One wall at the new visitors center at the World Trade Center site is covered with the missing-person fliers that blanketed the city in the days after the attacks. Nearby is a piece from one of the downed planes; another section holds twisted metal.
The items on display are somber reminders of death — yet there are also mementos of life's vibrant moments, like wedding photos, a baseball and a swim cap.
The Tribute WTC Visitor Center, built to offer visitors to ground zero a glimpse into the lives of the people who were lost and the towers that once stood there, opened Wednesday to private visits from victims' families, survivors and recovery workers. It opens to the public on Sept. 18.
"Tribute is the critical word, because for all the horror, for all the loss on Sept. 11, we can never forget the courage with which New Yorkers responded," Gov. George Pataki said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the south edge of the trade center site.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the center, which offers guided tours of the site led by people with experience of the 2001 attacks — survivors, area residents, victims' family members — will serve as a temporary memorial space until the official memorial opens in 2009.
"As we all know, there's a tremendous need to create a sacred place of remembrance, right here, right now," Bloomberg said. "Not only for those of us who lived through the attacks but also for the millions of visitors from around the world who come to ground zero to pay their respects."
Created at the impetus of the September 11th Families Association, the center tries to give visitors an understanding of what happened on the day of the attacks. The opening gallery has the trade center area's street plan inlaid into the floor; a model of the twin towers is on a table.
Two sections of wall have been turned into a giant photo gallery, filled with images of smiling faces sent in by victims' families. There's the woman in her wedding dress, the man lying down with his toddler son, the proud graduate. Interspersed are personal mementoes, like the green swim cap with Chicago Triathalon emblazoned on it, a baseball, a rosary of blue beads.
"These were people, these were human beings," Bloomberg said. "They're not just names, they're people."
Having someplace physical, with artifacts people can see, will make a difference in making sure people remember Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath, said Alexander Santora, who leads tours at the site and talks about his firefighter son, Christopher, who died that day.
"You need something to fill this void," he said. "This is history, and it needs to be told accurately."