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It’s been just over a year since the 9/11 Tribute Museum in lower Manhattan permanently closed its doors after 16 years of educating visitors from around the world and providing walking tours of ground zero.
The museum was founded in 2006 by the nonprofit September 11th Families’ Association but after incurring losses during the pandemic, the group closed the museum’s physical space and moved most of its holdings online or to the New York State Museum in Albany.
But to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, the NYC Fire Museum has opened a special exhibit commemorating the 9/11 Tribute Museum, showcasing some of the photographs, personal testimony and artifacts from the original displays on Greenwich Street.
The exhibit runs through September and is adjoined to the Fire Museum’s permanent 9/11 exhibit.
The goal of the 9/11 Tribute Museum was to show “the personal history of 9/11,” Jennifer Adams, the co-founder and former CEO of the museum, said. And it featured testimony from all members of the communities affected by 9/11 including first responders, survivors from the towers, families of the deceased and workers who cleaned up and repaired ground zero.
Jennifer Brown, the executive director of the NYC Fire Museum, said the Spring Street institution was honored to be able to help recount survivors’ stories and to display some of the Tribute Museum’s content for the anniversary month.”
“We hope to tell the story of the museum as well as what the museum told,” she said.
Survivors’ prominent role
Peter Bitwinski, who survived the attack and visited the Fire Museum’ display, said that seeing the exhibit left him with a bittersweet feeling.
“I’m sad that one year ago our museum closed when I felt we offered so much to New Yorkers and Americans and people from across the world, and how much healing it was for someone like me,” Bitwinski said. "That was kind of taken away and it hurts not to have that but I’m happy that Jennifer Brown was able to get some of our panels and photos and set up this exhibit. It looks really beautiful and brings back wonderful memories."
Bitwinski, who worked as an accounting manager with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was on the 69th floor of One World Trade Center on that clear September day, escaping 15 minutes before it collapsed. Bitwinski volunteered at the 9/11 Tribute Museum for 13 years, providing tours of ground zero, educating tourists and students, and acting as a docent in the museum’s galleries.
“All the victims of the terrorist attacks were people that I wanted to remember in some way during the rest of my life, and what better way to do it than to be a part of a museum where I could share, talk about experiences, answer questions and meet people, and do it all in terms of remembrance,” Bitwinski added.
When Bitwinski started giving tours over a decade ago, ground zero was a hollowed-out construction site. He had to get special security clearance to walk around the area so that he could describe what he experienced to the museum’s visitors.
The museum would often pair Bitwinski or other survivors who volunteered at the museum with first responder-volunteers so that those on the tour could hear about the attacks from people with different perspectives of the day, Adams, the museum’s co-founder, explained.
Even though the reflecting pools and the 9/11 Memorial Museum have opened at the site, Bitwinski fears that with the 9/11 Tribute Museum’s closure and the ever-dwindling number people who survived the attacks, the human-to-human aspect of recalling the tragedy and its aftermath could be lost. “There’s nothing like talking to someone about what you went through and the impact it had on your life,” he said.
Hoping to disseminate those personal accounts, the NYC Fire Museum’s exhibit includes videos of the seminars that survivors gave to visitors of the 9/11 Tribute Museum about their experiences and recollections. The temporary exhibit also has a wall on which all of the names of the people who perished in the attacks are inscribed.
In an adjoining permanent exhibit, the museum displays the photos of the 343 firefighters who died in the attacks, equipment found at ground zero in the weeks after as well as remnants of the towers themselves.
The temporary exhibit features panels that include some of the survivors’ and first responders' personal testimonies alongside photos from the cleanup and funerals that followed in the days and weeks after 9/11. “A lot of close friends were lost that day,” Liam Flaherty, now an FDNY captain at Rescue 2 who responded with Rescue 4, is quoted as saying on one panel.
“Each one of them is a heartbreaking, compelling, gut-wrenching story about where they were, what happened,” Flaherty’s account continues. “I could find no better counseling service than the firehouse kitchen. Any problem you have, you can talk it through, we were grieving together.”
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