They were trinkets that whispered to lives wrenched away.
A jar of sand from Oahu, Hawaii, for a sister who danced on its shore. A blue herringbone scarf for the flight attendant who had taken a fateful extra shift. Six scraps of notebook paper, each with a word in Spanish written to the father of four from the Bronx. "Hay gente aun que te aman." There are still people who love you.
Left at the plaza of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan, the items were placed with no expectation they would linger any longer than one night.
But even the tiniest of tributes can express so much — so these items, along with thousands of others left behind, made their way into the museum's vast storage facilities. There, artifacts of unremarkable appearance — a tiny teddy bear, a seashell, a ribbon for a No. 1 dad — are considered valuable expressions of mourning that continue the narrative of September 11.
Impromptu memorials are the first tendrils of hope after tragedy, public declarations that someone is remembered, something good endured. Even posters of the missing remained up for years out of respect to the 2,977 victims.
"It really was: Where does the tribute landscape begin and where does it end?" recalled Lisa Conte, head of conservation at the 9/11 museum.
There was an intrinsic sensitivity to tributes by the time the memorial opened in the footprints of the twin towers on the 10th anniversary of the attack.
"We had made the decision from the get-go that this site would be cleaned every night so that every time a visitor stepped onto it, they could experience it fresh," said Jan Ramirez, the museum's chief curator. "We knew those trinkets had to go somewhere, so we wanted to build in the opportunity to collect them respectfully."
The museum itself can be difficult for family members, many of whom prefer to stick to the outdoor memorial with its twin reflecting pools of falling water bordered by bronze panels on which victims' names are carved. It also serves as a symbolic grave site for bodies that were never recovered.
"We know that her blood was part of that ground," Martha Hale Farrell said of her sister Maile Rachel Hale, who was 26 when she attended a financial technology conference on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower.
When Farrell, 43, and her sister, Marilyce Hale Rattigan, visited the memorial eight years ago, they brought along leis, ballet slippers, a bag of M&Ms, a mini soccer ball and a jar of sand to leave in honour of Hale.
"The magnitude is striking," Rattigan, 46, said, "but for us, it was always a personal loss."
The sisters were delighted to later learn that some of those items were displayed in the museum. A friend of theirs who visited had burst into tears at the sight.
"These beautiful things that were left for our own personal closure are touching people that never met her," said Farrell. "It humanises her to have people understand the weight of the beauty that was lost that day."
The most common tributes left around the plaza tend to be flowers, photos, flags, embroidered patches, stuffed animals, ribbons and prayer cards. Tape or rocks are often used to secure items on the slanted parapets that line the pools.
"There's only one way to get the photo to stay and not blow in the wind — you tape it to a chopstick and stick it in the groove," said Corey Gaudioso, 28, who has brought family pictures over the years for his sister, Candace Lee Williams, a 20-year-old college student who was aboard the plane that crashed into the north tower.
"We don't want her to just be a name among names," he said.
Letters are folded and tucked into inscriptions. Some are general and appear to be quickly jotted down by a visitor inspired in the moment. Others are more intimate.
"Jim, she is all grown up now, you would be proud," read one for a New York Police Department detective whose parents were left to raise his daughter. It was placed on the Memorial Glade, the monoliths added earlier this year to salute those who suffered or died because of illnesses linked to ground zero.
Even strangers can leave words that haunt.
"I won't forget you. Not now, not now I've been here. It's strange, writing a letter to a person you've never met and never will," wrote 15-year-old Eleanor Smith of Welwyn, England, to Christine Lee Hanson, who was 2 years old when she died aboard United Flight 175. "It seems important, though, that I do write. That I let you know you're remembered. That, although you're not the only name here, you're the one I came to find."
Christine's aunt, Kathryn Barrere, who initially believed a Sept. 11 museum would be tacky, has found much comfort in such tributes. "That had to be one of the most beautiful things," Barrere, 58, said. "Did the terrorists ever think they could affect someone like that?"
Over the last year, about four dozen red bandannas and photos were left for Welles Crowther, the 24-year-old equities trader who helped people escape while wearing a handkerchief as a mask. Betty Ong, the American Airlines flight attendant who was celebrated as a national hero for the phone call she made before Flight 11 went down, constantly receives tiny stuffed bumblebees, a nod to her nickname "Bee."
Tributes are collected each night by maintenance crews. Food and flowers are thrown away, as are beer cans and liquor bottles. Everything else is saved, taken to a secure area below the museum and placed in a metal cabinet next to a lab. Most end up in boxes that are stored at facilities in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Rotterdam, New York.
Some, however, are catalogued and added to the official museum collection. Those tend to be tributes for victims for whom there is little information. A unique or unusual item can also make the cut, like the yellow helmet worn for three decades by a retired firefighter from the United Kingdom and the note left by Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, on a rainy December day "in admiration of the courage shown to rebuild."
Tributes are entered into a database that keeps track of their dimensions and history. The museum does not keep an exact number of the total tributes it has saved, only of those that have made it into the collection: 312.
If a note is sealed, it remains that way. A letter placed five years ago near the name of Rajesh Mirpuri, a 30-year-old sales executive, will never be opened.
But staff members love to see a mystery tribute reveal itself. For years, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups appeared on the plaza, stumping Ramirez, the chief curator who had come to learn many of the families' histories. Then one day, Rob Fazio appeared with his family, all in orange shirts with a familiar candy logo. His father, Ronald, an accountant last seen holding the door open to a stairwell in the south tower, had been addicted to the sweets.
"It has come to the point to where we'll get random pictures from people we don't even know that leave Reese's Peanut Butter Cups on his name at the memorial, or people will send pictures of their kids eating a Reese's there," Fazio, 45, said.
Fazio is among those who look forward to the anniversary of Sept. 11 when the memorial is closed to the public in the morning and families arrive to hear the victims' names read aloud. Others who lost loved ones avoid the memorial altogether, unable to find peace at the popular tourist attraction.
"It's just too much and you're sensitive to everything, to the memory, to what happened," said Harry Ong Jr., 70, Betty Ong's brother. "As a family we're glad that people respect and honor Betty for what she's done, and her legacy has carried on. But it's bittersweet. We just wish she was still alive and with us and not on the plane that day."
Written by: Corina Knoll
Photographs by: Caitlin Ochs and Demetrius Freeman
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES