A clamor for artifacts from terrorist attacks

Debris: Although mountains of wreckage were created Sept. 11, only a few groups have received relics to mark the event.

August 12, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Combined, nearly 2 million tons of steel and debris came crashing down Sept. 11 at the base of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, enough for a shipment to every museum, church group and planned memorial in the country. And yet with the anniversary of the attacks looming, it seems there aren't enough relics to go around.

Dozens of museums have been struggling, even competing, for pieces from the attack sites in preparation for an almost synchronized opening of exhibits Sept. 11. Thousands of companies, community groups and municipalities have flooded New York City and Pentagon officials with requests for artifacts. Most museums and organizations, it turns out, won't get anything.

In the months since the attacks, the remnants of the twin towers and the Pentagon -- from subway signs and airplane parts to restaurant spoons and steel I-beams -- have almost all been recycled or buried at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. What's left has fallen largely into the hands of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a select group of museums, among the very few that were eventually given access to the tightly restricted landfill.

New York City officials and employees of the sanitation department said that in the months after the attacks, they simply could not process all the thousands of requests they received for memorabilia and relics. The problem became trying to differentiate between a community hall in Oklahoma and a swindler who would sell the items for profit.

But one of the thorniest issues came down to an awkward question no one knew how to answer: To whom does a piece of smashed telephone or bent steel belong?

The Port Authority owns the trade center land. Developers owned the buildings. Tenants owned everything in the space they leased. Residents owned their belongings and the cars parked in the trade center garage. And the city owns the Fresh Kills Landfill, where everything came to rest.

The FBI also weighed in, calling both the attack site and the landfill a crime scene. Then New York state claimed authority over the city's cleanup efforts.

At the Pentagon, while there was little dispute over the Defense Department's authority over the site, the department clamped down from the beginning and severely limited access, so even fewer relics came out.

The few organizations that did receive items from the trade center were largely New York museums, which banded together in the fall to press city, state and federal officials to preserve some relics. But even among that group, museums with the best connections and the most powerful board members fared better than others.

The New York State Museum in Albany, which used its influence in the governor's office, acquired the largest and most comprehensive collection, including a firetruck, airplane parts, evacuation signs, trade center keys and broken lampposts. The museum in the offices of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which has several board members with law enforcement contacts, received coveted bent I-beams from the towers and rare pieces of scorched Pentagon facade.

But Arlington County, Va., where the Pentagon is located and whose firefighters responded Sept. 11, had to settle for three pieces of Pentagon limestone that were not damaged in the attack but were removed during restoration. The museum of the Fire Department of New York City, meanwhile, couldn't obtain pieces from what were once the department's own trucks. Disabled firetrucks become city property.

"Certain museums have had better access than others," said Peter Rothenberg, curator of the New York City Fire Museum. "There was an awful lot of red tape and confusion. It was like: `You can't touch it, can't touch it. OK, come and get it. Oh, it's too late.'

"It really all comes down to connections," Rothenberg said. "People say, `Sure, we like the idea [of preservation].' But when you try to understand who's supposed to sign off on it, that's when the problems arise. It gets murky real quick."

At one point, when the situation looked the most desperate for the museum's coming exhibit, Rothenberg went to the department's supply house and found in the equipment room all the broken tools, hoses and axes that firefighters had traded in for new ones Sept. 12. The fire museum, like several other New York City museums, eventually enlisted the state museum in Albany to collect items on its behalf.

For months, the priority of recovery crews remained finding human remains and personal effects. Few were interested in preserving something that would only serve to remind them of the pain they felt.

"It was very difficult for all the people working on recovery" in the beginning, said Sally Werkovich, president of the New Jersey Historical Society. "All the things you find are so charged. Tempers are frayed."

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