A Beam of Hope

As the new World Trade Center rises over Manhattan, a determined group of New Jersey firefighters are building a stirring tribute from one of the last remaining pieces of  9/11 wreckage.

On a Wednesday morning in April, a blanket of gray clouds hangs low over JFK Airport’s Hangar 17. There’s a spring chill in the air and the jets overhead provide a backdrop of white noise to an otherwise eerily quiet atmosphere. Chugging engines break the silence as Jim Smith, a volunteer firefighter from Absecon, N.J., pulls up in a little red fire truck, followed by a larger, empty-bedded construction truck.

Smith has secured one of the remnants of the World Trade Center: a rusted beam from high up in one of the towers, which has been stored in Hangar 17. Smith is eager to memorialize the steel in his hometown of Absecon, a small shore town 116 miles south of New York City. The unremarkable sight a few small American flags flapping on his firehouse grounds on September 11, 2012, made Smith realize that something was missing. And then it struck him: Absecon needed a piece of the tower itself. “221 days later, I made it happen,” he marveled on the phone, the day before the pick-up. “And this is just the beginning.”

The hangar, under jurisdiction of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is almost always off-limits to the public and the press. From outside, the only thing of note is a small green sign with the number 17 that reads, “Ring bell for assistance,” next to a door. It’s what’s inside Hangar 17 that makes it remarkable.

Sandwiched between cargo from FedEx and Virgin Atlantic, the hangar is enormous—roughly eighty thousand square feet. Since 2002, it has been a foster home for World Trade Center artifacts, and up until four years ago it was filled wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with banged up taxis, PATH train cars, ambulances, fire engines, police cars, motorcycles, bicycles and all manner of twisted, melted steel. The Port Authority has been gradually distributing the hangar’s remnants to municipal agencies and nonprofits that cart away truckloads of metal and bring them to life by creating memorials or works of art.

All that remains in the hangar are a few crushed yellow cabs, broken medical vans, burnt bikes and the poles to which they are still chained, a radio from one of the towers, rusted steel beams and a few other vehicles and PATH train cars shrink-wrapped into white silhouettes. An imposing American flag watches over it all.

Several sentries stand guard at the warehouse’s main entrance, leaning against a small tractor. A group of four, they’re smoking, sipping coffee and laughing quietly but heartily. Eddie Vinciguerra, the leader of the pack, looks like a Brooklyn-accented, “Mom”-tattooed version of Bruce Willis. Wearing jeans, work boots, a blue polo and a black “Never Forget” windbreaker, he carries a stature that’s commanding but warm. He says he works for the Port Authority as a maintenance unit supervisor, “basically making sure everything’s clear so planes can take off and land.”

The same crew—Vinciguerra and his colleagues Perry, Rudy and Billy—have been manning the distribution of Hangar 17’s materials since the World Trade Center Artifacts Program started in 2008. “It’s an honor,” says Vinciguerra, a sentiment each of them echoes.

In the beginning, there were a few designated pick-up days each month, with twenty to thirty pickups each day. Vinciguerra says they’ve cut, boxed, and shipped about nine hundred pieces of steel, though most artifacts are picked up in person, which is required for pieces heavier than 150 pounds. “It’s very taxing on us emotionally,” he reflects. “The people who come here have certain attachments to things. Many of them lost family; they lost kids. It’s pretty intense.” Pieces of the towers and surrounding rubble have found new homes in schools, gardens and other public spaces, becoming standalone sculptures or embedded within crosses and works of art, across all fifty states, as well as in several other countries and on the USS New York, a naval ship whose construction incorporates 7.5 tons of steel from World Trade Center rubble.

For the biggest pickup, twenty-seven tractor trailers arrived, painted for the occasion with American flags and the New York City skyline. A group of people from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, home to the mill in which the towers’ steel was fabricated, were bringing some of the remnants full circle. “That was a little eerie,” Vinciguerra recalls.

“We’ve met a lot of people,” says Vinciguerra. “I have patches, pins and medals and stuff that’s been given to me from police and fire chiefs, mayors, military guys. People send me videos of the memorials they make. I could travel cross-country and be able to stop in just about any state and know somebody.”

Today, with most of the material gone, pickups have slowed to just a few per month. These last pieces of steel are highly sought after: some 1,300 parties applied to obtain the beam Smith was awarded.

Vinciguerra and his colleagues point a few feet away, by the fence. At 3,029 pounds, Smith’s beam is smaller than one would imagine, but it has a palpable gravitas; gently twisted and considerably rusted, with bits of cement and nails dotting its surface like dogged barnacles. “The steel dictates how high up on the building it came from,” Vinciguerra explains. “The thinner, lighter gauge is higher up. This one came from pretty far up there.” He leads us to the end of the building where, on a clear day, the new World Trade Center is visible.

Smith, a tall sixty-five-year-old, enthusiastically hops out of the smaller truck. The aura of western sheriff that hangs in the air with his Winston smoke dissolves as he launches into traffic chat. Alongside him are Jim McManus, a soft-spoken Kline Construction worker whose boss lent out the truck for the occasion; Edward Vincent, a seventy-two-year old former chief of the Absecon Fire Department and current Atlantic County Fire Coordinator; and former Absecon deputy chief Butch Stewart.

