Touching Steel

The offices of the World Trade Center Tribute Center occupied an upper floor in a building across from Ground Zero. When I arrived, Lee and Jen met me at the door. A retired career firefighter, Lee lost one of his two firefighter sons in the towers on 9/11. Jen, a local resident, had volunteered soon after, assisting those awaiting news of their loved ones’ fate. A well-organized and gracious force-for-good, her work blossomed into the 9/11 Families Association, and together with Lee, they founded Tribute. After exchanging hugs, we walked to the conference room to chat.

“Come see the progress made on the site since you were last here.” Lee moved to the large window overlooking Ground Zero and pointed toward the vast construction area. I joined him, fascinated by the view below. “They’ve been building on the west side consistently; the foundation is finally above ground level. Closer to us on the east side, there are still a few damaged structures to raze. Once those are removed, construction can begin there, too.”

“That backhoe is enormous, it should be able to remove those sections of building easily.”

“Yes, but they have to dig cautiously. We are still finding human remains.”

“From eight years ago?”

“Yes, and when we find them, we take them to a repository at Arthur Kill on Staten Island for DNA sampling and relative notification.”

Jen leaned toward the window and pointed. “That muddy area is giving up more than just remains. In order to stabilize it, they’ve had to dig deeper than for the initial construction in the 70s. A few weeks ago they found the wooden sewer pipes built by the Dutch in the early 1700s. More recently they found a sailing ship that sank before the land had been extended beyond the original shoreline. Analysis of the wood showed that it had been built in the mid-1700s near Philadelphia.”

“A ship? Under the towers? That piece of earth has incredible stories to tell, from every generation that called this place home.”

“That reminds me. I have something for you.” Lee scooted over to his office and back. “Put out your hand.”

I did as he asked, and Lee placed a smooth stone in my palm.

“This is from the stream running under the towers. They found it while excavating. It’s likely been running there since your ancestors lived in New Amsterdam. I thought you might like it.”

I rubbed it. “I would never have expected a stream of living water to be flowing underground in that place. Just think what this stone has witnessed. Thank you, Lee.”

“That reminds me what I need to ask you,” Jen said as she motioned for us to sit. “The steel from the towers has become a treasured item. I know we got a large piece to cut up for the crew’s plank-owner plaques, but is there anything else you would like for the ship that could be made from the steel? It’s being regulated now to keep it from becoming an eBay hot-sell item, so we’d have to get it for you.”

“Is it possible to make religious symbols for the ship’s chapel? I’d love to see a cross, a Star of David and a crescent hanging on the bulkhead, so when the crew came to worship, they would have a tangible reminder of what matters, a silent memorial of all for which they sacrifice and serve.”

Jen looked over at Lee. He nodded. “We can do that.”

On my next visit to New York City, the symbols were ready. Lee unpacked them one by one and laid them on the table. “A Muslim artist forged the Star of David and the crescent, and one of our fire fighters made the cross. Think these will work?”

“They are perfect.” I reached for the Star. “And very heavy. It will be fun getting them back on a commercial flight.”

“You’ve got muscles, you can do it.” Jen laughed.

“I don’t think the carrying part will be the biggest problem. TSA is going to love this challenge.”

Lee and Jen both laughed.

“Don’t worry. All will go well.” I could always count on Jen for a positive word.

I arrived at LaGuardia Airport well ahead of my flight. After the ticket counter, my next stop was the baggage inspection area.

“You can just leave that here.” The TSA agent must have said that phrase thousands of times each shift.

“Thank you, but I think I should stay.”

“Suit yourself.”

The agent lifted my small but heavy bag onto the conveyor. When it reached the x-ray, the belt stopped, reversed, and then moved forward before stopping again. The woman running the machine called over the man loading the bags. After a quick conversation, they pulled mine out and motioned for me to meet them in the inspection area.

“We have to look inside your bag. Is there anything you want to tell us about the contents? You’ve got some oddly shaped, very dense metal in there. What is that?”

 “It’s steel from the World Trade Center.”

 “Wait, a minute.” Soon three other agents appeared around the table.

 I pulled out my military ID. “I am the chaplain on that new ship, USS New York.”

“The one they are building with steel from the towers?”

“Yes. 7 ½ tons of it is in the bow stem. And there is more in my bag. When you open it, you will see religious symbols forged from the steel. They are for the chapel.”

