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Relics, Artifacts and Memories: A Year Spent With World Trade Center Steel

Frederic Schwartz, architect of the Westchester and New Jersey 9/11 Memorials, stands in front of  “Empty Sky.” Almost 50 percent of the victims’ families have no remains to bury, and the 9/11 memorials often serve as de facto graves. (Photo: Emon Hassan and Amanda Lin Costa)

I didn’t set off to become an expert in World Trade Center (WTC) steel but recently it occurred to me I was becoming one. The thought first dawned on me about a month ago, after I spent the day filming at The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) as part of a documentary I have been working on about WTC steel.

I spent hours with Stephen W. Banovic, a materials research scientist in the Metallurgy Division of the Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory at NIST, and Michael E. Newman, senior communications officer at NIST. Both men had spent more than six years of their lives living and breathing the WTC steel during the intensive investigation into the collapse of the Twin Towers.

It was fascinating to see the meticulous samples nestled in shallow drawers that reminded me, ironically, of the flat files used by architects to store the blueprints used to build monumental structures. These drawers contained the clues to the collapse of the world’s most famous buildings. Throughout the day, I had to keep reminding Banovic that the documentary was for general audiences, as he often included unpronounceable metallurgy terms in his description of his research.

Stephan W. Banovic shows the samples taken from the WTC Steel at NIST. (Photo: Emon Hassan)

Luckily, I left NIST that day with a DVD and a folder filled with information that further educated me on the twelve different grades of steel used in the construction of the World Trade Center.

The WTC steel has been at the center of controversy from the beginning. Newman spoke of the 9/11 “truthers” that camped out at NIST's entrance in protest. He had grown to know many by name as the NIST investigation continued year after year.

Even Karl Koch, author of “Men of Steel” and the man responsible for providing the steel in the construction of the World Trade Center, introduced himself to me with the disclaimer that his theories on why the buildings collapsed are seen as controversial. Nearly a night doesn’t go by for him without a nightmare of the Twin Towers collapsing. He now has bitter memories of the buildings he was once proud to build, but now sees it only as instrumental in the deaths of thousands.

As Banovic and Rick Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of The American Institute of Architects, told me in interviews, one cannot design buildings for the unexpected or unseen. One cannot design buildings that won’t collapse when a plane is flown into them. One can only design buildings in such a way that the ability for people to evacuate and escape is foolproof.

Over the past year, I've interviewed rescue workers, family members, government officials and other individuals who have a connection to the WTC steel. As I said, I didn’t set off to become an expert on WTC steel when I began shooting this documentary. I was interested in understanding why small towns across America wanted to obtain a piece of the debris from the World Trade Center. To me, this spoke to the memorialization process in general and addressed issues of patriotism and how we mourn as a nation.

Over the past year, I have heard people refer to the WTC steel as “artifacts,” “relics,” “debris,” and “art.” Bell shared his experience with me after he saw the WTC steel at Hangar 17.

“The issues of unexpected transfer make the steel more than what it was, certainly more than demolition debris,” Bell told me. “I would call these not relics but art.”

He parallels the transfer of steel to a different place then where it fell to an artistic impulse equal to artistic intent found through the deliberate intervention and manipulation of something to give it new meaning.

The Saratoga Arts Council took this concept of transformation one step further by commissioning two sculptors, John Van Alstine and Noah Savett to create a contemporary modern sculpture from the WTC steel, the only real “reuse” of the WTC steel I know of other than what was used for the USS New York.

“Tempered By Memory” as the sculpture is named based on “the concept of steel being heated and tempered just as the event of 9/11 are tempered in our brains,” as explained by Sculptor John Van Alstine, has been the source of some controversy. It was first built and designed to be placed in front of the Saratoga City Center in downtown Saratoga Springs, but that location was lost and now the sculpture will not be dedicated on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 as originally planned.

