NEW YORK – President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama toured the Sept. 11 museum on Thursday, viewing a memorial wall with photos of victims and a mangled fire truck, ahead of a ceremony marking its opening.
Obama walked quietly through an expansive hall with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with the first lady, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton following behind them.
Obama was set to speak at the dedication ceremony later Thursday, with hundreds of dignitaries and Sept. 11 victims' relatives, survivors and rescuers there to view the museum built to commemorate the 2001 terrorist attack, as well as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The museum opens to the public May 21.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former New York Gov. George Pataki were among those attending, as was actor Robert De Niro, a museum board member.
By turns chilling and heartbreaking, the ground zero museum leads people on an unsettling journey through the terrorist attacks, with forays into their lead up and legacy.
There are scenes of horror, including videos of the skyscrapers collapsing and people falling from them. But there also are symbols of heroism, ranging from damaged fire trucks to the wristwatch of one of the airline passengers who confronted the hijackers.
"You won't walk out of this museum without a feeling that you understand humanity in a deeper way," museum President Joe Daniels said Wednesday.
The museum and memorial plaza above, which opened in 2011, were built for $700 million in donations and tax dollars. Work on the museum was marked by construction problems, financial squabbles and disputes over its content and the appropriate way to honor the dead, but its leaders see it as a monument to unity and resilience.
And its opening is prompting reflection from presidents and the everyday people whose lives were changed by the attacks. Former President George W. Bush issued a statement Wednesday saying the museum "will help ensure that our nation remembers the lessons of Sept. 11."
Visitors start in an airy pavilion where the rusted tops of two of the World Trade Center's trident-shaped columns shoot upward. From there, museumgoers descend stairs and ramps, passing through a dark corridor filled with the voices of people remembering the day and past the battered "survivors' staircase" that hundreds used to escape the burning towers.
At the base level — 70 feet below ground, amid remnants of the skyscrapers' foundations — there are such artifacts as a mangled piece of the antenna from atop the trade center and a fire truck with its cab shorn off.
Then, galleries plunge visitors into the chaos of Sept. 11: fragments of planes, a set of keys to the trade center, a teddy bear left at the impromptu memorials that arose after the attacks, the dust-covered shoes of those who fled the skyscrapers' collapse, emergency radio transmissions and office workers calling loved ones, even a recording of an astronaut solemnly describing the smoke plume from the International Space Station.
Sprinkled in are snippets about the 19 hijackers, including photos of them on an inconspicuous panel.