NEW YORK – The redevelopment of what once was Ground Zero passed another milestone Thursday when President Obama helped dedicate the National September 11 Museum in the cavernous foundation hole of the office complex destroyed by the 2001 terror attacks.
"To all those who responded with so much courage ... it is an honor for us to join in your memories, to recall and reflect but above all to reaffirm the true spirit of 9/11: love, compassion, sacrifice and to enshrine it in the heart of our nation forever," Obama said, addressing the families of the fallen. "All who come here will find it to be a profound and moving experience."
Earlier, the president and first lady toured the memorial with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, paying tribute to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attacks.
Hundreds of 9/11 survivors, victims' relatives, emergency responders and recovery workers attended the dedication at the former site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
Obama introduced Alison Crowther, the mother of Welles Crowther, who died on Sept. 11. He became known as "the man in the red bandanna'' because of what he wore over his nose and mouth while helping evacuate fellow workers in the South Tower. The president also introduced Ling Young, one of the workers Crowther saved.
"For us he lives on in the memory of the people he helped," Alison Crowther said. "Welles believed we are all connected as one human family. ... This is life's most precious meaning. It is our greatest hope that when people come here and see Welles' red bandanna, they will remember how people helped each other that day, and we hope they will be inspired to do the same in ways both big and small. This is the true legacy of September 11."
Bloomberg said the museum will take its place with memorials at Pearl Harbor and Gettysburg. He said it offered "a reminder that freedom carries heavy responsibilities."
"Walking through this museum can be difficult at times but it is impossible to leave without feeling inspired," Bloomberg said.
Many of the other speakers were not politicians or officials, but people whose lives were changed by the attacks. Each represented something in the museum that tells a story about 911::
- Mickey Kross, whose battered Fire Department helmet testifies to the hours he spent trapped with 13 others before being rescued from the rubble of the North Tower, which had collapsed on top of them. "They couldn't believe we'd survived!'' he said.
- Florence Jones, whose shoes represent her 77-story trek down through smoke and confusion in the South Tower to the ground and safety. Her shoes, she said, could help visitors "understand a little bit better what it felt like to be us that day.''
- Kayla Bergeron, one of hundreds who fled from the Trade Center to the street on what became known as "the survivors' stairs,'' a staircase that now stands in the museum. "Those 38 steps mean everything,'' she said.
Some visitors described the museum as overwhelming.
Tim Brown, a 51-year-old retired firefighter who said he lost 93 friends in the department on 9/11, said he was moved to tears by the remembrance section, which has a wall with photos of all who died that day.
"There were so many (firefighters) who died, that sometimes you forget who lived, and who died,'' he said. "So you see someone's photo here, and say, 'I forgot he died.' It's hard for us.''
He said he appreciated the chance to touch Ladder No. 3, another artifact in the museum, as a connection to Fire Capt. Patrick Brown. Brown, one of Tim Brown's two best friends, died in the North Tower.
The museum's opening is the latest sign of change at the site of the Trade Center. The 9/11 Memorial opened on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, and last year One World Trade Center reached its signature height of 1,776 feet to become the nation's tallest building. The office tower is expected to open later this year.
The museum attempts to both tell the story of the 9/11 attacks and remember their victims.
It does so with audio, including a fire chief's report from the south tower shortly before it collapsed; video, including some of the hijackers' easy passage through airport security; photos, including facial portraits of every victim; and an array of artifacts.
The latter include pieces as large as the columns that supported the center's twin towers and as small as a $2 bill from a victim's wallet that matched one he'd given his wife to symbolize their second chance at love.
The museum was built around a series of huge objects and structures, including an exterior staircase that led evacuees to safety; the last steel column to be hauled from the site; the 60-foot high retaining wall that held back the Hudson River even after the towers collapsed; and a cross-section of I-beams resembling a Christian cross that fell from the north tower.
Visitors move through a glass and steel entrance pavilion off the memorial's plaza before beginning a seven-story descent to the exhibitions at bedrock level.
The museum was supposed to have opened on the attacks' 11th anniversary, but work was slowed and for a time halted by soaring costs, weak fundraising and jurisdictional disputes. Some relatives of 9/11 victims also have objected to various museum decisions, including one to move still-unidentified human remains from the medical examiner's office to a repository behind a wall at the museum.
Other controversies have included:
• Whether the museum's historical exhibit, by displaying the hijackers' photographs and names, glorifies them and insults their victims' memory.
• Whether a brief explanatory film about the 9/11 conspiracy unfairly links al-Qaeda terrorism with Islam.
• Whether the $24 general admission fee is too much.
After Thursday's dedication, the museum will be open around the clock for six days for free visits by 9/11 survivors, victims' relatives, first responders, recovery workers and Lower Manhattan residents. It opens to the general public May 21, although reservations for that day are sold out.