The official photo blog of J. David Buerk Photography.

The National September 11th Memorial & Museum

On my recent trip to New York, I visited The National September 11th Memorial & Museum.  Each previous time I've been to New York I've passed through the World Trade Center, seeing the progress on One World Trade Center; this was my first time there in several years.  This was also the first time I've visited since the 9/11 Memorial and Museum has been open to the public; on my last visit, they were open only to family and friends of victims.

Alyssa and I spent most of our short time in NY here.  The rest of our trip can be viewed here; the September 11th Memorial and Museum comprised the majority of our trip, but it also is so important that it deserves its own blog post separate from anything else on our trip.

The September 11th Memorial

I will start out by saying that no memorial, no monument, no museum, no place has ever elicited any emotion from me... until the 9/11 Memorial, and later Museum, in NYC.  I've been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial many times - it contains almost 58,000 names, and I didn't think visiting the 9/11 Memorial would be any different than my going into DC and visiting "The Wall."

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Just walking into the plaza, it started to hit me.  Then seeing the names, and the scale of the Twin Towers' site, knowing what took place here 14 years prior, was overwhelming.  It was dizzying.

After only a minute of the rapid onset of disorientation, I turned, and this is what I saw.  This is what made me lose it.  Seeing this is what broke me down into tears.  Everything hit me like a brick wall, all at once.  After several minutes staring at it, and the whole scene in awe, a bit shocked at my own reaction, I finally took this picture and could barely see through the viewfinder through damp eyes.

This picture is every emotion.

WTC 1.jpg

I don't think I've ever photographed something that has impacted me this much.

Jacquelyn P. Sanchez wasn't the only person with flowers, but hers is the one I saw first, and made such an impression upon me.

Quickly I also realized how grateful I was that my first visit to the 9/11 Memorial was also in a hurricane - the rain was exactly how I felt, and it was making the already somber atmosphere within the memorial beautifully dignified.

I didn't personally know any of the 2,977 victims who died on September 11th.  I do know people who had close calls, and I also know people who did lose loved ones on that day.

One of those people is a close friend of mine at Washington Dulles International Airport.  In 2001, he was American Airlines' Station Manager at Dulles; Flight 77, the flight that departed Dulles and ultimately struck the Pentagon, had several people on board that he knew very well, including the pilot, Captain Charles F. Burlingame III, and my friend's secretary and close friend, Mary Jane Booth.

MJ's story is remarkable, impacting, and will always be with me, even though I never knew her. I am keeping her full story private, respectfully for her and her family.  On an especially emotional anniversary of September 11th several years ago my close friend at Dulles confided in me MJ's haunting story - it will always stick with me.  Now, several years later, upon my first visit to the 9/11 Memorial, I felt compelled to find MJ and Captain Charles F. Burlingame III's (he knew both of them) names and pay my respects, and bring something back for our friend at Dulles.  These pictures are for everyone who knew MJ, Captain Burlingame, and anyone else on Flight 77.

I would later in the day find Mary Jane's entry in the 9/11 Museum, which falls just short of naming our friend at Dulles.  Upon returning from New York, I showed my Dulles friend these pictures along with MJ's entry in the Museum - he told me that the picture of MJ in the Museum database and wall is a picture of him and her standing together in the doorway of an MD-11 at Dulles - he has a copy of the full picture hanging in his home to this day.

Go visit MJ.  Give her a flower.  Know that she was remarkable.

The September 11th Memorial Museum

Alyssa and I explored the city a bit after visiting and paying our respects at the 9/11 Memorial, and at this point I had dropped her off at the Port Authority Bus Terminal - she just didn't have the time to see the Museum without being pressed for time and running the risk of missing her bus.

After a quick regroup coffee break at The Port Authority, I decided to finish what we'd started; I hopped back on the train downtown and returned to the World Trade Center.  It had gotten dark when I got there.

When I visit museums, I usually snap pictures the accompanying placards of artifacts and displays I photograph - I did so with the 9/11 Museum as well, but those captions go beyond the scope of this posting, so I am not including them here - if you'd like to see my full gallery of pictures, please visit my gallery here which contains all the pictures from the Memorial and Museum, along with all the informational placards I captured.  If you've visited the Museum before, you'll notice that most of the Museum is not represented in pictures - this is because the majority of the Museum (inexplicably in some cases) does not allow photography (areas like the Victims' Photo Wall make sense; others, like the main exhibit, do not).  Please visit the gallery here to see more information on the photos below.  And I of course encourage you to actually visit the Museum, devoting at least a half day to it, because no photo will ever do it justice - it really is something.

