Since it opened in 2006, the 9/11 Tribute Center in Lower Manhattan has offered some 4 million visitors greater insight into the enduring impact of September 11, 2001. Survivors, family members who lost loved ones, first responders, rescue and recovery workers, longtime Lower Manhattan residents and other trained volunteers tell their stories in the hopes of providing a greater understanding of the impact of 9/11, as well as the ongoing recovery and resilience of New York City. We asked five of those volunteers to share some of their thoughts, including how 9/11 changed them, what they want people to remember and what advice they would give future generations.
- Joan Mastropaolo was in Jersey City, New Jersey, for work on 9/11, and watched both planes hit the towers from her office there. Her husband (who survived) was in their apartment in Battery Park City, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Mastropaolo is a board member at the 9/11 Tribute Center.
- Matt Crawford’s father, a firefighter with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), was killed when the twin towers collapsed on 9/11. Crawford also worked on the construction of the new World Trade Center plaza.
- Dave Hood, who is an attorney for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, was on the 68th floor of the north tower when the plane hit it on 9/11.
- Paul Ianelli, a detective with the Brooklyn South Narcotics division of the New York Police Department (NYPD), took a ferry to Lower Manhattan from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his fellow officers to get to the World Trade Center on 9/11. He then spent months working on the recovery effort.
- Bruce Powers was the Director of Readiness Analysis for the Navy Headquarters at the Pentagon. On 9/11, he walked seven miles to get home to his wife and children in the suburb of Washington, D.C. where they lived.
Looking back at the past 15 years, what has stayed the same for New Yorkers since 9/11, and what has changed?
Matt Crawford: I think what has stayed the same for New Yorkers is the rush-rush-rush mindset. We’ve adapted pretty quickly back to that get it done, get to where you’re going mentality. I believe what has changed, though, is the fact that if a New Yorker slows down and takes a minute to think about September 11, obviously they will remember the horrible events of that day, but that will be quickly followed up with a story about some act of kindness from a random stranger. I think that has softened us quite a bit.
Joan Mastropaolo: What has stayed the same in New York City is the tremendous pride and commitment that our residents have for our city. …[W]hat has changed is the level of diligence on the part of New Yorkers in watching their surroundings, being more observant and reporting anything that looks suspicious. We are much more protective of our city and ourselves than we ever were, and that needs to continue.
Paul Ianelli: The one thing that stayed the same for New Yorkers is the pride of being a New Yorker. New Yorkers take great pleasure in living in the greatest city in the world. 9/11 made New Yorkers lose their sense of fearlessness and security, causing them to feel vulnerable.
Bruce Powers: Bonding among those directly affected remains strong, as does curiosity among visitors to the World Trade Center site. [But] the salience of 9/11 within American life has slowly abated.
How have you changed? To put it another way, what’s the most important thing you learned from your experience on 9/11?
Mastropaolo: 9/11 was a wake up call for me. …I was absorbed in my career, and had little time or energy for family, friends or any activities outside of my own circle of interests. After 9/11, the amount of care and support I received from my family, friends and total strangers was overwhelming. I encountered the human spirit, and I learned how rewarding it is to serve others in times of great need. I decided that I would dedicate myself to giving back and instilling a message of hope and healing for others in need—that I would be a seed of service.
Ianelli: 9/11 has taught me to appreciate every minute of my life. I wake up every morning and thank God for the privilege of this day. I learned not to take life too serious, [to] never stress over the little things in life and to realize what is truly important: to be happy.
Crawford: I was always curious about why things were certain ways, but after September 11 my curiosity increased tenfold. I needed to know why this happened to us. The most important thing I learned was probably the simplest: There is a lot of bad in this world, but it is far outweighed by the good that people do on a daily basis.
Is there anything you want to remind people of about 9/11 that you think they’ve forgotten over the past 15 years?
Hood: Of the 2,753 people killed at the World Trade Center, the remains of over 1,100 have never been identified. So for many family members, their only solace is the sanctuary of places like the 9/11 Memorial and the Tribute Center.
Ianelli: Initially after 9/11 there was so much kindness and respect in New York City. It was wonderful how people became united. However, these wonderful conditions did not last and faded away with time.
Powers: The bonding and sharing among Americans in 9/11’s aftermath was striking. I imagine Pearl Harbor’s aftermath was similar.
Crawford: I believe when people think about September 11, the first thing they think about is obviously the planes hitting the buildings. They think about the evil that occurred that day and they think about the loss, but what they don’t remember [are] the acts of compassion and love that people from all over the world showed us that day.
Mastropaolo: With the passage of time and the stresses of everyday life, it’s easy for some people to forget what happened on 9/11. To them, I say, “Never forget and never take anything for granted.” Not only did 2,753 people die here on 9/11, but thousands responded selflessly to restore our city and to restore our national pride and dignity. Many of those people are now very ill, and some have already died. Families were forever broken. …We must also never forget all those who serve or have served in our military to protect our greatest gift of all—our freedom.
Has something surprised you about how things turned out after 15 years, something you might not have imagined on 9/11?
Hood: Yes—the renewal and transformation of the place commonly known as “Ground Zero”.
Powers: For me personally, relating my 9/11 Pentagon story monthly in New York City now is not something I foresaw at all.
Ianelli: I am not only surprised but shocked that the events of 9/11 are not taught to the children in the New York City schools. …In New York and other U.S. cities, many young children have NO knowledge of 9/11. The other surprising thing is how much goodness came out of the evils of 9/11. I was moved beyond tears from all the love and support from all the people from all over the world who wanted to help in any way possible. It helped restore my faith in humanity, and helped lift us up and out of those dark days following 9/11.
