NEW YORK – Speaking from the bedrock foundation of the fallen twin towers, President Barack Obama delivered a parable about self-sacrifice Thursday during the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial Hall and 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 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 some 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.”
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 concrete of the slurry wall, part of the twin towers' basement, stands at one side of the hall where the audience of survivor families, New York police and fire department officials, politicians and others gathered to dedicate the site.
“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.”
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.
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.