Should the New 9/11 Museum Tell the Whole Truth?

Victims' families say yes.

For a vivid example of the struggle going on over the legacy of 9/11, one had only to travel last Thursday from John Jay College on Tenth Avenue to the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, across from what was once called Ground Zero.

At John Jay, there was a ceremony to announce the opening of a new center to study disaster response named for Christian Regenhard, a probationary firefighter killed on 9/11.

Speakers noted that there were missteps and outright errors on 9/11 that deserve to be studied, and mentioned the respiratory problems afflicting thousands.

Retired fire chief Jim Riches:"It should all be in there."
Willie Davis/ Veras
Retired fire chief Jim Riches:"It should all be in there."
Sally Regenhard, with her husband Al and daughter Christina, at the John Jay center named for her son, Christian.
Willie Davis/ Veras
Sally Regenhard, with her husband Al and daughter Christina, at the John Jay center named for her son, Christian.

"The response to the disaster was incompetent at best," said Representative Jerrold Nadler during the event. "We have thousands of sick workers who should not be sick, and many responders who died who would not have died had the response been better."

Meanwhile, at Tribute WTC, tourists paid $10 each and filed into a warren of rooms that present a limited version of the story. The exhibit displays crumpled artifacts from the collapses and some quotes about the first hours of the disaster, but without context. FDNY radio excerpts are heard, but there is no mention of the widespread communication problems that day.

The hard work at the site is mentioned, but nothing about the health fallout. The World Trade Center is depicted as a great human achievement, with not a word about its years as a white elephant subsisting on government subsidies.

There's a bit of politics, too: a favorable snapshot of Rudy Giuliani, and rah-rah quotes from President Bush and Governor Pataki.

Elsewhere, a gauzy documentary film accompanied by a suitably maudlin soundtrack depicts American flags, funeral carriages, grimy men in uniform saluting—in other words, all the iconic City Hall–approved images, again without any of the negative stuff.

But the Tribute Center is only a preview of the much more ambitious 9/11 museum to be completed in 2011. That's where the real battle over the legacy will be fought.

Last week, construction workers set the first column for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which will cost close to $1 billion by the time it is completed.

The Voice wondered what people who lost relatives wanted to see in the museum: a "respectfully" sanitized version of events, like that at Tribute WTC, or the sort of full context that was being talked about at John Jay?

Retired fire chief Jim Riches, who lost his son on 9/11, says the history of the attacks shouldn't be cleaned up for public consumption. "I don't want to tell them what to do, but it should tell the story of the day," Riches says. "It should all be in there so the next generation doesn't make the same mistakes again. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it."

Rosaleen Tallon, who lost her brother Sean in the attacks, says she believes the museum's curators should try to produce an unbiased examination of the day's events, but doesn't think they'll offer anything like that. "I find it very hard to believe that there will be any serious discussion about the emergency response that day. It's still in the control of the government, and so not everyone's truth is going to be told," she says. "It's going to have a bit of propaganda—but, unfortunately, that's the way the history of 9/11 is being written."

Sally Regenhard, the mother of the firefighter that the John Jay College center will be named after, has been among the most politically active of the 9/11 family members. She says she believes that "political correctness" will eliminate any honest discussion of 9/11. "The entire story should be recounted, including the disastrous breakdown in communication, the lack of planning, the fact that the city was not prepared, the flaws in the towers' design," she says. "But I don't see it being done. It's awful to think that history will be flavored by political correctness."

Lieutenant James McCaffrey, a firefighter who lost his brother-in-law, says the museum should focus on remembrance and what he calls the "terror and horror, what happened and who did it, and the bravery and magnificence."

McCaffrey also believes that the museum has a responsibility to tell the full story. "Were there failures of the radios? Yes. Was there lack of preparedness? Yes. Look at Giuliani's command center—will they put that in there? I don't think so, but they should. It was part of that day, part of that story."

There are also a number of experts who hope the full story is told. Glenn Corbett, an associate professor at John Jay who has spent years advocating for changes in how high-rises are built and fires fought, says the museum has to answer this question: "Are we going to pretend there were no flaws, or are we going to tell the true story?"

Corbett says the museum should discuss the radio failures, and how the buildings were designed, and how flaws in that design were exposed on 9/11.

"The bottom line is that we want people to think, not just remember, and come to their own conclusions when they leave," Corbett says. "They should be given as many sides to the equation as possible and then allowed to draw their own conclusions."

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