Botched Tribute in Light is the final ‘breach of trust’ for a group of 9/11 victims’ kin

With the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks just weeks away, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum again found itself in headlines around the world. This time it was for shamefully canceling the annual Tribute in Light display that shines skyward above Ground Zero, and prohibiting the live reading of nearly 3,000 victims’ names in the daytime ceremony.

Only after enormous public pressure and the actions of Frank Siller, CEO of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which vowed to stage the Tribute in Light itself, did the Memorial & Museum flip-flop and agree to put on the iconic nighttime display. But there still will be two separate, simultaneous name readings — the 9/11 Memorial’s ceremony with pre-recorded audio of name readings, and the Siller Foundation’s live reading by family members nearby.

Memorial officials blamed the COVID pandemic for both cutbacks, saying they didn’t want to risk spreading the virus. The public did not buy it — they knew that both 9/11 commemorative events could be done safely. Money, we believe, was at the heart of these disgraceful decisions. Chaired by ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the most expensive memorial and museum ever constructed — at a cost of over $800 million — is also the most costly to operate.

This incredibly embarrassing situation has exposed the absurdity of the organization’s $80 million annual budget. The COVID-related closure of the 9/11 Museum in March cut off its supply of cash, causing a $45 million deficit and forcing management to lay off 148 employees and furlough 51 out of a total 337. Yet the highly compensated senior leadership remains in place, including President and CEO Alice Greenwald, who was paid $572,198 in salary and benefits in 2018, the latest tax filings show. Officials in June said she took a 15 percent pay cut after the museum closed due to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the organization has been taking federal handouts.

The Memorial & Museum has collected not only $4.6 million in the federal Paycheck Protection Program for COVID relief, but is also set to receive an additional $2 million grant awarded by the Department of Interior.

Yet the privately run nonprofit couldn’t find the $500,000 it needed to pay for the Tribute in Light. They couldn’t perform their two most basic responsibilities for the 9/11 anniversary.

This breach of trust is not new to many 9/11 families. For years, our group of 9/11 parents and families of firefighters and WTC victims have spoken out against many improprieties at the memorial and museum, starting with a gift shop that hawked 9/11 souvenirs, including jewelry, T-shirts, hats, dishes — and a tacky cheese plate with stars marking the sites of the attacks.

It’s unconscionable that a memorial security guard in 2016 demanded that a group of North Carolina middle-schoolers stop singing our national anthem on the 8-acre site, which flies only two American flags. They were told they needed to apply for a permit and pay a $35 fee before they could sing “The Star-Spangled Banner”!

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, many 9/11 families had hoped for a reverential, respectful, and patriotic memorial that honored the victims — not the current urban park in which tourists take thumbs-up selfies, children run about, and local office workers wolf down their lunches while studying their smartphones.

We had hoped for a memorial where victims were the focus, not two massive waterfalls that memorialized the twin towers. We had hoped that informational signage would be placed around the plaza detailing what happened that day, not having to pay $24 to enter the 9/11 Museum to learn about the historic events.

Also of great importance to many 9/11 families is the issue of the unidentified human remains; 40 percent of the families have never received any remnants of their loved ones. The 94 percent of families who responded to our survey in 2012 said they wished that all unclaimed remains be placed above ground in a repository akin to Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This request was ignored and the remains were stored behind a wall in the basement of the museum, 70 feet below the plaza and a $24 ticket away. (Victim relatives do not have to pay the entry fee, but friends and the general public must do so. During the COVID shutdown, no one had access.)

Our group has continuously advocated for the National Park Service to assume operational control and management of the 9/11 aboveground memorial and plaza at Ground Zero. The federal agency runs our most important national landmarks and sites, including Gettysburg, Valley Forge and the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. Under our proposal, the separate underground museum would continue to be run privately by the existing organization.

We call on President Trump and our New York congressional delegation to bring the 9/11 Memorial plaza under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service to bring professionalism, fiscal controls, patriotism, honor and respect to this revered site.

Glenn P. Corbett is a former assistant fire chief in Waldwick, NJ, associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and an adviser to the 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims.

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