On Friday August 28, 2015, I visited the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan for the first time with my wife Katie Bilik Sweeney. Katie and I have lived in Manhattan for all of our married lives, and we have been members of the 9/11 Memorial since its inception. Katie worked on the 97th Floor of One World Trade (the North Tower) for a year while a consultant at Deloitte in the early ‘90s (before the 1993 bombing). She is well aware that had she been working in that spot on that sapphire blue sky Tuesday morning of 9/11, she would not have gotten out. Also, Katie’s birthday is September 11th, and her birthday has never been the same since that 9/11 day. She is a “ 9/11 Cobblestone Donor” (three cobblestones in fact were donated in the Sweeney Family name) and considers herself a student of 9/11 history. For a variety of reasons, Katie and I postponed our first visit to the 9/11 Memorial until we could find a day where we could devote 4+ hours to the museum, the Memorial pools, and then a “de-briefing” at lunch on the Hudson River. Simply stated, the 9/11 Memorial was THE most powerful experience I have ever had at any museum.
I have been to museums in the USA, London, Paris, Berlin and a number of other places, but the 9/11 Memorial was the most powerful for me for three key reasons:
1) The 9/11 Memorial is “on-site”. The actual walls and beams from the lower infrastructure of the World Trade Center are all incorporated into the museum. It is a HUGE museum and it takes time to visit and assimilate the scope of the place and the day.
2) The 9/11 Memorial is the first museum that I have visited that commemorated an event where I had lived on the battlefield in real time. We were raising our young family (Dylan, 6, and Dustin, 4) on East 85th Street in Manhattan on 9/11/01.
3) Our oldest son’s first day of Kindergarten was at Trevor Day School in Manhattan on 9/11/01. That same son just started his “Plebe Year” (freshman year) at the United States Naval Academy on July 1, 2015.
At the museum, the details of the day, the people and the re-build/re-birth are documented with stunning detail using video, audio, visuals, artifacts and the actual infrastructure of the buildings. Each victim’s story is documented, and we were able to look up, read about, and pay tribute to the husband of Dusty’s head teacher at Central Park Early Learning Center, who died in the South Tower. As seen below, you are able to document and send a Message of Remembrance from your visit to the 9/11 Memorial.
As a 25+ year resident of Manhattan, I can’t begin to express the power of the place, and the thoughtfulness that went into creating the 9/11 Memorial. It actually deserves a better word than “Memorial” because it encapsulates so many elements of that 9/11 day, including the tributes to the victims and first responders, the identification of the perpetrators, and the re-building of the World Trade Center site since 9/11. The 9/11 Memorial also covers in detail the tragedies at the Pentagon and Shanksville, and the 1993 WTC bombing.
Katie and I are now forming many great friendships with families of the United States Naval Academy and the Navy. It has been an incredible summer for us as we are learning about military life and service through our son’s experiences at Annapolis. I was amazed at how many 9/11 Memorial visitors were in uniform, especially how many were military from foreign countries. It was VERY quiet and respectful during our tour, and the deeper we walked into the site, the deeper the respect seemed to grow.
There are many amazing tributes at the 9/11 Memorial. With a son at the United States Naval Academy, the most significant for me was Naval Academy graduate and NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson who has the distinction of being the only American not on Earth during 9/11. Culbertson was about 250 miles above Earth inside the still-under-construction International Space Station with two Russian cosmonauts. When he saw the huge column of smoke streaming from Lower Manhattan when the Twin Towers fell, Culbertson captured video and photos of the 9/11 site from space for NASA. Culbertson eventually was told that his friend and U.S. Naval Academy classmate Charles “Chic” Burlingame was the pilot of American Airlines Flight #77 that crashed into the Pentagon. A total of fourteen USNA graduates died in 9/11, and many more have been killed in action during the post-9/11 era.
The 9/11 Memorial is an amazing experience. I am very proud of my older son’s choices since that infamous day when New York and the World changed forever. Dylan grew up with a severely autistic brother and also with the experience of having 9/11 occur in his backyard. Dylan responded in a way that I could have never imagined at his age. The young men and women that I have met at the Naval Academy are all equally impressive. As Americans, we should be very proud of our “Service Academies” and what they represent in America. Go see the 9/11 Memorial and go see West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy.
Here is the Sweeney Family during our final dinner together in New York City before Dylan Sweeney started his “Plebe Summer” in Annapolis.