By turns chilling and heartbreaking, a place of both deathly silence and distressing sounds, the National September 11 Memorial Museum opens this week deep beneath ground zero, 12½ years after the terrorist attacks.
The project was marked by construction problems, financial squabbles and disputes over the appropriate way to honor the nearly 3,000 people killed in New York, Washington and the Pennsylvania countryside.
Whatever the challenges in conceiving it, "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 privately operated museum -- built along with the memorial plaza above for $700 million in donations and tax dollars -- will be dedicated Thursday with a visit from President Barack Obama and will be open initially to victims' families, survivors and first responders. It will open to the public May 21.
Charles G. Wolf, who lost his wife, Katherine, planned to be at the ceremonial opening.
"I'm looking forward to tomorrow, and I'm dreading tomorrow," he said Wednesday. "It brings everything up."
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, stairs and ramps lead people on an unsettling journey into 9/11.
First, a dark corridor is filled with the voices of people remembering the day. Then visitors find themselves looking over a cavernous space, 70 feet below ground, at the last steel column removed during the ground zero cleanup -- a totem covered with the numbers of police precincts and firehouses and other messages.
Descend farther -- past the battered "survivors' staircase" that hundreds used to escape the burning towers -- and 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.
And then, through a revolving door, visitors are plunged into the chaos of Sept. 11: fragments of planes, a teddy bear left at the impromptu memorials that arose after the attacks, video of the twin towers collapsing and people running from plumes of dust, footage of an astronaut solemnly describing the smoke plume from high above Earth ("I just wanted the folks to know that their city still looks very beautiful from space," Frank Culbertson says), and the sounds of emergency radio transmissions and office workers calling loved ones.
Sprinkled among stories of heroism are snippets about the hijackers, including photos of all 19 on an inconspicuous panel.
"I'm still processing" the impact of seeing the museum, said Anthony Garner, who lost his brother Harvey on 9/11 and visited on Wednesday. He said it will show visitors "that they're in a very sacred place and a very historic place."