The September 11th Museum is underground, encompassing the site of both Twin Towers, with the main exhibit spaces on their foundations.  A ramp spirals downward, giving view to the cavernous size of the museum space from above.

To enter, guests first traverse a passageway housing a map of the four flights' flightpaths, then columns with projected text, also spoken aloud, of witnesses remembering what they saw and experienced that day.  Hearing the stories, along with the frailty and emotions assorted from sadness and fear in their voices, again hit me like a wall, which would stay with me for all the hours I spent inside.

The 9/11 Museum was a roller coaster of emotions.  I felt sadness, fear, anger, hope, pride.  Every combination and intensity.  I fought the tears my entire time there; I mostly lost the battle, and I was far from alone.  I've been to no other museum so moving.  I'm glad I went alone too - experiencing my thoughts and emotions in solitude without distraction was refreshing and provided clarity I'm not sure you could get another way.

The stop I found most fascinating on the ramp descending to the main exhibits was the precise epicenter of the 1993 Word Trade Center bombing.  I'm not sure why I didn't photograph that placcard - it was one of the most interesting ones outside of the main exhibit hall.

I'd actually never heard of the Survivors' Stairs, but it was the last artifact you passed before reaching the Main Floor on the Twin Towers' original foundation.

Also on display was part of the 2001 Times Square New Years' Eve Ball, constructed of Waterford Crystals engraved with memorials to the 9/11 victims and first-responders - numbers listed on the ball were still only estimates of the losses.  The National 9/11 Flag hung on the wall above.

One of the most remarkable items on exhibit was a collection of items: 2,983 watercolor drawings hung on the wall, painted by American artist Spencer Finch.  Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning is a bright blue art installation of blue watercolored paper canvases, of which no two are the same shade.  Combined, they create a bright blue ocean of a sky visible from most parts of the Museum.

The importance becomes even more apparent as you approach closely, to find a plaque:

Reposed behind this wall are the remains of many who perished at the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2001.

 It is an incredibly sobering reminder that hundreds of victims, who passed away in the very place you are standing, still have yet to be identified, in addition to hundreds of others whose remains will never be found.  The Repository is a private section of the Museum which is operated by the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York (OCME).

No Day Shall Erase You From The Memory of Time.

Approaching the main exhibit, you are greeted with some items you may not be able to readily identify without the placards, they are so damaged.  Part of the TV antenna.  An elevator spindle.  The firetruck outright confused me for a few seconds - I thought it was more building wreckage until I came around the side to be surprised in finding that it was a mangled firetruck.

From the floor you could read some of the prayers left on The Last Column.

Mychal's Prayer
Take me where you want me to go
Let me meet who you want me to meet
Tell me what you want me to say
Keep me out of your way.

-Written by Father Mychal Judge
FDNY Chaplain who was fatally injured while giving the last rites to a fallen firefighter on September 11, 2001.

The main exhibit encompassed most of the Museum's offerings (not pictured).  An incredibly emotional journey spanning from that fateful September day to events today.  News reports, clips of Matt Lauer breaking the news on the Today show, greeted you upon entry.  The main exhibit follows a timeline.  Photographs and video of the second plane hitting.  Voicemails of confused victims trapped above the impacts play - those really got to me, reminding me of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a fantastic film I've only had the fortitude to watch twice.

CCTV footage of the highjackers passing through airport security before boarding the four flights; symbolically the last passengers before the TSA was created.  I wasn't alone in watching this footage play and wanting to punch the highjackers through the little TV monitor.  Anger.  The rollercoaster continues on.

After this, I'd seen the entire museum except for one small display on the main floor, which I found housed a shirt and brick from the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden, a challenge coin commemorating the successful kill of bin Laden, and Pete Souza's now iconic photograph from The White House.

Outside the Museum, I walked along the Memorial Pools again, now deserted in the rain.  With World Trade Center One towering above as a beacon of hope and Freedom, I paid Jacquelyn P. Sanchez and her rose one last visit, and departed.

The National September 11th Memorial and Museum is the most moving place I have ever visited, and I can't encourage you enough to go there yourself.  Words cannot describe.

My Own 9/11 Story

Everyone alive for 9/11 has a story.  It is this generation's watershed moment, joining the ranks of WWII and JFK.

