Physical reminders of 9/11

SUN JOURNAL

Memorials: People throughout the nation find comfort and healing in pieces of the World Trade Center.

April 08, 2003|By Cara Mia DiMassa | Cara Mia DiMassa,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They say there is solace in the steel.

Nineteen months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Americans have found comfort in the mangled carcass of the twin towers. Steel remnants, bearing the wounds of the tragedy, have become cultural touchstones: the symbols of unified grief and the instruments for collective healing.

"It speaks to your soul," Mark Ross says of the I-beam - creased down the middle and puckered along one edge - that he worked for six months to bring to Martinez, Calif.

Although New Yorkers have publicly, sometimes acrimoniously, debated how to build memorials to 9/11, people in communities from Fawnskin, Calif., to Franklin, N.J., quietly have been getting to work. Across the nation, they have incorporated World Trade Center steel into more than 250 tributes to the dead.

Girders carefully stacked like Lincoln Logs have become the centerpieces of municipal gardens. Church bell towers display an incongruous mix of battered metal and smooth stone. Civic reflecting pools shimmer with wavy images of cold, hard steel.

"Sometimes it takes a physical reminder to convey the spiritual feeling you have for an incident," says Ross, vice mayor of Martinez, a city of 36,000. "You just need something physical, something more than a plaque."

For some, the scarred steel shards are like the bones of saints, carefully preserved in gold and silver reliquaries: objects of worship that speak of pain and sacrifice. For others, the metal is a symbol of the bodies that will never be recovered, a rare artifact from a day when America was united in horror and mourning.

"There is this need, this compulsion, to share in the pain and sorrow of New York," says Emory University religion professor Gary Laderman, an expert on how Americans relate to death. "But there's something even wider going on, something that has to do with literally finding ways to bind the social body together, to bind the national community together."

The pieces of steel, he says, "become touchstones for that."

Builders of the monuments - many of whom lack any personal connection to the tragedy - say they feel a deep sense of patriotism inherent in their work. It is not necessarily an endorsement of the war in Iraq, or even a call to arms for those enforcing homeland security - although both those views have been expressed. Rather, it is a tribute to the freedoms that so many people think were attacked that day.

At the Counterterrorism Training Center in Corinth, Texas, Ron Reid underscores this point as he describes the "simple, understated" monument he is building. The 2-foot structural beam, torn almost in two, will sit on a pedestal near the entrance to the private center, which trains law enforcement officers to respond to terrorist attacks.

"Anyone who comes in to training will have to walk past it. I want them to know why they are here," he says.

Not long after the terrorist attacks, a steady stream of letters, e-mails and faxes began arriving at New York's Office of Emergency Management. It was almost too much to handle, says Francis E. McCarton, a deputy commissioner. Sent by cities, churches and civic groups, they asked for chunks of debris: dust, rocks, steel, anything.

In response, the office and the city's Community Assistance Unit quietly set aside several hundred pieces of steel for monuments and memorials. New York gave away what it could - chopping up some girders, leaving others intact, honoring as many requests as possible - until late last year, when the supply was exhausted.

The city rebuffed anyone wishing to profit from the tragedy. Recipients had to agree never to use their steel for commercial or financial gain, and to acknowledge that it might contain asbestos and other contaminants.

As the beams crossed the country, on their way to presidential libraries and small-town firehouses, they were greeted with flag-festooned parades and poignant ceremonies.

The Rev. James Moore blessed two of the longest beams before they left New York on a truck bound for his church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Albuquerque, N.M. When they arrived, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Albuquerque consecrated the beams with sacred oil. Sacred Heart is in Barelas, one of Albuquerque's oldest and poorest neighborhoods, just south of downtown.

"Our neighborhood has kind of died," says the neighborhood association president, Robert Vigil. But by working together to build the belfry that will house the two World Trade Center beams, the residents of Barelas have become a community again, Vigil says. They are devoting time and energy to raising the $250,000 the church needs to complete the bell tower. The beams, each almost 30 feet long, will stand on end, resting against two walls of the tower. About $100,000 has been raised, most in small bills.

Moore marvels at the power the beams hold over all who see them.

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