Talismans and Touchstones

Alice Greenwald '73 tells the story of 9/11 using everyday objects recovered from the wreckage

by Christopher Hann

A watch. A packet of letters. A wallet. Two company identification cards. A New York City Fire Department helmet. The commonplace objects resting on the long table in a 20th-floor conference room in lower Manhattan mean little if you don’t know the stories they inspire. Telling those stories is the job of Alice Greenwald ’73.

Greenwald is the director of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, now being built on the grounds of the World Trade Center complex. The objects arrayed on the table before her were recovered in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—the letters, wallet, ID cards, and helmets salvaged from the ruins of the Twin Towers, the watch retrieved from the site of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. “Museums tell stories with stuff,” Greenwald says, gesturing toward the items on the table. “It’s not enough to have your story. You have to have the stuff to tell the story.”

There may be no museum director anywhere who is more qualified to tell the tale of 9/11. Having worked for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, for 20 years, first as a consultant and then as the associate director for museum programs, Greenwald has ample experience in the delicate art of narrating a tale of mass murder. Yet building the 9/11 Museum presents distinct challenges. For one, the museum is being constructed on the very site of the catastrophe it will reflect. For another, the relative newness of the event deprives Greenwald and her staff of the benefit of wider historical perspective.

“There’s not a whole lot yet that has been written,” she says. “So figuring out what story we were going to tell was really a huge responsibility, because in some respects we were codifying the narrative by just making the choices we made, which is intimidating.”

Greenwald can trace her affinity for a well-told story to her experience at Sarah Lawrence, where she focused on English literature and anthropology. When she spent her junior year studying folklore at Exeter University in England, she became intrigued by myths and rituals. Later, while pursuing a master’s degree in the history of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, she took a summer internship at the Spertus Museum in Chicago. She loved it. “I was like a duck in water,” Greenwald says. “I think I never lost my interest in how people make meaning. I think that was at the root of all those things I was studying.”

For Greenwald, deciding how to tell the story of 9/11—she calls it “the most digitally documented event of all time”—has been an evolutionary process, shaped and reshaped by the many constituent groups who have what she calls “a particular sense of ownership” in the story. Preservationists, historians, architects, neighborhood residents, security experts, survivors, relatives of those killed in the Twin Towers—they all had ideas about how the museum should represent the 9/11 experience. And so, not long after she started the job, in April 2006, Greenwald convened a series of discussions with representatives of those groups.

“We began by asking really big questions,” she says. “What’s our opportunity here? What do we have to be careful about? And then we moved to a much more rigorous effort of trying to look at the real challenges we were facing. How do you deal with the question of human remains? How do you deal with the perpetrators? How do you present this very difficult history for younger visitors?”

The 110,000-square-foot museum, built seven stories below street level, is scheduled to open sometime in 2014. For all that was lost on that late-summer day in 2001, the National September 11 Memorial Museum will tell its story largely through the objects that were found among the rubble.

The Watch

WatchFound: Shanksville, PA
Owner: Todd Beamer

Wearing thin white cotton gloves to pre-vent contact with her skin, Alice Greenwald picks up the tattered remnants of a silver-and-gold watch. None of the crystal over the face remains, and one of the hands is missing. Greenwald notes the date wheel, which is frozen at 11.

This watch, she explains, belonged to Todd Beamer, a 32-year-old account manager from New Jersey who was aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Speaking on an airplane telephone after the hijacking commenced over eastern Ohio, Beamer told a phone company supervisor that he was joining his fellow passengers in trying to forcibly resist the hijackers. The supervisor later reported that she overheard Beamer telling his fellow passengers, "Let's roll," a catchphrase that President George W. Bush later adopted as a rallying cry for US troops who were called into war in the months following 9/11.

The watch has been loaned to the museum by Beamer's wife, Lisa, who was five months pregnant with their third child when Flight 93, traveling at 563 miles per hour, crashed into that open field near Shanksville, killing all 33 passengers, the seven crew members, and the four hijackers.

