Reflections in Steel
Fifteen years and thousands of miles away from the fall of the World Trade Center, a small town wonders how to remember it.
The piece of steel was once, and may be again, 36 feet tall. Right now, chained to a flatbed trailer in a mostly empty maintenance yard thousands of miles from where it fell, it is better described as 36 feet long. It weighs more than 17,000 pounds and is riddled with holes — some where bolts ripped out like stitches, others larger and harder to explain. Though at first it looks like a single beam, it’s really two that folded into each other in shock. The metal is red and rusty from all the rain that has fallen on it in the 14-plus years since it was last vertical, back when it was a frame holding up windows and walls on the south tower of the World Trade Center, back when it stood more than 90 stories above the sidewalks of lower Manhattan, just above what would be called the “impact zone” of Flight 175.
Jack Chandler, a 74-year-old veteran of the Army and Air Force Reserve, first saw the World Trade Center in its infancy, in 1966; he returned from deployment in Germany the same month the ground was broken. Soon the twin towers would rise skyward, their steel skeletons taking shape in the open air. Chandler went home to the other side of the country and never saw the towers in person — or at least not until after they had fallen and he visited his brother-in-law in Kennewick, Washington. Next to a complex of baseball and soccer fields, the city had erected three beams and fragments from the towers as a memorial to those killed on 9/11. Chandler was moved by the metal’s stark simplicity, by the way it made the tragedy feel real and immediate and personal. He began organizing a committee to bring a similar memorial to his own town, Milton, 30 miles south of Seattle and home to 7,000 people.
Heather Popp, a 40-year-old Milton resident, found out about Chandler’s plan when she saw a sign reading
COMING SOON: WORLD TRADE CENTER MEMORIAL in the park across the street from her house. It was certainly an event, she agreed, that ought to be memorialized. And that corner of the park was already a place of monuments: There was a veterans’ memorial, a sedate concrete circle with dedication bricks and a flagpole, as well as an oak sapling surrounded by a metal fence, born from an acorn dropped in the Arlington National Cemetery. These were the kinds of remembrances she was used to. But then she saw a picture of the 36-foot piece of mangled steel.
“When I look at the steel beam,” she said later, standing on her front porch with her dog in her arms, “all I see is violence and death.” It made her think only of the horror of what happened, she said, and not the bravery or humanity or the pulling together. “It’s ugly in what it represents,” she said, acknowledging the slipperiness of symbolism: “For Jack Chandler, I think it represents pride in the country. It’s almost like we’re looking at two different beams.”
Milton’s steel is known to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as Artifact No. N-153. It’s one of more than 2,000 pieces of metal that have been distributed to schools and fire departments and museums and libraries in all 50 states and beyond, to bases and embassies overseas. The Port Authority began salvaging material from ground zero in the first weeks after the attacks, planning for the pieces to be displayed in a memorial in New York. Once it was clear there was extra, it began accepting applications from elsewhere and soon found itself with more requests than it could fill. Chandler at one point called the Port Authority to check on his town’s request. “I’m calling about the application for Milton,” he said, to which he remembers the voice on the phone replying, “Is that Milton in Florida, Maine, or Washington?”
The 36-footer is the 22nd piece of the World Trade Center to arrive in Washington state. Though the committee originally requested a much smaller piece, it was clear that the imposing one it was offered might be the only option; according to the Port Authority, all the steel salvaged from the World Trade Center is now spoken for.
Heather Popp said she was initially afraid to publicly express her concerns about the memorial, worrying that she might be labeled unpatriotic: “It’s scary to come out and say, ‘I’m opposed to a September 11 memorial.’” She first saw the steel in person when the flatbed paraded the metal through Milton and two neighboring towns shortly after it arrived from New York last August. Even though Milton has few direct connections to the attacks, children were let out of school to watch the steel pass, and the sidewalks filled with people, most of whom had experienced 9/11 on TV from three time zones away. Now they placed their hands over their hearts or saluted.
Jack Chandler saw the metal and remembered the day the towers fell: the way his wife called out to him while he was shaving, how he watched the TV and thought, We’re not going to let this happen; we’re not going to be a victim. Popp looked at the buckled steel and found herself remembering a witness she’d seen interviewed on TV, a person who described the sound of bodies hitting the sidewalk.
In September, Popp went before the city council to read a statement explaining that she didn’t want to have to look at those grim beams every day. Another resident spoke in opposition, calling the steel “grotesque” and suggesting it be sent back to New York if a solution couldn’t be found; the city clerk read four other citizen complaints into the record.
In 2013, a petition to place a statue incorporating steel from the World Trade Center and concrete from the Pentagon on Washington’s state capitol campus was rejected because the sculpture bore no relation to the state’s history or culture. The statue, which depicted a flight attendant, office worker, firefighter, and solider holding hands, toured the state on a truck as its supporters searched for a new home; at least two cities rejected it after residents called it maudlin or out of place. (“An ugly, depressing reminder of a 13-year-old tragedy that has no unique significance to the area?” one commenter wrote on a local blog post about the memorial. “Fantastic. I’m in.”) The statue now stands next to a war memorial in Cashmere, a town of 3,000.
After The Seattle Times picked up the story of the debate in Milton, it spread quickly online. The city’s mayor, Debra Perry, found her inbox inundated with attacks (“people are putting a lot of emphasis on this memorial, as if, if you’re speaking against it, you’re against America and baseball and apple pie”), conspiracy theories (“everything you would imagine”), and offers to take the steel off her hands (“not useful”).
On the street, she was stopped by impassioned people who wanted to tell her their own stories or suggestions. “It’s as diverse as we all are,” she said. “How people react to history and grieving is as unique as each of us.” When she rode in the convoy with the steel, she kept thinking of what it had been like to try to explain what was happening to her young son, who was 4 when the towers fell. At the time, no matter what she told him, he would not believe that relatives who lived far away were not dead. “Even though this is 3,000 miles away,” she said, “it happened to all of us.”
Perry, who worked as a commercial artist and antiques dealer before being elected mayor of Milton, acknowledged that grappling with all these strong, diverging opinions is a tall order for the city’s park board, which will be considering new design ideas: “Do you want it to be educational and tell all these stories, do you want it to be a moment of somber reflection, or do you want it to be a celebration of life continuing on? Which is it? So that’s what they’re going to try to sort out.” She said she hopes that the slow, creaky wheels of government will give the city enough time “to put our heads together and come up with that wonderful thing” that will feel right to everyone.
“I don’t know what the timeline is for something wonderful,” she added a few moments later. “It might be longer than people think.”