As I filmed that project from the early days of the selection of the WTC steel in Hangar 17, to the recent heated city council meetings, I watched unfold a microcosm of the battles currently going on across the country relating to public art and memorials in these tough economic times.

Sculptor Noah Savett speaks to the press in front of “Tempered by Memory.” (Photo: Emon Hassan)

One might argue that the WTC steel already “looks” like art. I often say their bold shapes resemble Richard Serras on acid, yet they are uniquely pieces of “sacred ground,” a term used to refer to preserved sacred places where there is a human presence such as in a cemetery or place of worship. They are relics and artifacts that when seen in-person are striking symbols of the destruction of lives on 9/11.

Steel is supposed to be strong and indestructible. Our nations greatest superhero is, after all, “The Man of Steel.” Yet, the WTC steel appears to be crumpled like paper; shredded and twisted in the most unimaginable ways.

Marita Sturken, who chairs the department of media, culture, and communications at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development and is also the author of several books, said in an interview, “If you have a mangled piece of steel it evokes, in a certain sense, just how powerfully destructive (9/11) was and it does that almost as if it is standing in for the bodies of the dead.”

Frederic Schwartz, the architect of the Westchester and New Jersey 9/11 Memorials, explained to me that almost 50 percent of the victims’ families have no remains to bury and that in most cultures one need remains to have a gravesite.

“The 9/11 Memorials are in fact de facto graves for most of the families,” Schwartz said.

“Empty Sky,” the New Jersey State 9/11 Memorial sits directly across the Hudson River from Ground Zero and at its entrance rests two WTC steel beams paying homage to the 746 New Jersey residents who died on 9/11.

Architect Frederic Schwartz in front of “Empty Sky” during its construction. (Photo: Emon Hassan)

For me, watching people react to the WTC steel is an intense and fascinating experience. Many people reach out to touch it; others stand, arms crossed keeping their distance. When I interview people about their reactions their responses speak to the same emotions one associates with a funeral wake and raises the same questions: Are you closer to the dead by placing your hand on the coffin or even the lifeless form of a loved one? Is that gesture a final way to say goodbye? Or is the act of just looking upon the dead in itself an acknowledgement and connection?

There aren’t any right or wrong answers to those questions because it is a personal experience. It is the same when viewing the WTC steel. It is both a historical artifact that is a teaching tool and launching point for discussion and education as well as a haunting reminder of a tragic attack on America.

Crowds gather around WTC Steel on display in Beavercreek, OH on September 11, 2010. (Photo: Emon Hassan)

The WTC steel is also a relic that contains the ashes of those that died on 9/11 at Ground Zero. The Maryland State 9/11 Memorial carefully conserved their WTC steel as one would a museum piece. Susie Leong, program director at the Maryland State Arts Council, showed me a bucket of white dust-like substance that was removed from the crevices and internal hidden spaces of their twisted WTC steel. What is in this dust can only be imagined. At a primal level this can be disturbing, these intimately connected reminders of loss and death.

How can we ever move past the horrors of the events that unfolded with these constant reminders in towns across America? Yet, “Never Forget” is a rallying cry of not only victims’ family members but many that feel 9/11 is an event that has changed the course of history forever and was a moment in time that showed the courage and heroism of many Americans.

Many aspects of 9/11 are as twisted and complicated as the WTC steel. As Elizabeth Dubben, director of exhibitions at the Saratoga Arts Council and Center, says boldly to the naysayers of the “Tempered by Memory” 9/11 Memorial and Sculpture, “Does it have to be pretty? That day wasn’t pretty.”

Susie Leong covers WTC Steel. In the foreground, the word “SAVE,” which often appears on the WTC Steel. (Photo: Emon Hassan)

I find that no matter where I am shooting, everyone remembers where they were that day. It reminds me of how older generations speak of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King or the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Still, as I watch crowds gather in front of the WTC steel, I see just as many children question what they are looking at and asking their parents, “What is 9/11?” Curriculums about 9/11 are now being implemented in public schools, but there is much debate as to how and whether it should be taught.

