Field Museum’s 9/11 exhibit moving — in more ways than one

Today’s newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Field Museum’s new 9/11 exhibit moving — in more ways than one


Sept, 10, 2011

With its dimly lit exhibit halls and quiet corridors, I’ve always considered Field Museum to be the most somber of Chicago’s cultural institutions.

So, it seemed fitting when I learned last month that Field would play host to an exhibit marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And it felt just as fitting on Labor Day when I visited the museum for “Ground Zero 360°” to both honor and reflect upon one of the most tragic days in our nation’s history – and certainly one of the most memorable of my life.

I can still vividly recall how 10 years ago today, on Sept. 10, 2001, I was sitting with three college friends in the Wrigley Field bleachers as we watched the Cubs on a balmy, late-summer night.

After the game, I said goodbye and hopped in my car for the drive back to Ottawa, where I was then working at The Daily Times as a 25-year-old sports reporter. While cruising down the interstate beneath a canvas of stars and with our national pastime on my mind, the calendar rolled over to Sept. 11 and all seemed pretty much right with the world.

Until, of course, the next morning when it all went wrong.

At about 7:30 a.m., I strolled into the newsroom, flipped on my computer and began to put together that day’s sports section. About 20 minutes later, though, I recall an “URGENT” alert coming across the Associated Press national wire, reporting that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers in New York.

Like many, I initially assumed that it was just an odd accident. But, within minutes, I knew that wasn’t true as the wire’s floodgates opened and startling alerts began spilling out at a dizzying pace.

Planes had been hijacked. Both Trade Towers were ablaze. The Pentagon was smoldering, and another plane had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

Our nation was under attack, and Americans were dead. A lot of them. And over the next couple of hours, I counted as the AP filed 80 consecutive stories and alerts focusing solely on the terrorist attacks. None of them, though, struck me with more force than the one that read, both simply and inconceivably: “World Trade Center South Tower has collapsed.”

Monday, at Field Museum, “Ground Zero 360°” immediately returned me to the sadness of that day when I encountered a wall emblazoned with reproductions of missing person fliers posted by loved ones after 9/11.

With the faces of innocent victims smiling at me, I read messages as straightforward as: “Steve Lillianthal, employer – Cantor Fitzgerald, brown eyes and hair, goatee, 5’7”, 225 pounds,” and as detailed as: “Last heard from: 9/11/01 at 9:23 a.m., Bill [Kelly] e-mailed from the 106th floor of World Trade Center Building 1 that he could hear firemen approaching.”

Another one simply read, “Have You Seen My Daddy?”

“Ground Zero 360°,” which opened Sept. 2 and runs through Jan. 1, portrays the story of 9/11 and the days immediately following from the perspectives of a New York City police commander and a photojournalist. But what it really does is evoke your own personal perspective and memories of 9/11 as you study the previously unpublished photographs of the destruction, listen to the recordings of panicked police radio chatter from Ground Zero and even touch pieces of metal and granite that were once part of the Trade Towers.

For anyone who loves America, the exhibit is sure to move you. But, not just in the ways you might think.

Because, with photos from June of the sparkling 1,776-foot Freedom Tower now rising in Lower Manhattan, “Ground Zero 360°” does a 180° – and also inspires.