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9/11: May we never forget

It has been five years since the 9/11 Memorial and Museum was opened on May 21, 2014. More than 10 million people have since visited the museum, gazing on stark exhibits of twisted metal, emergency vehicles, glass-encased artifacts of the mundane — computers, shoes, glasses, receipts — along with galleries of photographs, all bearing witness to the horrors of that heart-rending day when nearly 3,000 people died in the attack on the Twin Towers.

Time passes and it works against us, the images become less defined, despite our wish to remember, and yet we understand that not forgetting is a way to honor those lost and those who loved them.

I had forgotten that 343 New York firefighters died that day, moving ever upward to face that from which others were fleeing. The upper floors burned, the heat so intense that people clung to the outside of the buildings and others, in desperation, standing on ledges or clinging to broken windows, chose to drop into an empty void.

And then, unexpectedly, with a heart-stopping finality, the top floors of the towers, one after the other, dropped downward, crushing all that was below, finally landing and creating a dense, choking cloud of gritty soot and ash. And people came running out of the billowing haze, their faces mask-like white, coughing, terrified.

What had occurred was at first so much a dream that its meaning, the full scope of the tragedy, was all but impossible to grasp. And yet almost immediately the search for survivors began beneath ragged beams of concrete. And there were already lists of the missing and, of course, the dead. And everywhere, like a lethal shroud, was the dust, silky and gritty and ever present.

Slowly, gradually, the full import and impact of what had occurred penetrated and the ripples formed concentric circles of pain and loss, moving ever outward from what would soon become known as “Ground Zero.”

I recall watching the news in silent disbelief, riveted. And I recall that the day after, it was twilight slipping into night, and a news camera panned slowly along a brick wall only a short block away from the grotesque, starkly lighted rubble where searches continued. On that wall were photographs of people, their visages bracketed by pleas to call home. Other frayed notes asked in shaky blocked letters: IF YOU SEE THIS IF YOU SEE THIS PERSON LAST SEEN . And there were small bouquets of flowers and small votive candles casting transcendent shadows on the gray sidewalk. It was a wall of tragedy, of denial and hope, a collective gasp of anguish insisting that the outcome most feared would not come to pass. The wall was a shrine; it was sacred ground.

I will never forget that while those images filled the television screen, there was a silence unbroken and then softly, tentatively, Leonard Cohen’s hauntingly beautiful song, “Hallelujah,” sung by James Buckley, began, and the camera’s slow journey along the wall continued. I remember my eyes welling with tears from the enormity and sadness of it all.

I’ve since been reminded that 9/11 has, since that most awful day in September, 2001, exacted a price in terms of human suffering which continues. Countless times the number 343 has been whispered. Yet we know now that many of those who arrived in the aftermath and stayed and searched and refused to abandon the fallen, continue to suffer and die.

Though initially told by the EPA that the air was safe, they have since learned that it was indeed toxic, saturated with 2,500 contaminants and 100,000 tons of organic debris. And so those who searched what was hallowed ground have paid a price and face still the harsh reality of cancer, respiratory illness, asthma, blood disease and a constellation of other disabling afflictions. For them, and for those lost on that one singular day, we must not forget.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.