The 9/11 Memorial Steel Program

In the weeks after 9/11, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Port Authority) hired Voorsanger Associates, an architectural consulting firm, to walk through the site during the cleanup operation and tag objects they believed might be of use in a permanent memorial at the World Trade Center site. They specifically looked for steel and other objects that would tell the story of 9/11. The recovered WTC steel that once stood tall in the Manhattan skyline would now be preserved in an expansive aircraft hangar known as “Hangar 17” at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where it would await a more permanent memorial purpose.

 

In early 2010, after the The National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation Inc. (9/11 Memorial Foundation) decided which artifacts it wanted for its Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center site, the Port Authority began a program to solicit proposals for some of the remaining WTC steel to be used for public displays. Proposals were solicited from police and fire departments, municipal governments and community organizations. The primary requirement, according to Steve Coleman, an official with the Port Authority public affairs office, was that the steel be used in a public memorial display to provide a lasting memory of this tragic event and to ensure that we will never forget. The September 11th Families’ Association (www.911families.org) also helped to promote the program.

When I asked Coleman what the most significant artifact in Hangar 17 is, he replied, “All of the artifacts have their own special importance. Perhaps the most famous artifact is the Last Column, which is a giant piece of steel that was used as a message board for cops, firemen and construction workers during the cleanup operation. It will be a permanent fixture in the WTC Museum.” As far as Hangar 17, it will continue to be in operation as long as it takes to find the steel and other artifacts a new home. While some dignitaries have visited Hangar 17, the number of visits has been very limited because it is not a public space and has been mainly only open to Port Authority and 9/11 Memorial staffs. (For a look inside Hangar 17 and the Vehicle Tent, there is a link from a New York Times online article: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/09/10/nyregion/20080911-hangar-panos.html.)

 

The Application Process

The solicitation by the Port Authority received proposals from 1,500 groups in all 50 states and eight foreign countries. To date, the Port Authority has approved 1,040 requests. The Port Authority stopped accepting new requests when they no longer had enough steel to fulfill the requests. According to the Port Authority, none of the approved requests have changed their mind to date but if they did, they would go to one of the other requests on file.

The process included a formal letter of request to the Port Authority, a trip to New York City to select the steel and then transportation of the 9/11 Memorial Steel to its final destination. All of the WTC steel was documented evidence of the 9/11 terrorist attack and had to be officially released by the New York Attorney General’s Office. Each piece of the WTC steel was extensively catalogued as to where it was situated on the WTC site following the attack and where the steel was located when the Twin Towers were standing.

 

A Personal Account

In an earlier visit to the WTC Tribute Center, I met Lee Ielpi (a retired member of the FDNY and President of the September 11th Families’ Association) who told me about the 9/11 Memorial Steel Program. He stated, “The steel withstood the most horrific attack on American soil that took the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people. This is a rare opportunity to create a lasting memorial honoring the lives lost and educating future generations about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Every day, your work as emergency personnel demonstrates the power of good. A public memorial to the victims and heroes of 9/11 is a powerful way to ensure their memory lives on in your community.”

On Sept. 9, 2009 (09/09/09), my personal journey to acquire a piece of the 9/11 Memorial Steel began when I, along with a delegation of members from the Charlottesville Fire Department, traveled to New York City and Hangar 17. The goal of this trip was to select a piece of the WTC steel that would be memorialized in the entrance foyer of a new Charlottesville fire station, which is now in the process of construction. A conscious decision was made to ensure that “we never forget” what happened on 9/11.

My anticipation and excitement about selecting a piece of this very special steel was about to change dramatically as our team entered this rather inconspicuous airplane hangar. As the artifacts from 9/11 came into view, the delegation stopped all at once and was overcome with emotions. At that moment, there was an eerie and total silence throughout the hangar.

