ALBANY, N.Y. — The eyes of retired librarian Marlene Marcus moistened as she examined a twisted piece of metal — an artifact from the destruction of the two World Trade Center buildings hit on Sept. 11, 2001 by a pair of hijacked passenger jets.
Touring the New York State Museum’s World Trade Center gallery with a group of senior citizens, Marcus said the section of steel rustled up 15-year-old memories that, while disturbing to recall, should never be allowed to fade.
“We can never forget this,” said Marcus, suggesting that without such public displays telling the story of the terrorist attacks, charlatans would emerge to claim it never occurred.
“It would be like what happened after the Holocaust,” added her friend, Mary Vitale, from Staten Island, the same borough that was home to many of the 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers and 23 NYPD cops killed that day.
“Someone would try to say it never happened, even though we know it did,” Vitale said.
The museum, which has the largest state-sponsored collection of World Trade Center artifacts in the country, began assembling the Sept. 11 exhibit within weeks of the deadliest terrorist attack to ever take place on American soil.
The haunting exhibit, titled “World Trade Center: Rescue, Recovery, Response,” has attracted millions of visitors since it opened in 2002. Public interest shows no sign of diminishing, said museum director Mark Schaming.
One area of the gallery features the badly scarred but intact New York City Fire Engine 6. The pumper truck was among the first wave of emergency vehicles to arrive that day.
It had pulled up to the World Trade Center’s North Tower after the skyscraper was hit at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2011, by American Airlines Flight 11. The impact came 47 minutes after the plane took off from Logan Airport in Boston.
Investigators have theorized that the hijackers, led by terrorist Mohammed Atta, gained control of the aircraft before it reached the skies over Albany, then used the Hudson River to navigate south to Manhattan. All 92 people on board were killed, as were hundreds of people inside the tower.
The Engine 6 firefighters were helping with the evacuation and getting water to the building when the second airplane, United Airlines Flight 175, hurtled into the South Tower. Several Engine 6 crew members were among the 343 firefighters killed that day.
While looking the worse for wear, Engine 6 made out better than many other fire trucks, ambulances and squad cars at the scene that morning. About 100 rescue vehicles were destroyed.
The exhibits at the state museum include an airplane armrest and attached seat belt salvaged from the rubble of Ground Zero. Both planes were blown to pieces, and it is not known from which it came, said Schaming, who oversaw the creation of the exhibit.
Those who have experienced the exhibit include tens of thousands of school children. Schaming noted many of these children were not yet born at the time of the attacks.
“It’s important that we keep our history alive and have the ability to tell the story to a new generation of Americans,” he said.
The state museum exhibit is not the only one to pay tribute to those who were killed on 9/11 or who survived the attacks, nor is it as extensive as the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, at the site of the World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan.
But, for many residents of upstate New York and other regions of the Northeast, the Albany exhibit is more accessible.
“We get people here who have never been to New York City, and yet they can be in the presence of these artifacts from 9/11,” Schaming said.
The newest part of the collection features a pair of shoes, a cell phone and a stairway evacuation sign. They are being used to tell the story of an estimated 14,000 survivors of the attacks.
The survivors, as well as relatives of those killed, have been very supportive of the exhibit, Schaming said. Many have contributed oral histories and other items that remain part of the museum’s permanent collection.
For instance, after authorities mailed a driver’s license belonging to a young woman killed that day to her parents, her family never opened it. Instead, Schaming said, they forwarded it directly to the museum, and it is now part of the collection.
While almost all museums have a hands-off rule, the edict does not apply to beams and some other items in the exhibit, he noted.
“Every time I’m down here I see people reaching out and touching things,” he said. “It may be the most subtle, interactive exhibit that exists anywhere. Here, one can actually touch a piece of history.”
Also showcased is the fragment of a limestone slab pulled from the devastation at the Pentagon, where a third hijacked plane struck that day.
But it was a New York City firefighter helmet, enclosed in Plexiglas, that drew the gaze of Tony Chiarello, of Queens.
A retired New York City firefighter, Chiarello said the helmet reminded him of a buddy from his days on the job, John Vigiano.
Vigiano had two sons — John Jr., who followed in his dad’s footsteps and joined the FDNY, and Joe, who would become a New York City police detective, Chiarello said. Both sons were killed when the towers collapsed.
“John Vigiano said his sons were his twin towers,” said Chiarello, wiping back tears.
Of the exhibit, he said, “This brings back so many memories, and unfortunately, they aren’t favorable memories. But we should never forget what happened that day — just like we remember Pearl Harbor.”
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites, sister publications of the Times West Virginian. Reach him at [email protected].