The 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s Official 9/11 Memorial Tour launches on Monday, March 26, after a winter hiatus. This 45-minute outdoor tour explores the symbolism behind the Memorial’s design and the history of the World Trade Center.
Mallory Bordonaro, a senior interpretive guide at the 9/11 Memorial, sat down to tell us about her powerful, rewarding experiences leading the Official Memorial Tour.
The Memorial Tour can be a good “entry point” for New Yorkers and other people who are hesitant to visit the site. Can you tell us about that?
A lot of New Yorkers will come to the site. They might not even have a tour ticket. And they’ll say, “You know, it’s really hard to be here.” And I’ll tell them that I understand, and they shouldn’t feel that they have to go into the Museum—that might be a lot. But we do have the Memorial Tour, and that’s an opportunity for to hear these stories that they can relate to.
And I think it’s especially difficult for New Yorkers, as this event happened in their backyard. It’s hard to relive those events of the day. But the Memorial gives them an opportunity to get away from the city and just use the space as a quiet oasis and a chance to reflect. It’s okay to be emotional, it’s okay to laugh, it’s okay to cry. And we, the interpretive guides, are here to hold your hand.
Do you remember the first time you had to ease a New Yorker into the Memorial space?
There was one gentleman last summer. He was here with his family and he came up and was kind of just looking [at me] like, “Who are you? What are you doing? What is this?” I introduced myself as an interpretive guide, and I explained that we give tours and walk people through what happened on 9/11. And he said, “Oh, well, I probably know more about that. I could give that tour.” And I said, “Well, if you’d like, you can take the tour and we can talk about it after.” And at the end of the tour, he goes, “I had no idea about these stories. I didn’t realize how much I could relate to these things that you told me. It’s not my experience, but it is my experience.” And I thought that was really beautiful because he came in rather hard-headed and angry, as some people do, but by the end I think he felt more connected to the site than he had initially been.
What kind of feedback do you get from people who take the tour?
It’s a lot of that relatability. We tell so many different stories about the victims, especially that people don’t realize—even if they weren’t here in New York [on 9/11], even if they just saw it on television, even if they can’t remember—they do have some connection to the story and the people who were killed. They’re always surprised to learn something new about the event. They often share their gratitude at the end of the tour. Not only, “Thank you for doing this,” but also, “Thank you for helping me get my head around this really complicated, tragic event.”
Tell us a particularly memorable moment that happened on the tour.
There are two stories I always like to tell on the tour. One is about the Vigiano brothers, two first responders who were both killed on 9/11. And I was telling this story one day and didn’t realize that the family was standing by the pool, at their names. So as soon as I said their names—John T. Vigiano II and Joseph Vincent Vigiano—the whole family turned toward me. They were shocked.
I realized what was happening and thought, “Well, I’m already telling this, so I have to continue.” And at the end, [the family] just pulled me away from the group. They said thank you. They had no idea the brothers’ stories were told like this. They couldn’t believe so many people were hearing it. And I just apologized and said, “I’m sorry if it wasn’t right. I’m sorry if it wasn’t your experience.” They said, “No, it’s perfect. We had no idea. Thank you so much for doing this.” I was driven to tears. And I’ve seen them since, and again, it’s just overwhelming gratitude.
And there was another experience that comes to mind. It was right after the attack in Nice. And we had our whole tribute at the Survivor Tree. I had finished up a tour and was answering questions. One gentleman came up to me, put his arm around me and said, “Miss, I didn’t take your tour, but I brought my son here, he’s nine. His best friend and his father were killed in Nice. And he wanted to bring his friend’s baseball jersey here.” And I was so moved by that. Because of all places, a nine-year-old boy thought this was the right place to honor his friend. And it was this nice moment where I realized that we really are at the forefront of this conversation about memorializing victims of terrorism in the post-9/11 world.
What story or fact from the tour elicits the most powerful responses?
I like to use the rebuilt World Trade Center to kind of put things into perspective for people. So using the new One World Trade Center to put the original towers into perspective. Using the surrounding neighborhood to illustrate what happened here. But the story that usually gets the biggest reaction from people is when we’re talking about hijacked United Flight 93. I think a lot of people know what happened—the passengers made phone calls, they figured out what was going on, but they don’t know all the details of the story that we get to provide. And I think that people are shocked by that, by the things they don’t know. And they’re so moved because they think, you know, “What if I was in that position?” So that’s always a moment in the tour where we have to take a second out, just have a quiet moment. And Welles Crowther’s story comes right after that, so it’s a heavy corner, but it’s really moving.
What do you do if you can tell that someone is really struggling with the heavy emotional content of the tour?
It depends. If it’s the whole group, then it’s going to be a group experience. You kind of just have to get through the story. And this is the 9/11 story—it’s not easy to tell, it’s not easy to take in. But if it’s one person in particular, you let them know that they can step away from the group.
I had one gentleman—I was about to talk about the Flight 11 hijacking—and he stepped away from the group. He went over to a name, and it looked like he was having a moment. At the end of the tour, he came up to me and told me that he had been standing at his best friend’s name. He’s a teacher now, and he uses her story to tell his students about 9/11. It’s one of those things where you have to know when to let people be, but also how to keep them engaged while respecting the fact that they might be going through something too. Because you never know who is coming here and had what experience.
You are studying toward a master’s degree in public history. Do you get to incorporate some of that knowledge when giving the tour?
The nice thing about public history is you really learn how to deliver history to the public. So instead of just being the person who sits up in their ivory tower and studies the books and the papers, you learn how to talk to people about it. And the nice thing about the interpretive guide program and this museum is that you need to talk to people. It’s an experience where you have to walk them through it, it’s not something that they’re just going to pick up off a panel. It is an emotional experience for them.
To book reserve a spot for the Official Memorial Tour, please click here.
By 9/11 Memorial Staff