NEW YORK — Speaking from the bedrock foundation of the fallen twin towers, President Obama delivered a parable about self-sacrifice Thursday during the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, calling the exhibition “this sacred place” before an audience of witnesses and survivors of that terrible morning.
The president began with a story.
It unspooled in the minutes after United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower — a man covered his face in a red bandanna and, gathering groups of huddled survivors, led them to safety 17 floors below.
Then he entered the burning tower again, and again, until he died doing so.
“Here, at this memorial, this museum, we come together,” Obama said. “We stand in the footprints of two mighty towers graced by the rush of eternal waters. We look into the faces of nearly 3,000 innocent souls, men and women and children of every race, every creed, from every corner of the world.”
“And we can touch their names and hear their voices and glimpse the small items that speak to the beauty of their lives — a wedding ring, a dusty helmet, a shining badge,” he continued. “Here we tell their story so that generations yet unborn will never forget.”
The museum is a raw, vast exhibition — 110,000 square feet of space — and its aperture on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, opens as wide as an examination of America’s place in the world on the eve of the attacks and shrinks as tightly as a look at the pocket objects, the everyday detritus of life, the voice-mail messages and identification cards, of those who died that day.
Obama said the exhibit manages to capture “the true spirit of 9/11 — love, compassion, sacrifice — and to enshrine it forever in the heart of our nation.”
The museum’s aesthetic is spare. The gray, worn cement of the slurry wall, which against the odds held against the stress of the twin towers’ collapse, stands at one side of the hall where the invited audience of survivor families, New York police and fire officials, politicians and others gathered to dedicate the site.
There are the remains of a stairwell that led onto Vesey Street — and escape for hundreds of terrified workers. Rusted, twisted girders that once rose through the North Tower stand in place still, some plastered with “missing” posters that grimly decorated Lower Manhattan in the desperate days and weeks that followed.
“Like the great wall and bedrock that embrace us today, nothing can ever break us,” Obama said. “Nothing can change who we are as Americans.”
The president and first lady Michelle Obama toured the museum guided by former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who described it in his introduction as “a place we come to remember those who died” and to celebrate the courage of those who saved lives.”
Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton accompanied the tour and later watched from the front row. Also participating were New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and the current mayor, Bill de Blasio (D) — all celebrating in their remarks another aspect of the awful day and its aftermath.
Survivors told stories of impossible escape, and the help they received to reach it. “Amazing Grace” echoed within the cool walls, as well as the voices of a children’s chorus.
Many in the audience stared at their laps, dabbing eyes with tissue. Eleven members of the New York Fire Department and Port Authority Police Department gathered onstage to a long, standing ovation.
A few months after the attacks, a woman named Alison Crowther — whose son Welles died on Sept. 11, 2001 — was reading the newspaper. She came across a story about survivors who described a young man in a red handkerchief and how he led them to safety from the collapsing South Tower.
“And in that moment, Alison knew,” Obama said. “Ever since he was a boy, her son had always carried a red handkerchief. Her son Welles was the man in the red bandanna.”
Welles was 24 when he died, a man Obama said had “a big laugh and a joy of life and dreams of seeing the world.” The red bandanna is on display in the museum, among countless keepsakes marking the horror and heroics of the day.
Welles Crowther worked on the South Tower’s 104th floor in the field of finance. He also served as a volunteer firefighter who, Obama said, “spent his final moment saving others.”
He then introduced Alison Crowther. She was joined on the spare cement stage by Ling Young, whom Welles Crowther guided to safety that day.
“I’m here today because of Welles, a man I did not get the chance to thank,” Young said. “It was very hard for me to come here today, but I wanted to do so, so I could say thank you to his parents and my new friends, Jeff and Alison.”
“For us, he lives on in the people he helped and in the memory of what he chose to do that Tuesday in September,” Alison told Young and the audience.
“It is our greatest hope that when people come here and see Welles’s red bandanna, they will remember how people helped each other that day. And we hope that they will be inspired to do the same in ways both big and small.”