“From the second I walked in the doors of the museum I was moved every single time, every single day.”
October 30, 2022
The stories of 9/11 go far beyond the accounts of first responders; everyone has a special recollection of the event. Rema Sayge was the Senior Manager for Donor Relations at the 9/11 memorial. Sayge remembers finishing a major production of a TV show in New York in the days prior to the attacks. She brought friends with her for a getaway and recalls how she found out about the attacks. “I was sleeping when people were calling me, they thought I was still in the city. My friend and I woke up and turned on the news. We were glued to the TV, trying to figure out what was going on.” Like many others around the world, Sayge was in a state of shock and awe, looking for answers.
Sayge has been involved in the entertainment business all her life. When she began her involvement with the 9/11 Memorial she was the director of operations and visitor services. “My role was to hire many people, then train, mentor and motivate them so that the memorial was staffed and ready to go.
When I started there I actually did not want the job, I resisted it, but I felt as though I was contributing to someone larger than myself, and that is what prompted me to take the role. It is very parallel to what I do in terms of bringing teams together to usher in millions of visitors from around the world. I work on a lot of projects that are on the world stage and this is one of them,” She said. Sayge worked at the Memorial for 7 years, and she is currently a program producer for Empire Entertainment, as she continues to launch major projects, creating unique cultural and entertainment experiences.
Sayge says that she tried leaving the job three times, but she was drawn back by the growing attraction that the memorial was becoming. “The memorial was seeing record attendance year after year; we became the number one sight to visit in the country. One World Trade was being built, what I needed to do was not complete. I felt as though what I was doing had a need, so I did not want to leave.”
Sayge says that the construction of the memorial began in 2006, when there was a nationwide contest that allowed people to submit designs. Michael Arad won that contest to be the architect for the pool. He was selected by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) who was led by Chairman John C. Whitehead. Whitehead in conjunction with LMDC filtered through all the contests submissions and chose Arad’s design. Sayge recognizes the various components that went into the construction of the memorial and the museum. The design for the Memorial and Museum were completed in 2006.
“When I started with the museum in 2010 there was still a hole in the ground,” said Sayge, adding “It was on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 that the Memorial opened up, and it was in March 2014 that the Museum was made open to the public.” After eight years of construction the museum was complete, despite a major hurricane in 2012. The memorial alone saw more than 1 million visitors in the first year that it was open. Sayge says that “private underground tours of the Museum were given to select high level people, including world leaders, heads of state, kings and queens, celebrities, you name it.”
Although Sayge takes great pride in the phenomenal job that was done memorializing the event, she shares emotions with many of the first responders who get emotional when visiting the memorial, and understands why some may not want to come. “Every single day I felt those emotions. I would start my days off normally getting my coffee and getting on the subway to head to work, and once I stepped foot on the memorial, I was always reminded,” she said. “Every day was a new day. There were always new people surrounding it. There were various ceremonies that were celebrated every day such as celebrating people who’ve died, birthdays, with white flowers, or whoever’s name was getting added to the memorial.” Sayge said that personal connection and emotional investment certainly developed as the years went on, saying “you get to know certain family members, and you begin to get moved by all these stories. I met a lot of people.”
Sayge referenced how much she learned daily from the relationships she created, saying “From the second I walked in the doors of the museum I was moved every single time, every single day.” But the experience was just too much for her. “That was one of the reasons I chose to leave. It took a toll on me and my mental health. I work in the film business, event business and entertainment business. On a higher note, I needed to escape the death aspect of things. Every day I went to work 70 feet underground and it had a mental and physical toll on me. It was time for me to go, although it took two years for me to leave.” Sayge said that not every day was filled with tears and sadness, as there were many good times in her experience.
When asked about how she feels in regard to many first responders and New Yorkers not visiting the site, Sayge referenced a project launched with work before she left called Our City, My Story. “We realized many New Yorkers were not coming to the museum or memorial, and we were trying to encourage people to come and get the experience.” She recognizes the emotions of the first responders who have not visited the museum.“I respect and understand their position, with PTSD it is very traumatizing and I totally empathize with them and I understand that.”
Sayge says that the ground the museum and memorial on is sacred. “There is DNA in the rubble and land, people died right there. The ground that you walk on when you go down there is top priority to be treated the right way. They always knew right away that things like a shopping center would never go there.” Sayge said “the memorial and museum are there to serve as a reminder to remember the event. It is there to tell stories for those who can no longer do so themselves. I am so proud of the development of the area. It took lots of hard work, but the project is certainly something we are all proud of.”
Through the past 20 years, we have sat reflecting on the events, in heartbreak. Through beautiful memorials, the lives of those lost will never be forgotten, but it is of the utmost importance that the stories of first responders are heard. As real as the attacks of 9/11 were, there are many young people who do not understand the reality of the event. It is through these personal stories that the community shall remember the attacks nearly 20 years later, and it is through the accounts of those who lived through the events that show why America will never forget 9/11/2001.