In one room above the bedrock of the former World Trade Center, nearly 3,000 portraits will glow on a brightly lit wall. Walk into another and hear spouses, children and siblings describe their lost loved ones while words flash on a screen saying who they are and where they were on Sept. 11.
The mini-movies to play continuously at the Sept. 11 museum — with each name read aloud and family pictures projected along with the hijacked jetliner or tower floor each victim was on — is one of the most carefully planned exhibitions for the museum commemorating the nation's worst terror attack.
The tributes — the preliminary designs shared with The Associated Press — have to speak to grieving family members who may not have their loved ones' remains along with strangers wanting to learn about the dead. And they have to address a sensitive, years-old controversy over how to list each victim's name on the aboveground part of the memorial.
"It's the core purpose of why we're here — that is to pay respect to the dead and to remind people that the terrorists may be thinking of high-value targets ... and the anonymity of victims," Jan Ramirez, the museum's curator, said Tuesday. "There's nothing anonymous about the individuals who were killed in this event."
The exhibit is also among the most labor intensive for the museum, scheduled to open by September 2012. The National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum has collected thousands of photos that match more than 400 victims but still needs photos for more than 2,500 others. The museum planned a mass mailing this week asking family members to donate photos, taped remembrances and mementoes.
The wall of victims' portraits will be the first gallery that visitors enter in the museum, being built below street level and underneath the massive reflecting pools marking the destroyed twin towers' footprints. The photographs will be arranged alphabetically, including 2,982 victims — 2,976 killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and six victims of the 1993 trade center truck bombing.
Museum planners are starting to write vignettes for each victim, starting with their name, date of birth and date of death. A few Sept. 11 victims have different dates of death, exhibition development director Amy Weisser said. Two people were added to the list after the medical examiner said the respiratory illnesses that killed them were caused by exposure to post-9/11 dust; a few others injured at the site died days later.
Every Sept. 11 victim's story makes sure to note where each victim was that morning. Gerard A. Barbara, 53, a Fire Department of New York tour commander, was last seen heading toward the south tower's lobby, one tribute reads. Candace Williams, 20, boarded American Airlines Flight 11 in Boston to visit a college roommate in California, where they planned to rent a convertible and take pictures in front of the famous Hollywood sign.
Family members years ago fought to include the descriptions in the vignettes — including ages, the exact rank of emergency responders, the company they worked for and in which tower — as part of the list of names to be inscribed around the memorial reflecting pools being built where the towers stood. Memorial builders declined to include most details on the parapets, except for first responders' ranks.
"I think the ages should be on the memorial. Everybody still asks, 'Where were they? How old were they?'" said Charles Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, 40, was killed in the north tower. But he said the video tributes in the museum would give him a place to mourn his wife, whose remains were never identified.
"There's a particular importance to having a place to grieve," he said.
The victims will also be remembered by those who knew them best. Andrew Friedman's wife, Lisa, called him a great father and a "big baby" who loved sports and play as much as his twin boys and "never worried about anything.
"He worried about me because I took on all the worries, so he figured that the only one going to self-destruct here was her."
The tributes — lasting one to two minutes — could run continuously for about a week uninterrupted, in a museum open seven days a week, Weisser said. But planners are working out a system where visiting family members could break into the order and touch a screen to play their loved one's tribute.
Mementoes like baseball hats, keys found in the victims' pockets on the day they died and other personal items will also be part of the galleries.
Planners looked to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and tributes to victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as models for this museum's galleries. Most important, Weisser said, is to make the people real and accessible to even those who never knew them.
"We will at that point say, 'That could have been me' or 'I know somebody just like that,'" she said. "The nature of terrorism is that it affects all of us."