I was young.  I was in middle school; 8th grade Spanish class.  The teacher had given my class a large amount of workbook assignments to do in class, and left the room - I took the opportunity to put in an earbud for a small radio I'd been sneaking to listen to on the bus.  I remember being annoyed that I couldn't find music - every single radio station was playing news, frantically talking in voices fueled by panicked adrenaline.  I didn't listen to the words though.  Not yet.  The teacher came back just in time to see us out the door at the bell, not bothering to take the pages from our workbooks.

My next class, English, had a similar vibe to it.  The teacher left the room after class began, leaving the TA, who didn't move from the TV - I now realize she was protecting it from being turned on.  Protecting the children from seeing images of the Pentagon in flames - in the DC area lots of kids' parents work at the Pentagon.  My Dad still had regular meetings there.  I'd later learn that he'd had a meeting scheduled at the Pentagon which was relocated to another building early that morning before the attacks even began - I didn't know it at the time, but my Dad dodged a bullet, and at this exact time was outside his evacuated building watching the smoke plume and sheets of paper fly from the Pentagon.  Although I was in the dark at that point, I knew at that point that something was going on.  Something wasn't right.

It wasn't until lunch time that I learned what was going on - the cafeteria workers had a radio on in the back kitchen louder than they probably should have.  I'd already heard the words "fire" and "crash" around my 9AM Spanish class, but hearing them again, and now paying attention to more of the accompanying story as I slid my pink tray and cardboard pizza down the line is when I learned the basics.  As I sat down in the squeaky cafeteria seat, I pulled out my little radio and started listening to all the voices.  "New York."  "Pentagon."  "Explosion."  "Attack."  "Who did this?"  There were no lunch monitors around to stop me.  The cafeteria was spotted with empty seats - a lot of kids must be out sick today.

My next class was half empty, and we were allowed to do anything we wanted.  Play paper football.  Do homework for other classes.  Anything but watch TV.  I listened to my radio - the teacher was probably so distracted about the attacks that he thought I was only listening to music and didn't process that I could get news... or couldn't get anything except news anyway.  I don't remember if we were released early that day or not.

On the bus ride home I found a few other kids who were talking loudly about how buildings in New York were being blown up with planes, and the Pentagon too - apparently their teacher had just outright spilled the beans, and turned on the TV.  Most of the kids, hearing this for the first time, didn't believe it.  One boy in the front was bawling uncontrollably - his Dad worked at the Pentagon he was mumbling.

When I stepped off the bus my Mom was waiting on the porch, clearly worried.  "What's going on?!?!" is all I said as I ran inside - she told me that the Twin Towers, the buildings we'd seen in person just one year earlier, and the Pentagon, had been struck by planes.  As she turned on the TV she told me that both buildings in New York, and that entire side of the Pentagon, had all collapsed.  Then I finally saw what I'd been hearing about all day; I joined the rest of America, gasping speechless with my jaw wide open as I saw the replays from every angle of the towers collapsing.

Until seeing the footage on TV, I didn't know which building in New York was hit - I thought it was just one, and I didn't know any of them had collapsed.  Certainly not to the extent the Twin Towers had.

My Dad arrived home late that afternoon.  He didn't say much; you could see the fear and anger on his face - he knew we were now at war.  He talked about everything he'd seen, heard; how his building evacuated, then un-evacuated, then evacuated again.  He made phone calls to find out who he knew at the Pentagon was safe, and who might not be.

September, 2000

My family had gone on a trip along the Eastern seaboard just one year earlier.  One of the stops was New Jersey to see The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island - we never went into Manhattan proper much to my disappointment.

This was WAY before I knew anything about photography - I just liked taking pictures on my little Kodak Advantix.

This is a picture I shot at age 12 in the year 2000 from the Northern side of Liberty State Park, Jersey City, New Jersey - now the current site of the Empty Sky Memorial.  I remember my parents bickering over whether "those two tall buildings are the Twin Towers or the World Trade Center."  I said I thought they were both; the same thing.  Fast forward a year, and everyone in the World knew the answer without a doubt.

It's incredible to me that I even have this picture, that I shot it myself.  I was 12.  The majority of my life has been post-9/11, working at IAD and DCA.  My entire aviation related career arc has directly resulted from that day in 2001.  This photo is a relic of a time before that.  

Take a look.

I have a piece of history, that I photographed as a kid, and I didn't even know it.  Plus, I didn't do too bad for a 12 year old kid with zero knowledge about photography - it's compositionally perfect - 14 years later and I'm shocked by that fact alone too.