The agent carefully unzipped the suitcase. Inside were three heavy paper bags, each holding a piece of steel. She lifted out the first and removed it from its cover. Finding a cross, she gently placed it on the table. For a moment, we stood in silence.

“May we see the others?”

“Certainly.”

She unwrapped the Star of David, followed by the crescent, and placed them on the table next to the cross.

One of the three agents, who had walked over to support the inspection, cleared his throat. “Isn’t that a Muslim symbol? Why would you put this on the ship?”

“Because some of those murdered in the World Trade Center were Muslims.”

“You mean Muslims killed their own people?”

“Yes, they did. Our ship’s motto is ‘Never Forget’ and these three symbols will help us remember.”

One by one, the agents placed their hands on the steel, a sacred moment for all.

“You are carrying precious cargo. I’ll mark it special handling so it gets to its destination safely.” The agent wrapped up the symbols, placed them into the suitcase, and after zipping it closed, she attached a sticker to its surface. Jen was right. All did go well, all the way to the ship.

* * * *

 In November 2009, USS New York arrived in Manhattan and docked at Pier 88, a cruise ship terminal across from the Intrepid. The next morning, we began providing ship tours for the thousands of New Yorkers lined up for blocks along West Side Highway.

“Chaplain, we have a problem. We are only two hours into the tours and already we are finding memorial stuff being hidden around the ship. These people are slipping funeral cards, fire department patches, and God knows what else into crevices and behind pipes.” The bosun shifted from foot to foot, waiting for me to help.

“Why are you telling me?

 “You’re the commissioning coordinator and a New Yorker. You have to know what to do with these people.”

 “Ah, a miracle. Aye. I’ll get right on that.”

 “And we have another problem.”

“Oh, two miracles. If I can pull off both, maybe the Catholics will make me a saint. What’s the other one?”

“People are getting testy because they thought they would be able to touch the steel in the ship, but the only way to do that is to float them in a small boat to the bow so they can place their hands on the stem. We can’t do that.”

“Okay, give me a minute, I’ll see what I can do.” I wandered off to find RP1 Eddie Garrett, my talented assistant.

“You up for some miracle work?”

RP1 and I spent the next half hour setting up the portable altar at the entrance to the Marine Corps’ static displays of weapons, vehicles and gear. Over the plastic altar’s surface, we placed a white cloth and on it, the three religious symbols which, in predictable Navy fashion, had not yet been affixed to the bulkhead in the chapel. Within minutes, a crowd formed.

“Is this WTC steel?” a woman asked? I nodded. She placed her hand on the cross for a moment, closed her eyes and blessed herself. Seeing her, others did the same. Several others confidently touched the star, but only a few made contact with the crescent, and those mostly with just a fingertip. It was as if they were wrestling with its presence on a ship that memorialized the events of September 11th.

When the display seemed to manage itself, RP1 and I headed to the chow hall for lunch. Upon our return, we found our symbols had collected a few companions. A fire department had left steel in the shape of the firefighter’s Maltese cross, with two bars representing the towers. Another framed bar, with police shields pinned around it, had been left by the Midtown South Detective Squad.

Throughout the afternoon, other items joined the steel: Prayer cards with names of the dead, personal notes and patches from Police, Fire, Port Authority and EMS. People left photos, poppies, books, and even a red, white and blue live flower arrangement. Covers, pins, collar devices and other items belonging to or symbolizing the deceased were also placed on the altar. 

By day two, it was obvious the First Responders and 9/11 Families had passed word things could be left on the ship, because items arrived that required more planning: Framed photos and artwork, small statues, articles of unit clothing that had belonged to the deceased, even two six-foot-wide displays of patches representing all the fire companies. We set up a second table, then a third.

One afternoon a firetruck double-parked on West Side Highway. Its occupants ran into the ship’s vehicle deck in turnout gear, stood in front of the altar in a circle with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and cried together for ten minutes. Then they retrieved their truck and went back to work.

Another afternoon, three fire fighters stopped by to present a statue on behalf of the SSGT Chris Engeldrum FDNY VFW Post #12033. That post is unique because its members must not only be current military or veterans but also active or veteran New York City fire fighters. Since they had called ahead, RP1 Garrett and I met them on the pier in front of the bow stem as they had requested so they could take a photo with the ship. Two gentlemen held the heavy statute while the other removed the velvet bag they had placed over it.

