massive pools, sheathed in aluminum, pierce the roof of the museum to give a sense of perspective within the subterranean space. Steven M. Davis, a partner at Davis Brody Bond, the architectural firm that designed the museum, said it was crucial that the footprints were represented. “Our memory of the towers is inseparable from our understanding of the site,” he said.

The underside of the South Pool (left) appears to float above the exhibit hall.John Makely / NBC News

Ladder Three

Many artifacts at the memorial were labeled "Save" by the workers who cleaned up the World Trade Center site.John Makely / NBC News

FDNY Ladder Company Three’s fire truck is still wrapped in construction material awaiting installation, yet the damage done to the vehicle remains visible. Ladder Three, a fire house based in Manhattan's East Village, took among the worst hits from the attacks, losing 11 men when the North Tower collapsed. The truck was recovered and spent a decade in storage before making a final trip in 2011 to be lowered into the museum, where it is to serve as a reminder of the sacrifice of the first responders, Daniels said.

FDNY Ladder Three awaits installation in the bedrock level of the museum.John Makely / NBC News

Moving Forward

The 9/11 museum, like virtually every other aspect of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, has not been free of controversy or delay. The museum and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the supra-governmental agency that controls the site, engaged in a year-long financing dispute that was settled just before last year’s anniversary. Then came Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the museum space with 22 million gallons of seawater. (Because of the financing delay, most of the artifacts had not yet been installed and the flood did little lasting damage, Daniels said.) And of course, 9/11 family members had to be consulted at every turn as the museum progressed – and they didn’t always agree on everything.

But as the museum sets to open its doors to the public, there is a sense of moving forward. “There was something cathartic about all the arguments and challenges over the years,” Daniels said. “We needed to let that play out. At the end of the day, no one will remember any of the difficulties – what they will remember is the quality of what’s here.”

Visitors to the 9/11 Memorial approach the atrium of the museum, which is due to open in Spring 2014.John Makely / NBC News
The 9/11 museum atrium as it appears between the South Pool and One World Trade Center.John Makely / NBC News