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WTC Tribute Center keeps the flame alive

By George Joseph
September 11, 2009 12:10 IST
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"When the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, the attackers said they would come back," recalls former New York firefighter Lee Ielpi. "Eight years later, they came back and destroyed the Center. The message here is to be constantly vigilant."

Lee lost son Jonathan, 29 and also a firefighter, in the 9/11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the Twin Towers. Jonathan's torn uniform is on display, along with other emotive memorabilia, at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center of which Lee is a co-founder.

He says though eight years have passed since the tragedy, he has no doubt that the "forces of evil" are merely biding their time and waiting for a chance to strike again. His concern is not with the ongoing 'War on Terror' but with the need to educate people on the evils of terrorism.

"If we don't educate the people, it will happen again," Lee warns. "Some say it is time to forget and to move on, but if we don't speak about 9/11, we will forget it -- and it will happen again."

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As part of this drive to keep the tragedy -- and the larger danger -- constantly in mind, Lee and others created the Tribute Center under the umbrella of the September 11th Families' Association, a not-for-profit incorporated in November 2001 by victims' families. The Center, across the street from Ground Zero, is the only memorial for the lives lost that day. The official Memorial and Museum at the WTC site is still years away from becoming a reality and in its absence, Lee points out, the Center fills a void, serving both as a meeting point for families of the victims and as a place for visitors to New York to pay homage to the victims, and the heroes.

It is not, Lee says, about continuing to grieve -- the reason victims' families come regularly to the Center is so they can share their experiences with visitors and thus help educate them on the dangers of terrorism.

Noting media reports that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have regrouped and are growing powerful again, Lee warned that it was necessary for both the government and the people to remain vigilant. "We have to take an active role. We have the capability and the technology for it. At the same time, enlightening the people about good values is also important," he said, lamenting that in the US, the events of 9/11 are not even taught in schools. "At this rate we will soon forget, which is dangerous."

And then there are those who have not yet attained closure of any kind. In this connection, Lee points out that the body parts of an estimated 1,125 victims have yet to be identified, and the families of these persons continue to consider them 'missing', rather than dead.

He recalls the time a lady objected fiercely to hanging a picture of her son in the gallery devoted to the dead. "Some people want to keep their hopes alive and want to live with it," Lee said. "They do not want to accept the reality."

Lee had, starting in 2002, begun channelling his personal grief at the loss of his son into public activity. He started out giving tours of the WTC site, taking visitors over the rubble and explaining what happened. In 2004 Jennifer Adams, president of the Families' Association, suggested creating a non profit visitors center, and Lee signed on. The Center was designed at a cost of $3.4 million, funded by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Port Authority, and opened its doors in 2006 with the motto 'Person to Person History'.

The Center is comprised of five distinct galleries, with each exhibit and each photograph telling the story of a life lost at Ground Zero. Visitors are encouraged to ask questions, and invited to write in the visitors' book about how 9/11 affected them, and what they hope to do to educate others. A tour through the Center gives you the impression that it is a monument both to what was lost, and what was found, that day. Thus, if the lives lost are the focal point of the Center, what it celebrates through the many people wandering the galleries at any given point in time is the renewed sense of community that has emerged in the wake of 9/11.

Walking through the galleries is an emotionally draining experience; the Center records in excess of 350,000 visitors annually and many are seen to break down as they progress through the galleries -- those running the Center have thoughtfully provided Kleenex at various stations for the emotionally overcome.

While adult visitors wander through the Center, stopping when some particularly emotive exhibit catches the eye, the Center offers a deeper educational experience in the form of guided gallery experiences for students in grade 5-12. It also provides audio walking tours of the site, and a comprehensive educational web site.

Lee, who is on the board of the official Memorial and Museum, hopes it will be built before the planned new buildings at the WTC site come up. The museum project has already collected sufficient funds, and the design is excellent, Lee says. Once the official Memorial and Museum is opened, the Center may be moved to that location, "but nothing is decided yet," says Lee.

His own experiences have given him a greater awareness of terrorism worldwide including in India. "Some day I hope to do something in the field of education there," he says.

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