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Columnist Joseph Dolman reflects on a visit to the National September 11 Memorial Museum. "I wasn't quite emotionally prepared for coming face to face with the whole drama again," says Dolman. (Credit "National September 11 Memorial & Museum")

Let's just put it like this. A trip through the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opens to the public on Wednesday in lower Manhattan, is like our own personal journey to the bedrock of the American soul.

On a media tour of the museum last week, we descended into the pit that had once supported the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on a famously solid bed of Manhattan schist. And as we made our way down, we passed wall after wall of artifacts showing just how fast the wisest human assumptions could be turned to dust.

We saw a picture of a tower exploding after a hijacked jetliner had screamed into its side at 400 mph. We saw an FDNY ladder truck whose cab was sheared off as one of the towers fell. We saw images of gasping New Yorkers in the streets, coated in a chalky ash, the ghastly residue of our incinerated city.

The scenes triggered waves of personal recollections.

I thought of Indira, my wife, who was on the No. 1 train under the North Tower when American Airlines Flight 11 hit. She made her way to the law office in the Financial District where she worked, and she tried to get on with her day.

Then came a deep and evil rumble that seemed to make the sky disappear. That was the North Tower coming down. Indira called my line at work and left an amazingly calm voice mail on my machine saying she was safe. Then she emailed her mom and siblings to say that if anything happened to her, she loved them.

It was a process repeated a million times over that day in New York.

One picture on the wall showed doctors, nurses and technicians -- in green scrubs, with their faces tense -- lining the ambulance entrance to what was then St. Vincent's Medical Center in Greenwich Village. They stood ready to triage the rush of humanity they knew would come pouring in. But the flood of injured people never came.

The hours and weeks that followed 9/11 were a far busier time for the coroner's office and for the heroic recovery teams that climbed over piles of toxic burning wreckage at Ground Zero looking for bodies.

The saving grace on this descent toward bedrock was the slurry wall.

Partially exposed in the museum for visitors to see, the slurry wall was the first element built as the World Trade Center took shape in the 1960s. Today it is the sole survivor of that era -- a massive concrete wall roughly 3 feet thick and 3,000 feet long.

What does it do? It keeps the Hudson River from rushing in and returning much of lower Manhattan to its original state of nature below the water line. When it was constructed a half-century ago, the wall was an untried innovation on a scale so large.

Yet on 9/11 it withstood the explosive impact of two jet airliners and fires hot enough to melt tons of steel.

Daniel Libeskind, master planner for the new WTC, saw the slurry wall not just as a structural phenomenon but symbolically -- as the kind of bulwark that had held our democracy together in good times and bad for centuries.

Today the wall stands newly fortified, sealed and tightened. Like the Constitution itself, it's a part of the bedrock that keeps our civilization in working order. In a world that can go mad in an instant, that means everything.

Joseph Dolman is a member of Newsday'seditorial board.


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