By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Yorkers who toured the museum that commemorates the violent attacks of September 11, 2001, on Wednesday, the first day it was open to the public, said they expected a somber visit but found themselves emotionally overwhelmed.
The National September 11 Memorial Museum in downtown Manhattan, featuring displays and artifacts related to the attacks and the nearly 3,000 victims, opened its doors to the general public after eight years of planning and building.
Alyson Slattery, an executive assistant at a nearby insurance company, went with a friend during her lunch hour to search victims' biographies and photographs for someone they knew.
She emerged from the subterranean museum ashen-faced.
"It was too much for me," said Slattery, 27. "I wouldn't want to go through that again."
Her friend Susan Cottingham, 35, agreed it was a difficult visit but said she found the museum "beautifully done."
"It's lucid. It's bittersweet," she said.
President Barack Obama last week joined victims' families, first responders and dignitaries for a dedication ceremony at the $700 million museum that documents the day hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and an open field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
On display are a wide range of artifacts, from half-crushed fire trucks and twisted masses of architectural steel to bloodstained personal items such as shoes, wallets and lipstick tubes.
Michael Cotton, 43, an architect who works at Snøhetta, the firm that designed the museum's glassy atrium, said he made the visit largely to appraise his colleagues' work, but found himself overcome by the exhibits.
"I wasn't really prepared," Cotton said.
"You start off in a place that's light and airy, and then you descend, and even the wood gets darker," he said, describing going down to the exhibition halls at bedrock level around the foundations of the fallen World Trade Center towers. "It's really intense."
The most poignant of all were the audio exhibits, Cotton and several other visitors said.
A recording of a husband calling his wife from the Trade Center's north tower, telling her the south tower had just been hit, made a deep impression on Marianne Ludlam.
The audio was almost too much to hear, but its inclusion is justified, the 68-year-old retiree said.
"You can't not include anything because that's what this is about. It's about the reality of that day," she said.
Admission was free for the first day, thanks to a corporate sponsor. Tickets typically will be $24.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Gunna Dickson)