In the summer of 2017, in the midst of our mother-daughter New York trip, my mom and I get the chance to visit the National September 11 Memorial Museum. Neither of us know what to expect.
Mom visited ground zero only four months after the September 11 attack, and the site’s present appearance is a far cry from the ruins she’d encountered that day. Now, gleaming buildings rise defiantly from the ground, bordering a wide, tree-scattered square. Two reflecting pools mark the footprints of the former Twin Towers. The museum itself is no small structure, emerging conspicuously from the trees, unapologetically blinding when the sun hits its metal-and-glass walls just right.
I cry in the museum. There’s just so much—the Last Column with its graffitied, poster-plastered sides, countless photographs of victims, the surviving slurry wall of the original World Trade Center. It’s all very somber, informative, and heart-breaking. But it’s the ladder truck that finally breaks the dam behind my already teary eyes.
It’s usually a vehicle of strange comfort to me. Its lacquered red sides call to mind countless memories: Christmas parades with the fire district, family strolls through town to visit dad while he’s on duty, the proud tour he gave us recently when his station got a new fire engine. But this ladder truck is jarringly mangled, its metal pocked and dented, the whole back half crushed, the ladder itself twisted and useless. It’s like gazing upon a corpse; I hate the sight of it, yet it takes me a long time to tear my gaze away.
There’s a massive art installation in the memorial hall of the museum, seemingly out of place at first glance. Squares of paper, all painted watercolor blue, cover an expansive wall. They surround a quote by Virgil: “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.” From a nearby plaque, I learn that the letters of the quote are forged with recovered steel from the collapsed towers.
This installation, created in 2014 by Spencer Finch, is called, “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning.” There are 2,983 squares, all unique shades of blue, one for every victim of the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. It’s about memory, Finch says—about how everyone remembers 9/11 so vividly yet uniquely. Apparently, a man once marched confidently up to one of the squares, pointed, and said, “This is the color. This is what the sky looked like that day.” And that’s exactly what the installation was meant to do: provide us with a space to remember.
I was just over two and half years old when the attack occurred. I have no memories of it, but I do have stories.
Like this one.
The morning of September 11, firefighter Stephen Siller had just finished his shift with Squad 1 of the New York City Fire Department. He was on his way to play golf when his scanner began buzzing with the news—the World Trade Center had been attacked, and thousands were in danger.
Siller turned around and retrieved his gear from the station he’d just left, but quickly realized that he wouldn’t be able to drive to the towers due to the closure of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. He parked his vehicle, loaded up with his 60 pounds of gear, and ran the approximately 3.5 miles to the World Trade Center.
Siller was one of 412 emergency workers to die that day—one of 343 firefighters. His squad suffered the most losses out of all FDNY units.
I’m sitting in the Coffee Cottage on September 12, finishing up on some reading, when my dad responds to a text I’d sent late the night before. When I read his words—“I would have gone into those buildings, given the chance,”—I know them to be true, and I think of Stephen Siller. I wonder about his children, his wife, his last phone call. I wonder how Jesus greeted him. I wonder if he ever thought, even for just a moment, to keep driving on to his golf match.
And I wonder what the color of the sky was.