As the sixth anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 terror attack approaches, construction of a memorial and museum at the site of the former World Trade Center has been underway for more than a year. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum is slated for a partial opening in 2009. But some survivors, families of the victims, rescue workers and community members have been working on a memorial project of their own, a visitors center they hope will be integrated into the museum when it finally opens its doors. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim reports.
Lee Ielpi is one of the founders of the Tribute Center, the visitors center located at Ground Zero, the seven-hectare area where the Twin Towers once stood. He lost his son, a New York City firefighter, on September 11th. A retired firefighter himself, Ielpi volunteered at the recovery site but always felt the need to do more. He says that when he realized the national museum and memorial weren't going to be finished until at least 2009, he wanted something sooner. So in 2004, he and co-founder Jennifer Adams began work on an "interim museum." They felt tourists and visitors deserved a more immediate interpretation of the area.
"Before that, there was a fence, and you would come here and you'd look through a fence," Ielpi said. "And you wouldn't know what you were looking at. You didn't know if you were in the right spot."
Ielpi says the Tribute Center aims to show visitors the "right spots" at Ground Zero, with the right people. Two-hundred volunteers made up of survivors, family members, rescue workers and lower Manhattan residents work at the center. They offer walking tours of the area and are on hand to speak with visitors.
The Tribute Center is composed of five small galleries in a space that was a fast food restaurant before September 11. The galleries show artifacts recovered from the site including firefighter badges. Quotations on the walls are from oral histories of survivors and witnesses. Located across the street from the National Museum, the Tribute Center is independent of the museum but collaborates with it.
The Center's exhibits director, Wendy Aibel-Weiss, says the center has a cooperative relationship with the future National Museum. She says the Tribute Center has a very personal approach.
"The one thing that is special to the Tribute Center, that's unique to this place, which may or may not be happening across the street, is that everything in our museum is an authentic story," she said. "Everything that's said here are people's real experiences."
Aibel-Weiss says the center has received almost 300,000 visitors since it opened in September of 2006, but has not done any formal outreach.
Co-founder Ielpi is also on the board of the National Museum, but he says he is not sure what the museum has in mind for the Tribute Center. He says he hopes the two will merge.
"What we'd like to see, and what so many people are now talking about, is picking us up and moving us across the street and we'd become the visitors' center across the street," he said. "Sounds like the right thing to do."
Ielpi says the Tribute Center, which was created with help from the September 11th Families Association, is only about family. He says there are no politics involved, but the families of the victims have often disagreed on what should be created on the World Trade Center site.