NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- President Barack Obama, dignitaries, Sept. 11 survivors, rescuers and victims' relatives marked the opening of the 9/11 museum in a solemn dedication ceremony Thursday.
Obama called the National September 11 Memorial Museum "a sacred place of healing and of hope'' that captures both the story and the spirit of heroism and helping others that followed the attacks.
"It's an honor to join in your memories, to recall and to reflect, but above all to reaffirm the true spirit of 9/11 -- love, compassion, sacrifice -- and to enshrine it forever in the heart of our nation,'' he told an audience of victims' relatives, survivors and rescuers at the ground zero museum's dedication ceremony.
Solemn Ceremony Marks Opening Of Sept. 11 Museum
"Like the great wall and bedrock that embrace us today, nothing can ever break us. Nothing can change who we are as Americans.''
The president praised the men and women who helped save lives in the attack, including those who gave their lives in the effort.
"Those we lost live on in us -- In the families who love them still, the friends who remember them always and in a nation that will honor them now and forever," Obama said.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the museum "a place we come to remember those who died and to honor acts of courage and compassion."
"We are here today to help dedicate a great museum, one that rises out of the bedrock of our city, our history and our hearts," Bloomberg said before introducing Obama at the dedication ceremony. "In the years to come, the 9/11 Memorial Museum will take its place alongside the fields of Gettysburg, the waters of Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a sacred marker of our past and as a solemn gathering place."
As CBS 2's Lou Young reported, the museum was dedicated as some told the most poignant stories from that dark day.
"A young man in his 20s, strong, emerged from the smoke, and over his nose and his mouth, he wore a red handkerchief," Obama said. "Then he went back, back up all those flights, then back down again, bringing more wounded to safety, until that moment when the tower fell."
Obama, Others Dedicate 9/11 Museum In Solemn Ceremony
The man was Welles Crowther, 24, also known as the "Man in the Red Bandanna." He is credited with saving at least a dozen lives.
"My name is Ling Young," one survivor said. "I'm here today because of Welles, a man I did not get the chance to thank."
The museum, which commemorates the 2001 terrorist attack as well as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, opens to the public Wednesday.
Before the ceremony, Obama walked quietly through an expansive hall with Bloomberg. First lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton followed behind them.
Reflections from dignitaries, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, were interspersed with the voices of everyday people caught up in Sept. 11.
Some relatives found the exhibits both upsetting and inspiring.
Fourteen-year-old Patricia Smith's visit came down to one small object: the New York Police Department shield her mother, Moira, was wearing 12 1/2 years ago when she died helping to evacuate the twin towers.
She said she left feeling a new level of connection to her mother. Still, "seeing that, reading the story that goes along with it, even if I already know it, is really upsetting,'' she said.
David Greenberg, who lost a dozen colleagues who met for breakfast at the trade center's Windows on the World restaurant on Sept. 11, called the museum "breathtaking, awe-inspiring and emotional."
"You have your moments when there can be solitude, moments when there can be happiness, and a mixture of emotions through the entire museum," said Greenberg, who worked at an office nearby.
Retired Fire Department Lt. Mickey Cross described being trapped for hours in the wreckage of the north tower and then joining the recovery effort after being rescued.
"There was a real sense of caring for each other,'' he said.
Solemn Ceremony Marks Opening Of Sept. 11 Museum
Kayla Bergeron remembered walking down 68 flights of stairs in the north tower, amid confusion and fear that there was no way out. Her final steps to safety were on an outdoor stairway, now in the museum as the "survivors' stairs.''
"Today, when I think about those stairs, what they represent to me is resiliency,'' she said.
Florence Jones donated her shoes to the museum to symbolize the walk that she and so many others took down hundreds of stairs, CBS 2's Jessica Schneider reported.
"I wanted my nieces and my nephew and every person that asked what happened to see them any maybe understand a little bit better what it felt like to be us on that day," Jones said.
Carol Jolicoeur was among the first family members to walk through the museum. Her brother, Andre Bonheur, was making a presentation to Cantor Fitzgerald on Sept. 11 and never came home.
"It's amazing," she told CBS 2's Kathryn Brown. "You know what happened, but when you walk through the museum and you see the rubble, the pieces, the pictures, it's just amazing what happened. And it is emotional. You cry for yourself. You cry for the people."
"Surreal, really," described Rick Johnson, the brother of another victim. "It's reliving the whole thing."
Some see the walk back in time as a tough, but a necessary step in the healing process -- a way to connect with their loved ones and soothe wounds that are still painful.
"It's just memories of seeing that day all over again," one woman told Brown. "It was very explicit. ... Tastefully, well done. But a little hard."
Thirteen years after the Twin Towers fell, the raw emotion is still palpable among those who lived through it.
"It was like this dream you thought you were going to wake up from," Midtown resident Peter Bricken said.
"It's like being in a sacred place, like a tomb," Washington Heights resident Roman Kopinads said. "So many people lost their lives."
"It's a sad thing to remember everything," said 9/11 survivor JoAnn Mueller. "I'm getting choked up now. It's not easy for the people who were here that day. It'll never be."
Inside The 9/11 Museum
The museum and memorial, which opened in 2011, were built for $700 million in donations and tax dollars.
Chilling and heartbreaking, the ground zero museum leads people on an unsettling journey through the terrorist attacks, with forays into their lead-up and legacy.
The sights and sounds are all-encompassing and at times, overwhelming.
"Walking through this museum can be difficult at times, but it is impossible to leave without feeling inspired,'' Bloomberg said Thursday.
There are scenes of horror, including videos of the skyscrapers collapsing and people falling from them. But there also are symbols of heroism, ranging from damaged fire trucks to the wristwatch of one of the airline passengers who confronted the hijackers.
Visitors start in an airy pavilion where the rusted tops of two of the World Trade Center's trident-shaped columns shoot upward. From there, museumgoers descend stairs and ramps, passing through a dark corridor filled with the voices of people remembering the day and past the battered "survivors' staircase'' that hundreds used to escape the burning towers.
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.
Then, galleries plunge visitors into the chaos of Sept. 11: fragments of planes, a set of keys to the trade center, a teddy bear left at the impromptu memorials that arose after the attacks, the dust-covered shoes of those who fled the skyscrapers' collapse, emergency radio transmissions and office workers calling loved ones, even a recording of an astronaut solemnly describing the smoke plume from the International Space Station.
Sprinkled in are snippets about the 19 hijackers, including photos of them on an inconspicuous panel.
But several families gathered outside the memorial gates Wednesday night to say their relatives should not be buried inside a museum that costs $24 to enter.
"We want those remains up on the plaza, a nice memorial where they can continue DNA testing. They don't belong in an admission charging museum," said Jim Riches, whose firefighter son was killed in the attack.
Other victims' families see it as a fitting resting place.
After Thursday's dedication, the museum will be open for six days around-the-clock to Sept. 11 survivors, victims' relatives, first responders and lower Manhattan residents.
When the museum opens to the public May 21, the $24 admission will be waived for all visitors, but advance reservations are required.
There will be 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. and 8 p.m.
The museum's regular hours will be 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Officials say advanced reservations for tickets can be booked at 911memorial.org.
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