Beavercreek, Ohion, school teacher Jo Ann Rigano sponsored a New York City firehouse after 9/11, sending handmade gifts from her class and donations from the community. She has always spent every anniversary discussing with her class the events of the day and she told me that parents often come up to her to thank her because they weren’t sure how to explain the attacks to their children. She was given a cross by the New York City firehouse made of WTC steel. As she placed it in my hand I was shocked by the weight of it. She told me the cross is the one thing she hides when she goes away. To her, it is irreplaceable.

Teacher Jo Ann Rigano holds her cross made from WTC Steel. (Photo: Emon Hassan)

Like any large-scale metal outdoor public sculpture, how the WTC steel will be displayed brings up many issues and problems. Primarily, the weight of the beams is not something to be taken lightly. Ten to thirty thousand tons of metal is not an easy thing to erect or to shore up the footing beneath to prevent future sinking or cracking of the ground’s surface. This is costly and many towns that were given the steel have yet to raise the funds to display it. Issues of rusting and staining of surrounding surfaces is also a huge factor in the display of the pieces. I have seen many creative solutions to how to contain the runoff and some projects have chosen to seal the steel with a variety of finishes.

Peter Gat, conservator for the 9/11 objects owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, advised Beavercreek firefighters the day I was filming to leave the steel in its natural state. That's exactly what they have done. They have allowed the elements to continue to change the appearance of the WTC steel with the passage of time.

Beavercreek, OH firefighter David Young secures WTC Steel in front of Hangar 17. (Photo: Emon Hassan)

It appears that we as a nation have become quick to memorialize. Sturken explained to me that 50 years would pass before the process of building memorials to mark an historical event would begin. Yet almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks, there were discussions about creating a memorial at Ground Zero. Perhaps this is because memorializing is part of the healing process. It gives us something to focus on and a way to put tragedy in context. It allows us to feel we are doing something active and playing a contextual role in healing and remembering.

In New York City, there was such a strong outpouring of volunteerism after the attacks and across the nation and world. We all remember how, for a brief moment, we felt united as a nation. There is no doubt that on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 we all juggle the conflicting moments of raw emotion, as if it only happened yesterday, and the feeling that it is part of a distant past and an event we place in historical context.

The New York State Museum has a large collection of WTC steel as well as other artifacts. Mark A. Schaming, director of exhibitions and programs, told me the museum will send pieces out on tour as long as the public expresses an interest in seeing it. Schaming has been working on curating and collecting the WTC steel since it was at the Fresh Kills Landfill.

As Hangar 17 was being emptied out, I asked him how it felt to see the WTC steel leave its “home.” He said that that while it was strange to watch the hangar empty it was fitting that the pieces were going out to the public. The Port Authority had strict criteria that a non-profit must comply with in order to qualify to receive WTC steel. The most being the ability to protect the WTC steel and guarantee it will be treated with respect.

Mark A. Schaming reflects on the jouney of the WTC Steel at Hangar 17. (Photo: Emon Hassan)

I have become an expert enough to recognize a twisted “panel” (the steel that framed the windows of the Twin Towers) or a floor joist when I see it. I can tell by the thickness of the steel the approximate original location as to whether it was from the lower or upper floors. I recognize the familiar symbols and numbers that are spray painted on so many of the pieces of WTC steel and understand its significance; the most ironic one being “Save.”

There is no other case that I know of where this large a number of actual artifacts from a tragic event have been distributed. They are like puzzle pieces, which if possible to reconstruct, might rebuild the World Trade Center.

There is no more WTC steel to be distributed. More than a thousand pieces of WTC steel has been distributed around the world.

One can only hope that as they find homes in small towns next to firehouses, beaches and in parks that they help rebuild the heart of America; that they become symbols of what we can endure and remind everyone that we are united, each of us as different and unique as the bent and warped pieces of WTC Steel, but equal in our humanity.

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