NEW YORK — Tears in her eyes, firefighter widow Maureen Fanning emerged Thursday from the new Sept. 11 museum deep beneath ground zero, unable to bring herself to look at all of it.
"I just think it would be a little too overwhelming today," she said, unsure when she would return. "It's a lot to digest, to absorb. Not anytime soon."
Victims' friends and relatives, rescue workers and 9/11 survivors descended into the space where the World Trade Center once stood and revisited the tragedy as the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum was dedicated by President Barack Obama as a symbol that says of America: "Nothing can ever break us."
The museum's artifacts range from the monumental, like two of the huge fork-shaped columns from the skyscrapers' facade, to the intimate: a wedding ring, a victim's voice mail message.
Some victims' friends and relatives found the exhibits difficult to bear. Others called them inspiring.
Patricia Smith's visit came down to one small object: the New York Police Department shield her mother, Moira, was wearing 12½ years ago when she died helping to evacuate the twin towers.
Patricia, 14, appreciated being around things and people that surrounded 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."
The museum opens to the public Wednesday, but many of those who were affected most directly by 9/11 could start exploring it Thursday.
Many in the audience wiped away tears during the dedication ceremony, which revisited the horror and the heroism of 9/11.
After viewing some of the exhibits, including a mangled fire truck and a memorial wall with photos of victims, Obama retold the story of Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old World Trade Center worker who became known as "the man in the red bandanna" after he led others to safety from one of the towers. He died in the tower's collapse.
"Like the great wall and bedrock that embrace us today, nothing can ever break us. Nothing can change who we are as Americans," Obama said. He said the museum pays tribute to "the true spirit of 9/11 — love, compassion, sacrifice."