World Trade Center steel leaves storage hangar for far-flung memorials

Editor's note: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is open to requests from organizations that would like to request a piece of World Trade Center steel. Click here for details.

By Michael Wilson
The International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK — When Jeff Cox, a 15-year-old candidate for the rank of Eagle Scout in Windermere, Florida, approached the small town's mayor with park improvement ideas to help earn a badge, the mayor informed him that those projects were already covered.

''He came back and said, 'Would the town like a memorial if I can get World Trade Center steel?''' Mayor Gary Bruhn said. ''I was stunned. I said, 'Son, the town would be elated to have something like that.' He said, 'I think I need the town's support. I don't think they're going to just give it to me.'''

No, they would not — but close. As the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches on Friday, pieces of the World Trade Center rubble from that day have never been more accessible. A new campaign is under way to speed up the process and increase the volume of giving away pieces of steel big and small from the debris.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the steel, will invite police and fire departments and mayors and other leaders of cities and towns across the United States to ask for pieces for memorials. The Port Authority has filled about 25 requests in the last year, and has about a dozen more pending, including one from France.

''The Saint-Etienne fire brigade would very much like to exhibit an artefact from the World Trade Center in order to pay tribute to the victims, civilian and fire fighters of the 11th September attack,'' wrote Col. Yves Bussiere, of the regional fire department.

In recent weeks, trucks have hauled twisted steel columns that weigh hundreds of pounds to York, Pennsylvania, and Westerville, Ohio. A smaller piece was shipped to the air defense offices of the U.S. Air Force in Rome, New York.

''The best way we can honor the memory of those we lost on 9/11 is to find homes in the W.T.C. Memorial and in cities and towns around the nation for the hundreds of artifacts we've carefully preserved over the years,'' said the Port Authority's executive director, Christopher O. Ward. The Port Authority hopes to generate more interest in the steel with new advertisements in police, fire and municipal trade magazines. There are 1,800 to 2,000 pieces, half of them very large, which are available for carting away, at the recipient's expense. This does not include about 200 pieces, among them the most familiar and iconic, that have been claimed by the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum.

Among the pending requests are one from Las Vegas, where the Atomic Testing Museum wants a 79-inch, or 200-centimeter, piece to fit in its custom-made case, and one from Eastern Kentucky University, which requested a piece one and a half feet long, or half a meter.

The pieces - some weighing tons, others little more than twisted sheets of metal the size of a street sign - are stored at Hangar 17 at Kennedy International Airport. The 80,000-square-foot, or 7,400-square-meter, hangar is divided by several large plastic tents, where machines regulate the humidity so the steel doesn't rust. In one tent, a New York City police car sits crumpled in the corner, as if tossed there.

Lee Ielpi, president of the September 11 Families' Association, is sending letters to public safety agencies offering artifacts. ''Any bona fide city, town, county, state, corporations, other countries, France, Paris, Lyon, that would want a piece of steel, it would behoove us to accommodate them,'' he said.

In the years immediately following the attacks, donations of 9/11 artifacts trickled out to various entities, but the requests were not handled by a single organization, the Port Authority said. The agency requires a detailed description in each request of how the steel will be displayed. Individuals cannot receive artifacts, only cities or organizations.

The requests that are pending supplied detailed specifications for the pieces they want. ''I am looking for an 'I' beam roughly 8' in length; however, anything that we could have would mean more than words could ever express,'' wrote Lt. Michael L. Zarella with the fire department of Mendon, Massachusetts. He visited and chose the piece he wanted, a 10-foot-long hunk of steel ''twisted like a party streamer,'' he said.

Requests for the steel must also be approved by Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of Federal District Court, who is overseeing wrongful death lawsuits stemming from the attacks. While the steel is considered potential evidence in those cases, tests on the steel were completed in 2005. The judge has since granted all requests and has given no indication he will do otherwise for the pending ones.

In Wichita, Kansas, the Transportation Security Administration awaits shipment of a 600-pound, or 270-kilogram, piece of steel. Officials plan to chop it into eight pieces and display each piece in one of the state's airports. "Most of these are really, really small airports," said Keith Osborn, the security director.

Steel will be displayed in two parks only about 20 miles, or 32 kilometers, apart in Ohio: one beside the Westerville Fire Division Headquarters ("We plan on standing it up and have it facing in the same direction it was when it was in New York, with the north side facing in the right direction," said a firefighter, Thomas C. Ullom); the other in Hilliard, which selected three pieces.

On Friday, Jack Sommer, the president of Prospect Hill Cemetery in York, Pennsylvania, came to Hangar 17 to collect a piece, watching as a cemetery employee strapped a chunk of steel, concrete and gnarled rebar to a trailer. In an added flourish, the men had spread an American flag under the steel. A Port Authority police car escorted them out.

In Windermere, a town of 3,000, the prospective Eagle Scout, Jeff Cox, got the mayor's support for his project and was waiting for his steel. He was just 7 when the attacks took place. ''I wasn't really sure what the building was, but it kind of scared me,'' he said. ''No one was really sure what was going to happen.''

He said he has been promised a big piece. ''They sent me about six options to pick from,'' he said. ''I ended up taking part of a steel beam, about three and a half or four feet, 650 pounds.''

Copyright 2009 International Herald Tribune
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