On the morning before the museum opened to the public, Mary Lou Buss took the ferry from Staten Island to lower Manhattan to visit the place her sister died.
The little sister who ran around wearing her softball glove with her bridesmaid dress on Mary Lou’s wedding day. The sister who went on to play shortstop for the Huskers, who became a teacher and then a businesswoman in Kansas City with an appointment at the World Trade Center on Sept. 12, 2001.
Julie Geis, the sister who showed up in New York a day early and never came home.
“She wasn’t scheduled to be there,” says Mary Lou, a social worker and college instructor. “She was just there.”
Mary Lou is the oldest of eight Geis siblings who grew up in Beaver Crossing. She was heading home to Lincoln Thursday, two days after her visit to New York City.
The National September 11 Memorial and Museum sat on ground she’d visited before.
When it was a tower of smoking rubble, when it was a gaping hole, when it was surrounded by a makeshift shrine, held together by tears and chain-link.
When she stood with her sister Carol and other family members of the dead and read names on the fifth anniversary.
Tuesday, she visited a 110,000-square-foot history lesson, a memorial to sorrow and horror and hope, descending 10 stories to a place filled with rusted beams and battered fire trucks, hundreds of artifacts and thousands of photographs.
The museum officially opened Wednesday with a $24 entrance fee, 7,000 visitors, and lingering controversy over its existence.
But for a week before the public streamed in, family members of the victims and rescue workers were invited to tour.
Mary Lou represented the Geis family on the final day, taking pictures, taking it all in.
She felt the hush when she entered and then heard the soft sound of bagpipes playing a loop of “Amazing Grace."
“My first impression was how somber it was, but very respectful.”
As she descended, she could hear names, too, a recitation of the 2,983 in the towers, aboard airplanes turned into missiles, inside the Pentagon.
Julie’s name was etched in the southwest corner of the exterior, near the museum entrance; and Mary Lou searched out her sister’s photo inside, too -- her smile, her curly hair caught up in a bun -- in a montage stretching alphabetically across the walls of a gallery, like the world’s saddest yearbook.
Other Nebraska faces were on the walls: Monte Hord, Jennifer Dorsey Howley, Larry Getzfred ...
Julie was 44 when she died. A senior vice president with AON who worked in the corporation’s K.C. office. Her meetings in New York that September were scheduled in company headquarters, the 102nd floor of the South Tower.
That’s where her family believes she was when the second plane hit at 9:02 a.m.
Mary Lou spent much of her three-hour visit in the section of the museum devoted to what took place there.
“They have things like the remaining stairs, they have the footings, the cement, the wall is the wall that was there …”
In photos, the stairs have an ancient patina, battered as if unearthed in an archeological dig. The slurry wall is massive, designed to keep the Hudson River at bay, one of the few structures that survived.
She looked at twisted steel beams, listened to 911 tapes, cried. "I just kind of took my time and experienced it."
She took photos to share with family back home.
She sat in a large, dark room, a theater with surround sound to watch a movie.
It opened with the thunder of the towers falling. Then paper flying and the dust and the smoke. And then images and sounds of the clean up, victims being carried out, flags flying.
It was like you were there, she said.
“I suppose it sounds kind of cruel, but actually I found it to be moving, it starts from where you were and kind of built hope from that.”
She spent three hours in the museum -- and could have stayed longer -- soaking it in so she could share it with her siblings and children and 85-year-old mother.
She began at the bottom, where the footings of the towers were laid, where the biggest displays were. She saw the battered fire truck, pieces of the airplanes. She looked at the little things: helmets, badges, wallets, shoes, glasses.
She went into a room filled with missing posters, a private space for families.
She knows the museum has critics; people who feel it will become a spectacle, a place for tourists to gawk. The gift shop has become a focal point. “I don’t need a coffee cup that has the Twin Towers on it,” says Mary Lou. “But I understand there would be people who would be interested.”
For her, the museum did its job as a testament.
“You felt all the emotions. The fear, the horror, and that we’re all moving on the best we can.”
She was anxious about her visit; she’s glad she went.
Mary Lou had another reason to be in New York last week. Her niece’s graduation from Columbia University. Shannon Geis is her brother Dan’s daughter. Dan died in 2007, complications of a blood disorder.
Their father died in February 2003 -- the Alzheimer’s that had begun to take him before Julie died. Mary Lou’s husband, Yogi, died of a heart attack a year later.
On Memorial Day weekend, she and her kids and grandkids will visit his grave in Lincoln. She and her mom will tend family graves in Utica and Exeter and Friend and the Beaver Crossing Catholic cemetery where a bench serves as Julie’s gravestone.
They still celebrate her birthday. They remember Julie: vibrant, funny, quick-witted, interested.
Someone you’d like. That’s how Mary Lou always describes her sister to people.
None of Julie’s DNA was ever found at Ground Zero. That doesn’t bother her older sister, who descended into the earth on a Tuesday morning, more than 12 years after a Tuesday morning etched in a country’s history and heart.
“That’s where Julie died,” she says. “That’s not where she is.”