NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- The National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time Wednesday.
The enormous National 9/11 Flag was unfurled at the World Trade Center site in a ceremony to mark the opening of the museum.
FDNY firefighter Bill Ingraham shared the flag duties with other first responders, children and residents from across the Tri-State Area selected to take part in the ceremony.
"I lost a lot of friends here," Ingraham told CBS 2's Janelle Burrell. "It was never our flag to begin with. We just kept it safe. It belongs to the country."
After the flag was refolded, firefighters marched it into the museum.
National 9/11 Flag Unfurled At WTC site
The flag was flying from a building near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. It was later found shredded in the debris of ground zero. People touched by other disasters and tragedies in all 50 states, including Pearl Harbor, Columbine and Hurricane Katrina, helped piece the flag back together.
"It's very special and I feel so honored," ceremony participant Frank Bruno said.
"Their kindness and their volunteer spirit the world that love is stronger than hate," Jeff Parness, who headed the project to restore the flag, said, adding that there are 200 years of love and history sewn into the flag.
"There are threads in this flag from the flag that cradled President Lincoln when he was shot in Ford's Theater and there are three red threads from the original Star Spangled Banner -- the flag that flew at Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 and inspired our National Anthem."
National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum Opens To The Public
After an extensive national tour, the flag will remain at the museum as part of its permanent collection.
For 9/11 survivors, victims' families and first responders, it has been a week of painful reflection.
The new museum, which was officially dedicated last week, features prominent videos of the twin towers collapsing, photos of people falling from them and voice mail messages from people in hijacked planes.
"Very difficult then and it's even worse now," survivor Stephen Gregory said.
"It's not easy for the people who were here that day," said survivor Joann Mueller. "It'll never be."
But behind the wrenching sights and sounds of the museum lies a quiet effort to help visitors handle its potentially traumatic impact, from silent spaces and built-in tissue boxes to a layout designed to let people bypass the most intense exhibits.
American Red Cross counseling volunteers were even standing by Wednesday.
"There's a lot of thought given to the psychological safety of visitors,'' said Jake Barton, who helped create the exhibits.
Patricia Smith, 14, found herself looking at her late mother's police shield while touring the museum last week when it opened to victims' families. She found it inspiring, but also "really upsetting, at points.''
Museum planners realized early on the challenge of trying not to shatter people "while at the same time being true to the authenticity of the event,'' said Tom Hennes, founder of exhibit designer Thinc Design.
Trauma specialists told museum leaders that sounds of voices and images of hands and faces could be particularly distressing and that visitors should get to choose what to see.
The goal: "to keep it feeling alive and present without making it so alive and present that it's unbearable,'' says psychologist Billie Pivnick, who worked with Thinc.
The museum includes pieces of history, from damaged fire trucks to the wristwatch of one of the airline passengers who confronted the hijackers.
At the base level, 70 feet below ground amid remnants of the skyscrapers' foundations, there are such artifacts as a mangled piece of the antenna from atop the trade center and a fire truck with its cab shorn off.
Many of the items featured were donated by those who were there like Florence Jones, who gave the shoes that she wore as she ran down the tower's steps.
"I wanted my nieces and my nephew and every person that asked what happened to see them and maybe understand a little bit better what it felt like to be us on that day," she said.
The historical exhibit, crafted by another firm, Layman Design, envelops visitors in images, information, objects and sounds, but designers sought to avoid emotional overload.
Ambient sounds of emergency radio transmissions and victims calling home are interspersed with the calmer tones of survivors recounting the day.
The hijackers are included, but carefully, in grainy airport-security video and unobtrusive individual photos.
Still, the display doesn't shy from large projections of the towers crumbling.
"It's a dramatic presentation, but I think it's a dramatic moment,'' explained Barton, whose firm, Local Projects, handled the multimedia components.
Beyond content choices, the Sept. 11 museum hopes a human touch can help visitors grapple with their reactions.
Dozens of psychologically trained volunteers for the Red Cross and other disaster-aid groups were stationed at the museum over its first days. The Red Cross said it has no current plans for them to stay beyond Wednesday.
Retired social worker Georgine Gorra helped people find their way around the museum after Thursday's dedication ceremony. They didn't seem traumatized, she said, just tearful.
"We all were, frankly," she said.
The museum costs $24 to enter, but admission was waived for all visitors opening day.
There was no admission charge for relatives of Sept. 11 victims or for rescue and recovery workers. Children age 6 and younger will get in free.
Admission will be free for everyone on Tuesdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The museum's regular hours will be 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Officials said advanced reservations for tickets can be booked at 911memorial.org.
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