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9/11 digital archives: Visitors tell us their stories

Visitors to the museum's 2011 commemorative event September 11: Remembrance and Reflection were invited to share their stories with the museum. Intern Sara Halpert has been digitizing these comment cards.

I was 11 on September 11, 2001. After my sister shook me awake, I watched the second plane hit the South tower on a small TV screen in our kitchen in Thousand Oaks, California. This summer, I've had the opportunity to immerse myself in a variety of diverse perspectives and reflections on the events of that day 13 years ago, which I saw through child's eyes.

Objects from the Pentagon in the September 11: Remembrance and Reflection exhibit
Objects from the Pentagon in the 10th anniversary event

Like Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President Kennedy for previous generations, the way each of us witnessed 9/11 may never be far from the minds of those who lived through it. Preserving American history is not just about the objects and people directly involved in major events, but also about recording how these events changed the American people as a whole.

For the museum's 10th anniversary commemoration, September 11: Remembrance and Reflection, the Smithsonian asked visitors to leave comment cards. Some of the cards asked, "How did you witness history on September 11, 2001?" Other cards asked, "How has your life changed because of September 11, 2001?"

Visitor Rachel Jones shares her story
Visitor Rachel Jones shares her story

Part of my job while interning in the Division of Armed Forces History has been to scan these comment cards into the Online Digital Archive. I have found that many of the same sentiments and themes kept showing up in card after card. Interested in getting a bigger picture of these individual comments, I took a random selection of responses to the question, "How has your life changed because of September 11, 2001?" and inserted them into a word cloud generator.

A word cloud generator takes all the content it receives and creates an image composed of the most used words. The words that appear the most often in the text appear the largest in the world cloud. The cloud depicts the kind of heart-felt and emotional responses we received.

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/hires.aviary.com/k/mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp/14080118/5d73685e-4b73-4d65-897d-c87f72c691f4.png
As I scanned the comment cards, I made sure to read each and every one. I felt that this would deepen my understanding of that day and help me connect with the experience of the wider American public. It's been an honor to read these very personal and touching stories from people all over the world. I'd like to share with you some of the most touching and profound of these comment cards.

"I was born on September 11, 2001. –Abigail"
"I was born on September 11, 2001. –Abigail"

I related closely with the many cards written by visitors who had been in school at the time of the attack. The reality of being too young to truly understand was often mentioned. Visitors also wrote about what it was like for the millions of school children throughout the nation to spend the day surrounded by classmates, experiencing this tragedy communally. Then there were those too young to really remember the events, or not even born yet.

"We were in Camp Pendleton, my Marine husband was preparing for work while my three children slept. I turned on the TV as the first plane hit the N. Tower. At first, believing it to be a terrible accident, my husband left – the 2nd plane hit and I ran outside after him, calling him back. I asked "What does this mean?" and he answered very softly 'war.' After hanging a huge flag over our garage, I sat outside with my neighbors and children. When asked what we were doing that day we all answered 'not watching the television.'"
"We were in Camp Pendleton, my Marine husband was preparing for work while my three children slept. I turned on the TV as the first plane hit the N. Tower. At first, believing it to be a terrible accident, my husband left – the 2nd plane hit and I ran outside after him, calling him back. I asked "What does this mean?" and he answered very softly 'war.' After hanging a huge flag over our garage, I sat outside with my neighbors and children. When asked what we were doing that day we all answered 'not watching the television.'"

Many Americans were just going about their day as normal, getting ready for, driving to, or already at work.

"I was in eighth grade history at the time when I saw the second plane hit the world trade center. I had known for a while that I wanted to be a marine, and that day had just made my willingness to join, all that much stronger. I vowed to not stand back and just idly watch by, I knew that I wanted to fight for our country and defend the freedoms of our great nation. So, on Sept 7, 2005 I raised my right hand and took the oath of enlistment and joined the Marine Corps. I have been serving since June 26, 2006 and will continue to serve, until we all return home. Respectfully, Christopher Campbell Corporal, United States Marine Corp *Thank you, Chris! We all want you home safe."
"I was in eighth grade history at the time when I saw the second plane hit the world trade center. I had known for a while that I wanted to be a marine, and that day had just made my willingness to join, all that much stronger. I vowed to not stand back and just idly watch by, I knew that I wanted to fight for our country and defend the freedoms of our great nation. So, on Sept 7, 2005 I raised my right hand and took the oath of enlistment and joined the Marine Corps. I have been serving since June 26, 2006 and will continue to serve, until we all return home. Respectfully, Christopher Campbell Corporal, United States Marine Corp *Thank you, Chris! We all want you home safe." *note: the words of encouragement on the bottom were added by an anonymous stranger after the visitor turned it in.

