NEW ROCHELLE, NY — “It’s very easy to say ‘Never forget,’ which is all over our vehicles, but the kids who weren’t born at that time, they’re destined to not even know, no less never forget,” Hodge said. “For the rest of the time they’re on the face of this earth, their lives are going to be affected one way or another by 9/11.”
The 53-foot truck opens up into a 1,000 square-foot interactive exhibit with artifacts, pictures, testimonies, audio and video footage of the aftermath and eyewitness interviews from the day the two World Trade Center towers in New York City were struck by two hijacked planes.
In addition, firefighters volunteer to travel with the tractor-trailer, which has had more than 300,000 visitors across the United States and Canada since its launch in 2013, to lead tours and discussions with visitors.
The nonprofit, which has several fundraisers year-round and also builds houses for severely injured members of the military, is named for Hodge’s cousin, Stephen Siller.
Siller was a New York City firefighter who had just finished his shift when the first plane struck, and he ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel with 60 pounds of gear to get to the World Trade Center where he died saving others.
For several sixth graders at Albert Leonard, this was one of the first educational experiences they had discussing 9/11 and what happened the day nearly 3,000 people died after four planes were hijacked and crashed in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Eric Hill, 11, said he “barely knew anything” about the attacks on 9/11, but learned a lot in touring the mobile museum.
“I thought it was cool to find out that 340 firefighters risked their lives to save other people … I’m really grateful that they do that,” Hill said. “I did learn that people hijacked our planes and they were flying planes into other places like the towers and the Pentagon.”
For 11-year-old Sadie Taylor, it was real people’s stories that made the exhibit most interesting.
“I learned how people actually felt on that day, like my parents were alive then,” Taylor said. “I liked reading the things that people thought on the billboards … I liked that it was real people.”
Bob Weinert, a retired firefighter from Ladder 37 in the Bronx, said he signed up to be a volunteer for the Siller Foundation as soon as he found out about it.
Weinert said the biggest thing kids ask him about is whether he was at the twin towers on 9/11, and he usually tells them: “I don’t know any NYC fireman that wasn’t there.”
When talking to educators about concerns they have teaching students about such a horrific day and fears of upsetting children, Weinert has any answer for that, too.
“Spin it, and say, ‘Well, I take the worst thing in the country’s history and, for the next 8-10 months, I saw this country so united.’ … Everybody changed, everybody was nice, everybody took care of each other, it was a different world for a while,” Weinert said.
Hodge declined to say how much the mobile museum costs to visit a school because “there’s so many variables,” like geographic location and the number of days.
The exhibit’s visit to Albert Leonard was paid for by the FF Thomas J. Foley Foundation, which is named for another New York City firefighter who died saving people on 9/11.
Joanne Foley Gross, the firefighter’s sister, said for the last few years the foundation has picked two schools annually to pay for the mobile museum to visit. In addition to Albert Leonard, the other school that was chosen by the foundation this year was The Ursuline School in New Rochelle.
Foley Gross said they also believed in the idea of educating the next generation of children who were born after 9/11 to remember people like her brother.
“There’s not a lot that’s taught in school. I think there’s just a big gap and it’s something in history that needs to be taught and understood by this generation,” she said.
In the latest review of the Common Core standards in New York, the curriculum specifically addresses the 9/11 attacks in the social studies framework for eighth, 10th and 11th grades. These grades examine the effect the events on 9/11 and its aftermath have had on national security, cyber war, and the war on terror.
The district recently began having discussions with students in sixth grade to talk about what happened on Sept. 11, said Albert Leonard Principal John Barnes.
“The social studies teachers in sixth grade all did lessons, discussion about the sequence of the day,” Barnes said. “We want kids to realize that this was a monumental event in our nation’s history, which changed our world as we know it.”