Though my family typically prefers to vacation in national parks and places known for their scenic beauty, this year we chose a completely different route. We decided to tackle the urban jungle. 

So more than 40 years after my last trip to New York City, I recently took a family vacation to the nation’s largest city. 

We admired the Statue of Liberty, researched ancestors at Ellis Island, took the elevator to the top of Rockefeller Center, laughed and cried at Broadway shows, biked around iconic Central Park, reconnected with friends and relatives, soaked up the frenetic energy of Times Square and walked miles every day.

For the most part, we played the role of tourists, joyfully taking in the sights and sounds of the Big Apple. With one massive exception.

Our visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was a sobering experience that brought back the shock and horror of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

The 9/​11 memorial is a tribute of remembrance to the 2,977 people killed that day when terrorists from the Islamist extremist group al-Qaeda crashed four hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and a field near Shanksville, Pa., as well as the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing on Feb. 26, 1993.

Somber tribute

Twin reflecting pools — sitting within the footprints of where the 110-story twin towers once stood — are each nearly an acre in size and feature the largest manmade waterfalls in North America. The names of every person who died in the attacks are inscribed into bronze panels surrounding the pools.

The mind-numbing volume of names combined with the sheer magnitude of the memorial served as a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in U.S. history.

Our guide in a tour of the memorial also reminded us of the selflessness that took place that day by sharing stories about individuals honored at ground zero. The one seared in our memory involved Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old equities trader who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. He became known as the “man in the red bandana” for the handkerchief he wore as a protective mask while rescuing others in the South Tower before it collapsed. 

Crowther, identified by survivors because of the signature red bandana he wore all the time, is credited with helping at least 10 people escape the tower in several trips up and down stairwells before perishing alongside a group of New York City firefighters.

Recalling that the tragedy extended to communities across the country, including Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, my family made a point of seeking out and paying our respects to the names of the two Chippewa Valley natives killed in the attacks: Patty Statz and John Hart.

Statz, who grew up on a town of Seymour farm and graduated from Chippewa Falls McDonell High School in 1979, died while sitting in her office at the Pentagon after terrorists hijacked a passenger jet and intentionally slammed it into the side of the building where she worked. She was 41 and left behind a husband and two children in Tacoma Park, Md.

Hart, who grew up in Eau Claire and graduated in 1981 from Memorial High School and in 1986 from UW-Eau Claire, died during the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, where he happened to be conducting a seminar that day. Family members have said the people he was with in the south tower escaped before it collapsed, and they believe he, like Crowther, was helping others get out at the time of his death. Hart was 38 and is survived by a wife and four children in Danville, Calif.

A painful look back

The main historical exhibition at the adjacent 9/​11 museum offered a different experience, immersing visitors in the horrific details of the day of the attacks as well as the immediate aftermath through photos, videos, artifacts and voice recordings. Guests descend to the underground museum alongside the Survivors’ Stairs that were used by many people fleeing the disaster.

From watching initial news reports before it became clear the plane crashes were part of a coordinated terrorist attack to listening to frantic 911 calls and viewing photos of desperate victims leaping to their deaths from the top floors of the flaming towers, the exhibition is an emotional punch in the gut. It’s also a remarkable history lesson about one of the most infamous days in American history.

For my twentysomething children, it served as a window to an event they are aware of but remember little about. For my wife and me, the visit revived vivid memories of learning about the attacks and the many tales of heroism by civilians and emergency workers that ensued. 

 As stated on the map handed out to guests, “the museum attests to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity and affirms an unwavering commitment to the fundamental value of human life.”

It was a timely reminder as we approach the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on Tuesday.

We remember.

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