The statue’s base was wooden, and each of its four sides had engraved plates bearing the names of members of their VFW who had lost their lives in combat. Instead of giving their military ranks, they were listed simply as FF and their name. Fire Fighter. Above the names on the front side, the VFW had inscribed these words: To the Crew of USS NEW YORK (LPD 21) In Glorious Memory Of The NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTERS Who Have Made The Ultimate Sacrifice While In Defense Of Our Great Nation. Extending upwards from the base was an expertly cut and etched piece of WTC steel in the form of a battle cross with the rifle pointing downward and an FDNY helmet on the top. Where the rifle barrel met the base, four items had been affixed.

“What are these pieces at the foot of the cross?” I leaned in to see better.

“This is a piece of cement. That might seem a common thing, but most of the cement was pulverized. This is one of the bigger pieces we found.” It was only 4 inches wide. “This piece is a bolt that held the steel girders together. And you see the one that looks melted? That’s from a firetruck. One of our guys was driving south toward the Trade Center along West Side Highway. As he neared the towers, it got too smokey to see, so he radioed dispatch to help him find his way. Dispatch asked him where he thought he was and he told her, ‘On West Side.’ She responded, ‘You can’t be there. That section is gone. The tower just fell on it.’ No one heard from him again. The truck was found 100 days later, 60 feet below ground where it had melted because of the fire raging under the surface. This is a piece of the truck.”I placed my hand on it gently. “I’m sorry about your friend.” We stood in silence for a moment. Then I moved my hand to the last piece. “What is this one with the rivets?”

“A piece of one of the planes.”

The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I lifted my hand like I had just been bitten. “Isn’t this evidence?”

“Nah, they got lots of it. It was just lying around in bits and chunks.”

“How about I find the Commanding Officer so you can present this to him properly?”

“That would be good.” They followed me into the ship carrying with them the most disconcerting thing ever brought onboard.

On the last day for tours, a man entered the ship with his three young sons. He stood near the large shrine that had formed over the week, shifting from foot to foot. He had something in a bag under his arm.

“He doesn’t look right.” RP1 Garrett, who had done combat tours in Al Nasiriya, Fallujah and hotspots in Afghanistan, always kept a keen watch for anything suspicious. He walked directly to the man. “Can I help you with something?”

“I, um, I have this thing I found in the rubble at Ground Zero. I didn’t know what to do with it, so it’s been in my locker at the fire station for, um, eight years. I think I’d like to leave it here.”

 Praying it was not a body part, I moved closer to the man. “Are these your boys?”

 “Yes. I want them to see the ship, but maybe I want them to see what I brought, too.”

“What have you got there?”

He reached in the bag to pull out a triangularly folded piece of cloth. “I found this in part of a file cabinet that must have blown out a window. It was folded then, and I’ve never undone it.”

“A flag is a wonderful thing to show your boys. Would you like me to help you?”

“It still smells like Ground Zero.”

“That’s okay. If we open it and let fresh air touch it, that will slowly clear away.”

I held the loose end as the man turned it again and again. Soon we had a length of cloth between us.

“I think this is a New York State flag. Look boys, look what your dad found.” As we continued to unfold it, his sons took hold, too. We stretched it up and out like a flag should hang. The man took a long look and breathed deeply. “It’s all here. It’s complete. It survived.”

Around the gentleman and his three sons, born post-9/11, a crowd formed. Cameras caught the moment, then together we refolded the flag. The children placed in on the altar, then taking their dad’s hands, pulled him toward all the cool stuff the Marines had on display.

During USS New York’s visit to New York City, 80,000 people toured our ship.

They came to remember and honor those they lost on September 11th, 2001.

They came to see and honor who they had become in the aftermath.

80,000 survivors.

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4 thoughts on “Touching Steel

  1. Wow Laura!!

    Such an amazing story!! Thanks for writing about something few of us know about. Hope to talk more about it at tomorrow’s happy hour!

    Lenore

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  2. You are a wonderful story teller, Laura, and you have had so many amazing experiences. Thanks for sharing them with us! 💕

    Like

  3. Laura, the story and wonderful photos were a powerful and moving reminder of the tragedy our nation faced that day. I loved that you ended this piece with the tribute to the survivors as well as to those lost.

    Like

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