On the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, GW graduate Caroline Bevan has something to smile about.
The 2005 graduate spent the past summer across from Ground Zero in New York City helping create the newly opened galleries in Tribute WTC, a visitor center providing history and personal anecdotes from the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bevan, now a museum studies graduate student at New York University, spent every day for the past few months opening letters and packages from the families of the Sept. 11 victims. She gathered photos and mementos to help create a collage commemorating the victims that covers the walls of the room and is featured in one of the center’s five galleries.
“It was really, really sad,” she said. “People sent in photographs from (the victims’) lives – their wedding day, with their kids. All of the most important days of their lives.”
The Tribute Center, which officially opened Sept. 6 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony with New York Governor George E. Pataki and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, opens to the public Sept. 18. On Sept. 10 and Sept. 11 the victims’ families are invited to preview the exhibit.
Bevan said they received a little more than 1,000 submissions from the family members of victims and that most of the families were supportive of the project.
“Many are still looking for a way to commemorate their loved ones, and there’s some people that just don’t grieve that way and don’t want to bring it into the public,” she said.
Bevan said one of the biggest reasons she is glad she got involved with Tribute WTC is because it made her look at Sept. 11 differently.
“It’s really important to remember. Forget politics and the rhetoric. People died that day. People don’t have fathers and brothers,” she said. “I literally began to see faces on the street and started thinking they were people from the submissions.”
The one story that sticks out in Bevan’s mind, though, is of a woman who had survived a rough life. She was from New York and was assaulted and raped in her apartment in the hallway. She later became an advocate for rape victims and even appeared on a PBS program to talk about it. Bevan said it was so sad that she was able to overcome so much, and then perished in the terrorist attacks.
“She had all these short stories and after her death they were found in her apartment and it was turned into a book,” she said.
Bevan said Sept. 11 will have a greater effect on her for the rest of her life – maybe even her future. Bevan said she wants to continue working on exhibits that commemorate tragedies.
This is not the first time Bevan has been involved in this sort of project. During her time at GW, she worked at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, but Sept. 11 made her realize she enjoyed this type of work.
“After the fact and seeing what came out of 9/11 increased my interest in how we commemorate events and how we come to terms with it,” she said.
Bevan – like every other member of her generation – vividly remembers the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. She had recently left her hometown in Holyoke, Mass. to start her freshman year at GW and be on her own for the first time.
That morning, Bevan was leaving Thurston Hall for her 9 a.m. class. She saw some students watching TV in the lobby and she saw a glimpse of one of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.
“I thought it was weird, but I went to class,” she said. “And then halfway through someone came in and told us what happened and said we had to go back to the dorms.”
She remembers chaos in the District and on campus – the streets were gridlocked and students were lined up in the lobby of her dorm to use the payphone because cell phones weren’t working. Then, it became a ghost town and all the commuters and some residents left the city. She said she didn’t know what to do so she just stayed in her room all day and didn’t leave.
“I surrendered to the fact that nothing could be done,” she said.
“I lived on the ninth floor of Thurston and from our room we had a view of the Pentagon,” she said. “My roommates and I saw the Pentagon burning all night. It was kind of surreal.”
Bevan had family in New York – her uncle worked in the city but didn’t make it in that day because the attacks caused back ups for commuters. Her cousin was supposed to go to a meeting in the World Trade Center that day but it had been rescheduled to the following day.
Bevan will continue to collect more family submissions after the museum opens and will work as a curator there throughout the semester. Tribute WTC will serve as the interim visitors’ center until the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum open in 2009.
“Certain times it just hits you,” she said. “But I felt what I was doing was really important.