The cleanup of the World Trade Center yielded little in the way of evidentiary material, and for roughly 40 percent of the 2,753 people killed there on 9/11, no remains were found. "For families who never received any physical remains of their loved one, to receive personal property is extraordinarily meaningful," she says. To Greenwald the storyteller, the Beamer watch represents an especially valuable found object, providing an entry point into the story of Flight 93. "This is something that happened to another human being, a person like us," she says. "And I think that's very much a message that this museum continually wants to communicate— that this is not an abstraction. Terrorism is not an abstraction."

The Letters

LettersFound: South Tower
Owner: Hazem Gamal

The collapse of the Twin Towers transformed the 16-acre World Trade Center campus into a wasteland of ruptured steel and pulverized concrete. Nothing, it appeared, had survived intact. Nothing was recognizable as an office chair, a desk, a bookcase, a telephone, a computer. Nothing.

But then …

Greenwald picks up the packet of letters, weathered and frayed around their edges. They bear the Upper West Side address for “Hazem Gamal.” Then a 33-year-old assistant vice president at OppenheimerFunds, Gamal worked on the 34th floor of the South Tower, and had stored the letters in a filing cabinet near his desk. In December 2001, three months after the towers fell, a demolition consultant from North Carolina named Ray Coleman, who had led the overnight shift of the round-the-clock demolition teams removing rubble from the site, found the packet of letters amid the detritus of the towers’ demise.

Greenwald shakes her head at the thought that this modest clutch of papers, of all things, would be found at all. They had been slightly singed, then waterlogged, and the large clip had rusted, but the letters were essentially unharmed. Coleman held on to the letters for nearly a year, reluctant to learn whether Gamal was dead or alive. Finally he found a phone listing for Gamal, and one evening in November 2002 he dialed the number.

Gamal’s wife, Elizabeth, picked up. Without going into detail, Coleman explained that he had some things that might be of interest to her husband. Elizabeth suspected that the stranger with the Southern accent was trying to pull a fraud. When her husband walked through the door, home from work, she handed him the phone.

A few days later, a small box arrived in the mail at OppenheimerFunds. Hazem Gamal opened the box and found not only the packet of letters but a two-page note from Coleman, written in pencil on lined paper. “I hope that you will cherish these papers, and cherish your family,” Coleman wrote. “If this project did anything for me, it has taught me to love every minute, love my family and friends, and take time to do the things that are really important.”

And then Coleman apologized for waiting so long to track down Gamal and return his letters.

The Wallet

WalletFound: South Tower
Owner: Robert Gschaar

Sometimes what is found confirms what has been lost. Greenwald gestures toward a thin, brown leather wallet and begins the story of Robert and Myrta Gschaar. On the morning of 9/11, Robert, 55, was in his office at Aon, the global insurance company, in the South Tower. When the tower fell, he was among the 176 Aon employees who did not survive.

Myrta had difficulty coming to grips with the death of the man who’d become a doting stepfather to her four daughters. When the couple married in 1989, Robert gave Myrta a $2 bill. The marriage was the second for each of them, the bill a token of their second chance at love. Robert kept another $2 bill in his wallet.

Sometime late in 2003, the New York City Police Department’s Property Clerk Division notified Myrta that some of her husband’s possessions had been found. When she finally retrieved them in 2005, she was given Robert’s brown leather wallet. She opened it and saw her husband’s $2 bill.

“What she has said to us,” says Greenwald, “was that it was the first time that she could accept that he was gone. So for her this was a message from him, and a kind of affirmation.”

Myrta Gschaar donated her husband’s wallet with the $2 bill, as well as the $2 bill that her husband had given her, to the 9/11 Museum. She donated her husband’s wedding ring as well, which was also recovered in the debris.

“It’s an interesting thing that for some of the people so personally affected by this event, the museum collection becomes a kind of safekeeping repository,” Greenwald says. “And then the question for us is, How do you make use of such highly personal material? And for us it’s in the service of not only the story of what happened, but also our obligation as a memorial museum to commemorate the individuals, to not forget the individuals.”

