Curators’ Observations: Personal Memorials Tell 9/11 Story

Curators’ Observations: Personal Memorials Tell 9/11 Story

The pants donated by Greg Gully featuring his hand-written note in red. (photo by Amy Dreher)

In some respects, every day is Memorial Day at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Names inscribed in the bronze parapets ringing the enormous reflecting pools at the memorial are touched and often tenderly adorned with flags, flowers, coins and personal notes tucked into letter indentations. These intimate gestures of remembrance are gathered every evening and transferred to the museum collection for further documentation.

The museum’s expanding holdings of artifacts and other primary resources reflecting the impact of 9/11 is also a collection of memorials. For those so touched by the tragic events of 9/11, they created individual memorials with sorrow fueling their creativity. They needn’t wait for the opening of a national memorial. Makers often describe the acts of planning and executing these alternative memorials as intensely personal as well as therapeutic.

In the spirit of Memorial Day, members of the collections team will share in the coming days our thoughts about objects of remembrance that have personally intrigued us. For me, one stand-out is a pair of dusty navy blue uniform pants donated to the Museum last year by Greg Gully, an emergency medical technician from West New York, N.J.

When he learned about the attacks of Sept. 11, he raced through the Holland Tunnel to offer medical assistance and dust masks to evacuees. After becoming enveloped in the cloud of the macerated North Tower, Gully rallied and joined the initial search efforts for people pinned under the wreckage. For the next four days, he remained on self-dispatched duty at Ground Zero, a stay sufficient for him to recognize the improbability of rescuing anyone still alive. Gully says that the devastation he encountered was unfathomable.

At home, Gully checked his pants pockets. Inside, he found a partly burned document he remembered grabbing from the tornado of papers flying past him at the scene. It was a shipping invoice addressed to insurance company March & McLennan; its offices had absorbed the brunt of American Airlines Flight 11’s fiery explosion through the North Tower’s upper floors. Washing the pants was impossible for Gully. They no longer appeared soiled. They were flecked with the mortal essence of murdered innocents. He draped them over a clothes hangar and clipped to them a hand-written note: “Pants worn 9-11-01 at the WTC. Please Do Not Wash/the ash is the remains of those that died. God Bless Them.” Preserved under plastic drycleaner’s wrapping, Gully’s pants were transformed into a memorial.

By Jan Seidler Ramirez, 9/11 Memorial Chief Curator and Director of Collections