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Fallen towers' beams now stand as steel reminders
By Ron Grossman, Tribune reporter.
Source: Palos Hills Reporter, September 5th, 2011

Trade center artifacts distributed to memorials here, around world.

If history repeats itself, the Rev. Andrew Harrison will see plenty of unfamiliar faces in church on Sunday.

For the last nine years, his congregation, St. Luke the Evangelist Orthodox Church in Palos Hills, has hosted a 9/11 commemoration that draws many nonmembers. Some come to the evening memorial service. Others just drift in throughout the day.

They'll touch the centerpiece of the commemoration, a rusty beam that once helped hold up a building at ground zero. They'll sit for a few minutes, some praying quietly, others sobbing. Then they're gone.

"Who are they?" Harrison said. "Just people who want to make contact with the tragedy."

Scene from Fallen Towers.

Bits and pieces of the World Trade Center and adjoining buildings are referred to as "artifacts" by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, their custodian. Each has an identifying number when it is shipped to memorials that have arisen throughout the country to honor the 2,977 victims killed in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Those relics are freighted with emotion for Americans, many who remember where they were when they heard about the disaster and want to make sure the tragic story is passed on to future generations.

In a program that is winding down with the approach of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Port Authority has honored about 1,200 requests for artifacts. A number have gone to the Chicago area.

Among them is a piece of structural steel that arrived at the Des Plaines Fire Department, which will unveil it Sunday, bearing the artifact label I-0077v.

Yet the word artifact doesn't capture what these pieces of history hold for those who experience them up close. It's too abstract, too bloodless. Sept. 11, 2001 was anything but. The twisted hunks of wreckage from the twin towers and other buildings destroyed on that day have become something to be revered.

"They're touchstones — to that moment, to that piece of time," said Kirk Morris, of Gurnee, who was given a 20-foot beam from the wreckage at ground zero by the Port Authority that he hopes to place in a veterans memorial once a location is secured.

Morris and his son Geoffrey were fishing 10 years ago on Sept. 11. Upon graduating from high school, Geoffrey Morris felt the call to be part of the war on terrorism. He became a Marine and was killed in Iraq. Six other young men from Gurnee have also been killed while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Naperville already has its 9/11 memorial, a one-ton beam that leans against a block of granite that is five-sided, like the Pentagon.

"I'm not a religious guy, but it has a kind of icon thing about it," said Bill Cooper, the sculptor who incorporated the beam into the memorial.

Behind Cooper's sculpture is a wall with bas-relief faces, based on schoolchildren's drawings of how they imagined the victims.

At St. Luke's in Palos Hills, the connection between the 9/11 artifact and the church's sacred objects is explicit. The church's piece of steel from New York serves as a votive candleholder in front of a copper icon of St Nicholas. Harrison explained that in the Orthodox tradition, icons are venerated as a link to the holy men and women they represent. A Greek Orthodox church named for St. Nicholas stood near the twin towers until 9/11. It has not been rebuilt.

Viewed collectively, the 9/11 artifacts stored in Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy International Airport while awaiting shipment trigger emotions that are difficult for many people to express, including Port Authority spokeswoman Sara Beth Joren.

"The first time I visited there …" she said, her voice fading as if searching for words. "Seeing pieces and pieces of buildings. All I remember is feeling the deepest of feelings."

In medieval times, people visited Europe's cathedrals, hoping that proximity to an icon or a saint's relic would cure their ills or bring them children. But people have also long built memorials at the scenes of disaster.

Judaism's holiest site is the remains of a temple the Romans destroyed. There's a visitors' platform above the battleship Arizona, sunk at Pearl Harbor. Coventry Cathedral has been left as a bombed-out skeleton of the Battle of Britain.

Those modern-day pilgrimage sites are connected with mourning. Likewise, 9/11 artifacts are accorded a kind of funereal pomp.

When Harrison drove to ground zero, before the artifact program was formalized, he took an American flag to drape over the section of beam workers cut and loaded into his van. He had served as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve.

Joren reports that firefighters picking up artifacts at Hangar 17 often bring a trailer lettered with their department's name and the nature of their mission.

When Park Ridge unveils its artifact at a 9/11 memorial at Maine East High School, it will arrive atop a fire engine. That's the traditional caisson for a fallen firefighter's remains, said Deputy Chief Jeff Sorensen.

The largest number of requests for 9/11 artifacts have come from fire departments across the country, reflecting the bond firefighters feel with the 343 New York firefighters who perished at ground zero.

"I'm on the phone every day with guys from Wisconsin, who want to drive down here to see our girder," said Des Plaines Deputy Chief Ron Eilken. That 9/11 artifact will be unveiled at Des Plaines' City Hall at 8 a.m. Sunday.

While the emotions evoked by 9/11 artifacts are akin to mourning, they go beyond that. Grieving is a part of letting go and moving on. But that is not the impulse that produces requests for World Trade Center relics. Their motivation is often the opposite, fear that memories will fade, anger will dissipate, pain will be numbed.

That is what prompted the Oswego Fire Protection District to ask for a 10-foot length of structural steel.

"America should never forget," said Chief Rick Neitzer. "The fact that it's bent speaks to the trauma that hunk of metal represents."

That imperative — never to forget — has been felt as far away as Galliate, a village in northern Italy, which put in one of a handful requests for 9/11 artifacts from abroad. Mayor Davide Ferrari admires the way Americans came together after the disaster. When Galliate's relic arrives, it will be part of a program for schoolchildren. They'll be shown documentaries about the terrorist attack.

"At the same time, they will be able to touch a piece of what they see, making them understand what they are watching, it's not just a movie," Ferrari said.

Closer to home, memories of that sense of unity after 9/11 keep Sorensen plugging away despite seemingly endless committee meetings — getting everyone to agree on how to display the artifact has not been easy.

"But that's not going to stop us," Sorensen said. "Those kinds of divisions — isn't that what our enemy wanted?"

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