Some of the most amazing and emotional responses told stories of those who, by mere fate, were not at the places they were supposed to be and were thereby saved from experiencing the attack. 

"My boyfriend (now husband) and I went to Disneyland a few days before 9/11 to celebrate one year of dating. We lived in New York and contemplated not taking the trip because we were 24 and short on money. But we decided to go. On the morning of the 11th, we arrived at a hotel in WDW for brunch and saw a large crowd in the lobby around the TVs – the first words we saw on the screen were WORLD TRADE CENTER COLLAPSES. From then on, everything changed. We found out later that my husband would have been working in the North tower that morning if we'd been home—at the time he was working for his uncle's air conditioning company. The young guy filling in for him was killed. I am thankful every day that we took that vacation."
"My boyfriend (now husband) and I went to Disneyland a few days before 9/11 to celebrate one year of dating. We lived in New York and contemplated not taking the trip because we were 24 and short on money. But we decided to go. On the morning of the 11th, we arrived at a hotel in WDW for brunch and saw a large crowd in the lobby around the TVs – the first words we saw on the screen were WORLD TRADE CENTER COLLAPSES. From then on, everything changed. We found out later that my husband would have been working in the North tower that morning if we'd been home—at the time he was working for his uncle's air conditioning company. The young guy filling in for him was killed. I am thankful every day that we took that vacation."
"Sept. 11, 2001 began as a glorious day. We had had some hot summer days but it broke into a clear & gorgeous day. I was supposed to take the PATH train from NJ to WTC that morning for an appointment but when I saw how lovely the day was I postponed the appointment and took a long walk instead. When I returned to the house my mother came running to me, so afraid b/c she'd just heard on the news about the first attack and thought I was in the WTC. Together we watched on TV as the second plane hit. We didn't believe it—it was too horrible—but when we went outside we could see the smoke rising from Manhattan. For years I could not enjoy a clear and beautiful day without a pang of fear and sadness. We all lost so much that day."
"Sept. 11, 2001 began as a glorious day. We had had some hot summer days but it broke into a clear & gorgeous day. I was supposed to take the PATH train from NJ to WTC that morning for an appointment but when I saw how lovely the day was I postponed the appointment and took a long walk instead. When I returned to the house my mother came running to me, so afraid b/c she'd just heard on the news about the first attack and thought I was in the WTC. Together we watched on TV as the second plane hit. We didn't believe it—it was too horrible—but when we went outside we could see the smoke rising from Manhattan. For years I could not enjoy a clear and beautiful day without a pang of fear and sadness. We all lost so much that day."

Then there were those who were not so fortunate.

 "I lost my sister-in-law on 9/11.  She went to work that morning on the 99th floor of the WTC - the south tower - and the never came home.  My brother was left a widower - their 3 children motherless.  You can't really understand the impact that 9/11 has had until and unless it was personal.  I miss her to this day."
"I lost my sister-in-law on 9/11. She went to work that morning on the 99th floor of the WTC - the south tower - and she never came home. My brother was left a widower - their 3 children motherless. You can't really understand the impact that 9/11 has had until and unless it was personal. I miss her to this day."

Then there were those who felt the call of duty on that day. 

"I was stationed in Italy aboard USS Lasalle (AGF-3) when 9/11 occurred. My executive officer, who just transferred back to the U.S to be stationed at the Pentagon was one of the casualties. I will never forget how he used to walk around the mess decks when we were underway. He used to wear different hats to cheer up the sailors. One day he'd wear a safari type hat, another day a cowboy hat … and so on. This one horrible event made me look at things in a different perspective and it is what drives me to do my job in support of GWOT [Global War on Terror]."
"I was stationed in Italy aboard USS Lasalle (AGF-3) when 9/11 occurred. My executive officer, who just transferred back to the U.S to be stationed at the Pentagon was one of the casualties. I will never forget how he used to walk around the mess decks when we were underway. He used to wear different hats to cheer up the sailors. One day he'd wear a safari type hat, another day a cowboy hat … and so on. This one horrible event made me look at things in a different perspective and it is what drives me to do my job in support of GWOT [Global War on Terror]."

I deeply admire the bravery it must have taken these victims of loss to come to the museum and remember that horrible day through the objects on display.

To see more of these heartfelt memories and thoughts visit the September 11th Comment Cards Flickr album.

So now I turn to you, blog readers. How did you witness history on September 11, 2001? How has your life changed because of September 11, 2001? Tell us in the comment section or visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum's "Make History" page to record your own stories. To learn more about our 9/11 collection, and to see the objects these visitors were reacting to, visit the online exhibition.

Sara Halpert is an intern in the Armed Forces History Division. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Museum Studies at The George Washington University.