The firemen, dressed proudly in their uniforms, and McManus, in a V.F.W. t-shirt, are clearly anxious to see what’s taken more than half-a-year of tireless paperwork, email, phone calls and red tape for them to secure. “It’s a sixteen-foot long, twisted, bent and banged-up beam,” says Smith. “I am immensely proud of that.”

The team discusses how to best secure the beam onto the truck.
The team discusses how to best secure the beam onto the truck.

A few more firm handshakes and several minutes of traffic talk later, the Port Authority team has hoisted the beam onto the Kline truck. Smith, pacing back and forth on his phone, coordinates with people from home, anticipating the local news crews who will be waiting upon their return. Vinciguerra and his team hastily secure the beam with a chain, balancing it on two wooden planks. With a calm excitement, Stewart climbs onto the truck, flanking the beam with two American flags.

“The World Trade Center steel means a great deal more than just a piece of steel. It has significance to it,” Smith muses. “People are going to look at that and say ‘Wow, that’s what we had—what happened?’”

Smith speaks like a Clint Eastwood protagonist in a small-town saga, peppering his dialogue with Frank Sinatra quotes (“I did it my way” is a favorite). He explains that once he resolved to bring a piece of the towers home to Absecon, he knew he was working against the odds, but that he had the gusto to make it happen. “People told me they thought I was nuts. That’s O.K., nuts its good. I’m crazy enough to drive a straight-three, I’d go under, over, and I’d get there.”

In reality, it took Smith and his team a lot of organization in order to make this day happen. Stewart showed off a binder full of documents to prove it. The first email Smith sent to the World Trade Center Artifacts Program is dated October 2, 2012. The program stopped accepting requests for artifacts during the summer of 2011, but when they sensed Smith’s enthusiasm, they said they would try their best to accommodate his request. Two days later, Smith attended a city council meeting to run through his plan and all of the bureaucratic tasks that it entailed. In his presentation to the council, he shared his ideas for fundraising and where the beam should be placed within Absecon. Many emails and four months later, he received a confirmation: “Congratulations! Your request for an artifact from the World Trade Center has been approved.”

Vinciguerra and his reports, Perry, Rudy, and Billy from the Port Authory WTC Artifacts Program and Butch Stewart, Edward Vincent, Jim McManus and Jim Smith from Absecon, New Jersey
Vinciguerra and his reports, Perry, Rudy, and Billy from the Port Authory WTC Artifacts Program and Butch Stewart, Edward Vincent, Jim McManus and Jim Smith from Absecon, New Jersey

Among Smith’s carefully organized documentations of communication (which he plans to donate to the town museum), are nine pages of Excel spreadsheets and a written inventory of objects with names like “Tower Exterior Wall Spandrel,” “Steel Beam,” “Bronze Anodized Aluminum Panel” and “North Tower Antenna” that were at the time still up for grabs. It was not until April 17th that Absecon’s beam, artifact number I-0094K, was ready for pick-up.

Smith thinks back to 9/11 and remembers speaking to his son, who was working in the South Tower as an architect at the time. “When I finally got through to him, I asked, ‘How far away are you from the river?’” Two-and-a-half blocks. “I said, ‘Get your ass down there and don’t look back.’”

After a pause, Smith continues: “My dad was a supply commander and went to Hawaii during the war. He was bombed by the Japanese and was the only one who survived from his team. He was paralyzed for the rest of his life. Now I think, how ironic—sixty years later there’s my son in the World Trade Center.”

Though Smith has a familial connection to September 11th (his son made it through the day unscathed), as well as to the firefighters who perished that day, he is resolute about the fact that this is more than a personal endeavor: “This is for all of the victims,” he says. Smith and his partners foresee the memorial as a space that will draw in visitors from outside the community. “It’s going to be a focal point when you’re going into Atlantic City,” says Vincent. The committee is still working on the final location; as of now the memorial is planned for Heritage Park, next to a lake. The project is slated for completion by September 11, 2014.

Butch Stewart, Jim McManus and Edward Vincent secure the beam on the truck
Butch Stewart, Jim McManus and Edward Vincent secure the beam on the truck

A former sheet metal worker, Vincent did ductwork on the first World Trade Center and is eager to draw up the initial renderings of the memorial. Already, Smith and team have received a number of requests from people who would like to donate plaques and engrave victims’ names onto them. “We want this to cost the city nothing,” Smith says. They prefer to raise all funds needed themselves, with volunteers handling the manual labor.

The beam finally loaded onto their truck, the mini-caravan heads home to Absecon. And as one epic work of construction nears completion across the city at Ground Zero, so does a sort of deconstruction—adding one more emotional point to the steel web that fans out from New York City.

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Sophie Butcher and Jaclyn Einis met on assignment through Narratively, and found they were kindred spirits in exploring New York City stories. Two minds are always better than one, they thought, and thus started their collaboration as writers and visual storytellers. Follow them on twitter @sophiemmbutcher and @JLE84.