Exclusive: 9/11 Museum Head Speaks Out After 'Tribute In Light' Controversy

By WCBS Newsradio 880

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — The head of the 9/11 Museum & Memorial on Thursday spoke out after last week’s controversial – and brief – decision to cancel the annual “Tribute in Light” due to coronavirus concerns. 

Last Thursday, the 9/11 Museum posted a notice on its website saying the annual tribute, which honors the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks at the World Trade Center, would not go on this year, citing coronavirus concerns. 

The decision was immediately met with outrage from 9/11 survivors, families and police and fire unions across the city. The Sergeant Benevolent Association said the union would try to host their own tribute, before the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation stepped up hours later saying it had made preparations to ensure the lights would shine in Lower Manhattan.

Over the weekend, the tribute was reinstated after Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state would provide health professional and supervision to make sure the event is held safely.

While many blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cuomo for canceling the event, the mayor was quick to defend himself, saying it was the museum’s sole decision and he was not notified prior to the announcement. He added that while he appreciated the museum’s concern for New Yorkers’ health, he did not agree with the decision. 

Now, a week later, the light tribute has been saved, and WCBS 880 reporter Peter Haskell was able to speak with Alice Greenwald, the head of the 9/11 Museum & Memorial, to discuss what her thinking was when the organization made the inital decision not to hold the display.

“Sometimes, you make a decision in deference to the right reasons, but the decision ends up being the wrong decision,” Greenwald explains. 

“Trying to figure out, in a time of pandemic, how we would be able to produce the Tribute in Lights safely was really a priority consideration,” she adds, saying that it never had anything to do with the cost of production. “With Tribute in Light, the real answer is that we were getting repeated expressions of concern from the expert technical production team that puts this magnificent work of art together each and every year.”

Greenwald notes that it takes 40 workers to ensure all 88 7,000-watt xenon light bulbs are installed properly and then light up. She stresses, “it’s not like turning on a light switch.”

“We were focused so much on caring about the safety and the health, the well-being of the workers and not put anyone at risk in this moment of a very alert illness environment,” she explains. 

While the museum was worried about the safety of workers, some said the 9/11 victims were forgotten about. It may beg the question, if the museum is unable to do that, what is it there for?

To that, Greenwald says the museum works every day to ensure the world does not forget what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. 

“The question, does this (the coronavirus pandemic) eclipse 9/11? Of course my answer is ‘no.’ This isn't about comparative tragedy. It's about people. It's about remembering the people. That's our moral obligation as human beings, is never to forget. So, the commitment to remember hasn't changed. But, the way we remember may have to be modified from time to time,” she explains. “In this case we thought it had to be modified in deference to concerns about the safety of human beings… We're able now to address that. We can move forward. And, I understand why Tribute in Light, the thought of losing it, was profoundly upsetting to so many people. It was profoundly upsetting to me.”

Greenwald became very emotional when discussing her commitment to preserving the history of 9/11, saying she devoted 15 years of her life to ensure that the world does not forget. 

Though, Haskell pointed out that if the mission of the museum is to the preserve the memory of 9/11, and it concedes the Tribute in Light and the reading of the names ceremony to Tunnel to Towers (or any organization), doesn’t that mean the museum loses its reason for being? 

“No I don't think we lose our reason for being,” Greenwald argues. “We are here for this generation, for the families, the survivors, the downtown residents, but we're also here for posterity. And we're here to make sure that the next generation… children born after 9/11, they need to know what happened and they need to know who it happened to and they need to understand why it's important to remember this event. That's our job, and we are going to continue doing it at the place where it happened.”

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