The Washington Post

Obama, other officials speak at September 11 Memorial Hall and Museum dedication

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.”

Video from EarthCam tracks the building of the National September 11 Memorial Museum from the ground up. (Courtesy of EarthCam)

“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.”

President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gave moving addresses at a ceremony marking the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York. (Associated Press)

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.”

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Democrats are debating tonight. Get caught up on the race.
What to expect tonight
Tonight's debate is likely to focus on the concerns of African American and Latino voters. Clinton has focused in recent days on issues like gun control, criminal-sentencing reform, and the state of drinking water in Flint, Mich. Sanders has been aggressively moving to appeal to the same voters, combining his core message about economic unfairness with his own calls to reform the criminal-justice system.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.