25 Heartbreaking Photos Of 9/11 Artifacts — And The Powerful Stories They Tell

Published August 28, 2020
Updated August 10, 2022

From items recovered at Ground Zero to tributes from victims' families, these artifacts from September 11th reveal the true scope of the tragedy.

The pain endured by countless Americans on 9/11 still echoes years after the terrorist attacks. This immeasurable loss is reflected in many of the 9/11 artifacts collected during the recovery and clean-up operations. The tragedy is also displayed in many memorial trinkets created by the families of the 2,977 victims who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

Construction Workers Hard Hat
Torn Flag
Burnt Pager
Blood Stained Heels
25 Heartbreaking Photos Of 9/11 Artifacts — And The Powerful Stories They Tell
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Placed under the care of the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History, these 9/11 artifacts — some of which are featured in the gallery above — convey a poignant story of trauma and tragedy. But they also represent the strength of the survivors of September 11th and the resilience borne out of the devastation.

How The 9/11 Attacks Unfolded

September 11th Photo

Getty ImagesThe New York City Fire Department lost 343 firefighters during the attacks.

At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, people in New York City were going about their daily lives when tragedy suddenly struck. American Airlines Flight 11 had been hijacked by al Qaeda on its way from Boston to Los Angeles — and it crashed right into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

At first, there was confusion as to what exactly happened. Some initially thought the plane crash had been an unfortunate accident due to a malfunction. But then, United Airlines Flight 175 — also traveling from Boston to Los Angeles — crashed into the South Tower. Soon after, it became clear that these plane crashes were not accidents.

Chaos ensued after the first airplane crash, with people panicking in the streets and in their homes, frantically checking in on their loved ones. Those who were among the unfortunate may have discovered that their family members or friends were stuck inside the burning World Trade Center.

In less than two hours, the iconic Twin Towers of New York City had turned to ash, leaving unimaginable suffering in their wake. That same day, terrorist attacks were also launched against the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., as well as a plane that went down outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The 9/11 tragedy was undoubtedly one of the worst catastrophes in modern U.S. history. The death toll reached 2,977 people with as many as 25,000 injured. Countless others who survived that day endured scars — both physical and emotional — that lasted decades after the incident.

Inside The Rescue Efforts That Recovered Both 9/11 Artifacts And Human Remains

September 11th Rubble

Beth A. Keiser/AFP/Getty Images
Initial rescue and recovery operations were carried out over the months following the September 11th tragedy.

The World Trade Center site suffered $60 billion in damages from the attacks. The cost to clean the debris at Ground Zero amounted to $750 million. But the biggest toll by far was the lives lost in the tragedy — as shown by the heartbreaking 9/11 artifacts found at the scene.

The Last Column — a 58-ton beam that was part of the South Tower — wasn't removed from Ground Zero until May 30, 2002. This marked the end of an initial nine-month-long rescue, relief, and recovery effort.

Immediate rescue and recovery attempts on the day of the tragedy were a joint effort that included various city and state agencies. They were also supported by the resilience of quick-thinking civilians.

For instance, about 300,000 people were evacuated over the water by merchant mariners docked near Lower Manhattan. They were also aided by staff, cadets, and faculty from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at the nearby Kings Point.

Rescue efforts also counted support from agencies outside of New York, such as a group of San Diego firefighters who were dispatched to aid the rescues at Ground Zero.

"As soon as I saw the collapse — every firefighter will tell you they're thinking one thing: A lot of firefighters just died," recalled San Diego Fire-Rescue Deputy Fire Chief John Wood, who was part of the search-and-rescue team deployed to New York.

He added, "There was a lot of missing people. One of our big things we found out all these years later — thinking about, reflecting on — it is bringing back closure to families was important."

With the amount of people caught in the midst of the catastrophe of 9/11 and the destruction of the towers, many human remains have never been found. As of 2017, about 40 percent of the New York victims were still unidentified.

"The most important thing I will never know," said Liz Alderman, who lost her son Peter in the North Tower, "I won't know how much he suffered and I won't know how he died. I travel back into that tower a lot and I try to imagine, but there is no imagining."

The 9/11 Artifacts That Allow Us To Commemorate The Tragedy

First Responder Boots

The National 9/11 Memorial & MuseumLt. David Lim, who survived the North Tower collapse, was wearing these boots during 9/11.

Three months after 9/11, Congress officially charged the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History with the daunting task of collecting and preserving artifacts recovered from that day. It was meant as a way to honor the memories of the lives lost.

Now, the collection of 9/11 artifacts at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum showcases countless photographs and objects, including personal items from survivors, victims, and first responders. The collection also features tributes created by families after the tragedy.

It is a remarkable memorial to the people who were lost that day, as their stories are depicted through the everyday objects that they once owned.

Among the artifacts is the gear worn by Port Authority Police Department Lt. David Lim, who survived the North Tower collapse on 9/11. Like many first responder survivors, Lim donated items to the memorial, including a pair of leather boots, a utility belt, and a can of pepper spray — all layered in soot from the wreckage and debris.

September 11th Artifact

The National 9/11 Memorial & MuseumA ring belonging to Robert Joseph Gschaar, 55, one of the 2,977 victims killed.

Others were less fortunate. Robert Joseph Gschaar, who was working on the 92nd floor of the South Tower when the airplane crashed into it, was among the 2,977 victims killed. But a few of his personal items were able to be recovered and delivered to his family.

Among Gschaar's items was his wallet, which held a rare $2 bill. It was a symbol he shared with his wife, Myrta, as a reminder that they were two of a kind. His wedding ring was also recovered during the clean-up. As it turned out, Gschaar had spoken on the phone with his wife after the plane crash, reassuring her that he would evacuate. But like so many others, he never made it out that day.

It's clear that this vast collection of 9/11 artifacts is more than just a compilation of objects. These items are poignant reminders of the lives that could have been and the strength that continues to carry on their memories.

Now that you've learned about the most heartbreaking 9/11 artifacts, read the tragic story behind "The Falling Man," the infamous photograph of an unknown man falling to his death from the Twin Towers. Next, read about the far-reaching toll of the tragedy on the brave first responders who spurred into action on 9/11.

Natasha Ishak
A former staff writer for All That's Interesting, Natasha Ishak holds a Master's in journalism from Emerson College and her work has appeared in VICE, Insider, Vox, and Harvard's Nieman Lab.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Ishak, Natasha. "25 Heartbreaking Photos Of 9/11 Artifacts — And The Powerful Stories They Tell." AllThatsInteresting.com, August 28, 2020, https://allthatsinteresting.com/9-11-artifacts. Accessed May 18, 2024.