Mastropaolo: I always knew that we would create a very beautiful memorial to honor those who perished on 9/11, but our memorial is even more powerful and symbolic than I ever would have imagined. When I stand at the reflective pools and absorb the soothing calm of the waterfalls…I reflect on the personal loss. I also reflect on how we came together with pride and unity to protect our freedom, and to rescue, recover and rebuild.
Crawford: September 11 was the worst day of my life. Losing my father has been the hardest thing I’ve had to overcome. What surprised me was the fact that September 11 would come to be one of the best days of my life as well. That may sound strange, but we had relatives and friends from all over the country come to our house to wish us well and show their compassion for our loss. …After they found my father and everybody went home, that was actually when I felt the most alone—that was when my depression started. I didn’t get that feeling of togetherness [again] until I did my first tour at the Tribute Center.
If you could say one thing to your younger self, the person you were on or immediately after 9/11, what would it be?
Powers: Use common experiences to forge bonds with others.
Mastropaolo: I would say to myself, “Never underestimate your own strength or the strength of the human spirit. We will recover and we will come back stronger and more resilient than we ever were.”
Crawford: If I could say one thing to my younger self on September 11, it would honestly be to try to focus more. There are so many details from that day that I can’t remember, just because of…how traumatized I was. [T]here were so many memories [and] so many things that I don’t remember that I wish I did. From people I never met giving me a bottle of water, to the signs that people from Idaho to Texas made that they held up at Ground Zero—these are the things I wish I could recall.
Ianelli: The one thing I would say to my younger self is how life…can change in a flash. That I should live my life with no [regrets]. I should love and cherish my family and never take anything for granted.
What are some of the lasting impacts of 9/11 that you see now, 15 years later?
Powers: Lots of “security theater”—TSA at airports, security guards elsewhere, other “preventatives”— but also a sense of shared community.
Crawford: Unfortunately, for me [one] of the lasting impacts…that I think people feel the most is fear. Instead of the message of love and compassion, which is really what September 11 was all about.
Ianelli: The lasting impact of 9/11 is the fear that is always in our minds, along with the long term suffering of so many people. Many first responders and rescue workers have health problems, such as 9/11 related cancers [and] respiratory illness, and many people are affected mentally.
Is there anything you think most people don’t understand about 9/11?
Crawford: The main thing that I believe people don’t understand about September 11 is the fact that aggression doesn’t necessarily solve your issues. I believe a lot of people want to react with aggression to get even, as if it will bring some type of healing. I lost my father and countless other people lost love ones because of naked aggression. I think as the United States we are better than that and should act accordingly.
Ianelli: People need to understand that 9/11 has many long-term effects on New Yorkers. The healing process will take many years for some normalcy to come back into people’s lives.
How would you describe the 9/11 Tribute Center to someone who’s never been there?
Hood: It’s like a home for those affected by the events of September 11, 2001, and we are like family.
Mastropaolo: The 9/11 Tribute Center brings together a family of volunteers—all with a 9/11/01 or 2/26/93 connection—who have come together with one common mission: to share our 9/11 Story, to pay tribute to those who lost their lives on 9/11 and 2/26/93, and to instill hope for a better tomorrow.
Ianelli: The 9/11 Tribute center is a group of amazing people. They inspire me and [have] taught me what is to be brave and resilient. Their mission is to educate by sharing their personal stories of the effects of 9/11. They honor the victims that were lost on that horrific day.
Powers: A very good idea—offering first-hand information to WTC site visitors while permitting those directly affected to share their experiences. A feature of the family of Tribute Center docents is no “grief hierarchy” within its ranks. All are welcome in the family, regardless of whether you lost a relative, helped afterward, or were just nearby.
Crawford: I would describe the Tribute Center as a place of learning, contemplation and understanding. If you want to hear the stories that people who lived through September 11 have to tell…I honestly believe that [it’s] the best place to go. …This is a unique chance to hear history from the people who lived through it.
What do you want to tell the most recent generation of kids (and the generations to come) who weren’t alive on 9/11 or weren’t old enough to remember it?
Crawford: What I tell my children and all the people who come on the tour with me at the Tribute Center about September 11 is this: There is far more good in this world than there will ever be hate. Do not let anyone ever tell you different. People use hate to further their narrative of the world and believe it or not, September 11 proved to me that love will always win.
Mastropaolo: First, they should visit the Tribute Center and take a walking tour so that they can learn firsthand what happened here. They should be grateful every day for the freedom and privileges that we enjoy as Americans, and remember that freedom is not free. Our freedom was attacked on 9/11, and many people sacrificed their lives then, and are still doing so today, so that we can continue to enjoy our freedom. Always be grateful for the sacrifices of so many; never take anything for granted, and never, ever forget! Lastly, be a seed of service; volunteer; help others in time of need. It will add happiness and meaning to your life.
Hood: That despite the hateful act committed by the terrorists on 9/11/01 there were many acts of love and kindness shown by others. …I personally witnessed [how] ultimately love overcomes hate.
Ianelli: Generations to come should be educated of the events of 9/11. They should know that [the] victims were just ordinary people going to jobs to support their families. They lost their lives from those cowardly terrorist attacks. Yet evil did not prevail because New Yorkers, Americans and the world united and came together. Young people should understand that a simple act of kindness, no matter how small, has a great impact to people in need. Countless acts of kindness were shown on 9/11.
Powers: Be ready for disaster that could strike any time. You will find strength and resilience within yourself that may surprise you. Do what you can for others, and give some thought to what that help might be as you go about daily activities.
Responses have been condensed and edited.
To find out more about the 9/11 Tribute Center, visit tributewtc.org