As I looked at the artifacts, all of the memories of 9/11 flooded my thoughts. As I glanced across the great area before me, I saw steel of varying sizes that were bent, burnt, twisted and melted. There were airplane engines, bike racks, huge pieces of concrete, clothes, shoes, building signs, cash registers and much more. In one area, there were pieces of the steel that had crosses and the Star of David cut from them. The curator explained that as the steel workers were helping to dismantle the steel, they had made these cuts and had given them to family members. Next, I entered one of the subway cars sitting separately. Inside the subway car were posters about various events occurring that week, two of which referenced events scheduled for 9/09/2001; eight years to the day of our visit.

Making our way through the building, we came upon what is called the “Vehicle Tent.” As the door opened, I remember hearing several deep sighs from our group. The vehicle tent contained fire apparatus, ambulances, police cars and taxi cabs all damaged and preserved as they were on 9/11. I walked over to the fire apparatus and touched one of the side handrails. I imagined how many times that firefighters in NYC and everywhere perform this simple task when getting on the rig; never knowing what danger lies ahead at the next incident. On 9/11, 343 brothers from FDNY grabbed these handrails of their respective engines, trucks, squads and ambulances never to return home. It was then that I could no longer hold back the tears. I held onto the handrail tightly hoping there was some way of turning back time. As I moved to look at other vehicles, I looked at each while recalling memories of what I had seen on TV on the morning of 9/11. If time had permitted, we all would have spent hours in this vehicle tent.

Then it was time to select a first, second and third choice of WTC steel. We walked around for more than an hour examining various sizes and configurations of steel. Then we saw a 17-foot, 4,000-pound piece of rusted steel with a starburst on one end where the steel was split outward and twisted. More significantly, this steel had orange paint markings “FDNY” in three places. We were told that these markings were visual indicators for the firefighters searching Ground Zero. This piece was officially catalogued as J-0002, or “J2.” While the group also chose three other pieces of steel, “J2” would be the steel that we would remember.

On Oct. 1, 2010, the official document to transfer ownership of “J2” from the Port Authority to the Charlottesville Fire Department was complete. Now the task of transporting this 9/11 Memorial Steel to its new and permanent home would ensue. On Nov. 18, 2010, the news that we were awaiting finally arrived, “The steel you have requested from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is ready to be picked up.” The pickup was scheduled for Jan. 26, 2011, but on Jan. 24, a snowstorm prompted the Port Authority to cancel all pickups for that week. Fortunately, our team was already in NYC and through the gracious efforts of Nancy Johnson of the Port Authority and the 9/11 Memorial Workers at Hangar 17, we were able to pick up the steel one day earlier and head home. The route home would be hampered by snow, sleet and freezing rain, but on Thursday, Jan. 27, the WTC steel “J2” arrived at Charlottesville Fire Headquarters. The WTC 9/11 Memorial Steel was escorted into the fire station by the department’s honor guard to an excited and appreciative crowd of citizens. Many looked silently, while others walked up and touched the steel. A number of people who had lost loved ones on 9/11 expressed that having the WTC steel here made them feel closer to those loved ones. Many firefighters stated that this steel will create a lasting connection with their 343 lost FDNY brothers and will ensure that the Charlottesville community, “will never forget” the tragedy of 9/11.

The WTC Steel will be suspended in the entrance foyer at the new Charlottesville Fire Station 10, scheduled to open in 2013. The Steel will be on public display at a special 9/11 evening ceremony in Charlottesville (www.cville-911.org) for one last time before going into the new station.

The 9/11 Memorial will be dedicated on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and open to the public on Sept. 12. Artifacts that will become a permanent display were selected by the 9/11 Memorial Foundation, which is in charge of the WTC Memorial. For more information, see www.911memorial.org.

Father Kevin Madigan of St. Peter’s Church in New York City referenced the 9/11 Memorial and the WTC site on a recent TV interview when he said, “Out of all this tragedy there has been a kind of resurgence, this neighborhood is thriving now that there are young families moving in here and this has become a place of life and renewal.”

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