The ID Cards

ID CardsFound: North Tower
Owners: Abraham Zelmanowitz and Edward Beyea

The tattered identification cards bear the names and images of Abraham Zelmanowitz and Edward Beyea. They were computer programmers for Empire BlueCross BlueShield, working on the 27th floor of the North Tower. Beyea was 42. Zelmanowitz was 55. Neither was married. In the dozen years they worked together they became close friends, and in the weeks that followed 9/11 their story became known around the world.

Beyea was a quadriplegic, injured in a diving accident when he was 21. He used a wheelchair to get around and typed using a stick he operated with his mouth. At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower, thousands of office workers raced down the building’s staircases. But Zelmanowitz stayed put. He would not leave Beyea behind. At 9:59 a.m., 73 minutes after the North Tower was hit, Zelmanowitz and Beyea were together when they heard the deafening collapse of the South Tower.

Before long they were joined by firefighter William Burke, 46, the son of a New York City firefighter and the captain of Engine Company 21. Burke had already ordered those firefighters under his command to evacuate the North Tower. He stayed behind and helped Zelmanowitz carry Beyea down the staircase. At one point Burke called a friend, who was watching the calamity in lower Manhattan unfold on television. She pleaded with him to get out of the building. Later she recalled what Burke had told her. “This is my job,” he said. “This is who I am.”

When the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m., all three men perished. Burke was the only member of Engine Company 21 to die on 9/11. Three days later, in a speech at the National Cathedral, President Bush spoke of Zelmanowitz’s bravery and selflessness.

“These two little ID cards—the serendipity of survival, of these things being found—allow us to talk about first responders’ heroism, civilian selflessness, the real-life circumstances of people in that building that day,” Greenwald says. “But the legacy is so much bigger.”

The FDNY Helmet

FDNY HelmetWorn in: South Tower, Stairwell B
Owner: Lt. Mickey Kross

The helmet on the table belongs to New York City Fire Department Lieutenant Mickey Kross of Engine Company 16. Following the collapse of the South Tower, Mickey Kross was descending the core staircase inside the North Tower, known as Stairwell B, following orders to evacuate the building. By 10:28 a.m., he’d made it to the third floor when he heard what he would later describe as “a tremendous roar” and felt a wind, “a very, very fierce wind” that began to lift him off the ground. He crouched in a corner of the staircase, fearing that he was about to die, cursing his fate. “I just got as small as I could possibly get,” Kross said in an interview for the museum’s oral history archives. “I guess the best way to describe it: I tried to crawl into my fire helmet. That’s what I wanted to do just to protect myself.”

And then … silence. In time, in the dark and dust-filled stairwell, Kross heard voices cry out. He was not alone. Eleven other firefighters were trapped in Stairwell B, along with three office workers and a Port Authority police officer. Above them lay 50 feet of twisted metal and crushed concrete. For three hours Kross and the others waited in the dark. And then, when the dust finally began to settle, Kross saw a beam of light about a foot wide. He looked up at what used to be a 110-story building, and he saw sunlight. “That’s how he knew he wasn’t dead,” Greenwald says.

Kross and the others were rescued from Stairwell B about four hours after the collapse of the North Tower. He emerged to find buildings in ruins and fires burning in every direction. In the destruction, Kross came across a playing card, a two of clubs, somehow unharmed. Later he would inscribe it with a line from Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Stand the hazard of the die,” a reference to Richard’s willingness to accept the consequences of risk.

The helmets. The ID cards. The wallet. The letters. The watch. For Greenwald, these found objects and hundreds of others will inform the very mission of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, physical remnants that will serve as touchstones for visitors as they relive that most wretched day. "When you come into the space of the memorial exhibition, you're going to see, floor to ceiling, all the way around you, the faces and names of those who were killed," she says. "Just looking at them—they’re ages 2½ to 85. It's people from over 90 nations. And those people could have been us. So understanding the humanity of these people is really key."

Photography for this article is by Chris Taggart