Display of steel, tears with Ground Zero girder
Steel girders aren't the most sentimental things.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Steel girders aren't the most sentimental things.
But this one, with its dusting of rust, its gnarled right end, has brought seasoned firefighters to tears. People have stood in long lines at the Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One headquarters just to touch it. They bring their kids to see it as one thing, something, that can convey the enormity of what happened That Day.
The girder is one of 18 brought to Washington state from Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, a storage space that is more sacred ground, for it holds what remains of the fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Agencies from as far away as Italy had to apply to receive pieces of steel through a program set up through The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The port was able to approve 1,218 requests for steel before it ran out, according to spokesman Steve Coleman.
"There's been an extraordinary demand," he said. "Towns and communities want to have something to remember that day. They want something that will tell the story not just today, but for many, many years."
Last May, four firefighters from Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One traveled across the country and back — 6,276 miles — to pick up this piece, which is 60 inches long, 30 inches wide and weighs 986 lbs.
Firefighter Ryan Kress, who lost two college friends on 9/11, applied for and was granted the girder. But he was deployed to the Philippines with the Washington National Guard, so he wasn't able to make the trip. But four of his colleagues jumped at the chance.
"It was more of a necessity," said Lt. Kent Cooper, 42, of why he volunteered. "Whatever happened, I needed to be a part of it. It's a lot about honor. Making sure it was done correctly."
Firefighter and paramedic Rob McCoy, 41, felt "an overwhelming call" to travel to New York.
With them were two younger firefighters: Josh Bissenas, 24, who was a freshman in high school on the day of the attacks; and Ryan Watson, 22, who was in seventh grade.
Watson, a third-generation firefighter, is the son of Gig Harbor's assistant fire chief.
"I knew my father would have loved to have gone," Watson said of why he volunteered.
In New York, they toured Hangar 17, a time capsule of the World Trade Center. They saw a rack of bikes, subway trains, signs, cabs, a fire-department battalion vehicle.
"You could still see charred pieces of paper in it," Cooper said. "And it was quiet."
Steel girders six inches thick "looked like ribbon candy," McCoy said.
And there was something dubbed "the meteorite," made up of four stories of one tower that collapsed and melted into one, 4-foot-square hunk of metal.
"It was hard to take in," Bissenas said.
Before they left, a division chief in Brooklyn reminded them not to forget about the people who died in the towers.
"It feels like we were entrusted with a responsibility not only by the people of Gig Harbor," McCoy said, "but all the people who died."
On the way back to Gig Harbor, the group stopped in Kress' hometown of Troy, Ohio, where the community held a barbecue for the firefighters.
During the party, a jogger ran by, saw the girder, and then came back with his son. He was a dentist named Mark Armstrong and had flown to New York to identify victims of the collapse through dental records.
"This was his chance to process it on the side of the road," said McCoy.
At the same event, another man told Bissenas that he had been a pilot in Florida, and had been approached by a man in a pilot's uniform who offered him cash to teach him how to fly. The pilot declined. He didn't like the guy, he told the firefighter, or the fact that he was wearing a pilot's uniform without earning it.
The man, he said, turned out to be one of the hijackers.
"The trip was 6,276 miles," McCoy said. "But it seemed like we were just going across the street because of all the connections we made along the way."
As soon as they crossed into Washington state, they were rarely alone, thanks to escorts by Washington State Patrol officers, local police and fire companies, and members of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle club.
The firefighters stopped in North Bend to shower and get into their uniforms, in preparation for the drive into Gig Harbor. Watson's grandfather, a former firefighter, was waiting for him.
"I didn't get too emotional until I saw him," Watson said.
As they got closer, they started to see people gathered on the overpasses, most of them notified by members of the Tacoma Fire Department. On one overpass, a fire chief stood alone, saluting.
Some 500 people were waiting to see the girder brought into Gig Harbor.
"It was hard to keep a straight face," Bissenas said.
Said McCoy: "It felt like our community came together, that together we were going to rebuild what was taken away from us. I saw that look in their eyes."
All four firefighters who made the trip to New York and back feel changed by the experience.
"You hit certain landmarks in your career. Big fires," Cooper said. "But this tops it. I'm halfway through a 30-year career, and I've hit the pinnacle."
McCoy is mushy anyway, he said, but he is now pretty patriotic, too.
"I have never been more proud to be an American, never more honored to be a firefighter or more blessed to be part of an event," he said. "This instilled in me what this country is made of.
"I saw it in the eyes of the American people we met."
Watson was just a kid when the towers fell. But now that he has gone on this journey, seen Ground Zero with his own eyes and heard the stories from those who were there, he feels a responsibility to tell others what he learned, and what the girder means.
"I feel very protective about this piece of steel," he said. "Before, I didn't feel too big about it. But now, I feel a responsibility with connecting the story with it.
"The phrase 'never forget' means 10 times more than it did."
On Sunday, firefighters will hold a sunrise ceremony during which they will lower the American flag, have a moment of silence and load the girder up for transport to the Tacoma Firefighter Memorial on Ruston Way, where it will be on public view from 9 a.m. to noon.
"Or until everybody's done," Cooper said.
"They say that time heals all wounds, but that is not true in this case," he said. "I don't think it will ever heal."
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You'll feel it when you see it.
About Nicole Brodeur
My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
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