By Ashley Luthern
Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York is quiet.
“Oddly quiet — and eerie,” said Brian Taylor.
Two months ago, he walked into the hangar and saw a steel beam as long as a fire station bent into a horseshoe. His eyes fixed on a charred rack holding bicycles melded to it during the inferno of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Everything was all burned up, damaged,” said Taylor, a captain with the Bazetta Fire Department. “I’m looking around, and I decide I don’t want to be in here anymore. I got very emotional and turned around and left.”
But Taylor didn’t leave empty-handed. He and several others from the township fire department returned with a steel I-beam from the World Trade Center. It will be the focal point of a 9/11 memorial in Bazetta Township. The plan is to house the memorial in the lobby of a future new fire station.
Ten years ago, terrorists hijacked planes and turned them into weapons, killing about 3,000 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa. Now, a decade later, a national memorial and museum at ground zero in New York City is being dedicated.
Even places such as the Mahoning Valley that lack a direct connection to 9/11 have memorials with artifacts from that fateful day.
“There’s a significance of memorials for national history,” said Karen Remmler, professor of critical social thought and German studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.
“It’s a way of saying there’s a collective history that we all share, even those of us who were not there and did not lose anyone. It’s a collective experience,” she said, adding that it’s not only American history but world history.
Taylor said he applied for the steel in summer 2009 through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which donates the steel to cities, towns and other museums around the world.
Although Taylor didn’t personally know anyone killed in the attacks, he said it was important to create a local memorial, particularly because of the death of 343 firefighters that day.
“We’re a very close-knit brotherhood. When a firefighter dies, we all lose a brother,” he said.
Taylor has a mix of emotions when he looks at the 4-foot-by-2-foot I-beam. He left the mark “H-67 C” untouched, which he thinks might be coordinates from where it was found. He admits he has no idea where the beam originally was placed in the World Trade Center.
The sight in the hangar “affected me, knowing that the buildings had come down, knowing 343 firefighters died and 2,900 people lost their lives — knowing what all that meant,” he said.
“I’m looking at these pieces and going, ‘OK, that piece could have killed how many people,’ and God only knows what’s attached to that thing,” he continued, turning his head toward the I-beam.
Remmler said people are attached to 9/11 artifacts for a variety of reasons, some of which aren’t necessarily rational.
“It’s partly psychological,” she said. “If your loved one died at a particular location, having a piece of steel or building in some sense is a way of recalling that person or imagining that you have a piece of that person with you because the place absorbs the memory of the dead.”
It’s similar to how people would collect relics, such as the bones of religious saints, she added.
“It’s a religious and almost mystical thing that a place becomes sacred if someone has died there or a place becomes special [through] a tragedy,” she said.
The Austintown 9/11 Memorial Park on South Raccoon Road houses relics, such as a 7-by-7-foot piece of the World Trade Center encased in a granite stone, dirt from Flight 93 and a pound of rocks from the Pentagon.
Those artifacts are an extremely important part of the memorial, said Pat Connolly, chairman of the Austintown Beautification Committee, which created and maintains the park.
“If it took 20 years, I was going to get a piece the World Trade Center,” he said.
The steel beam makes everything seem more real and is a vital part of the memorial experience, he added.
“The mourning is over with. People, little by little, are starting to forget, but that’s with everything, and you can’t forget the importance of this year, of this day,” Connolly said. “You have to remember. The memorial is visited quite often. It isn’t just sitting there idle.”
Remmler said artifacts can serve the function of totems, items people wear as a connection with the dead and a method to ward off evil.
“This object will remind us of the evil and also in some ways help us,” she said. “It helps us not to forget, but we have to move on and we have to incorporate 9/11 into the national narrative and identity. We also want somehow to have it not happen again.”
Vienna Township Fire Chief Robert Brannon said he obtained World Trade Center steel with future generations in mind.
“This is a huge part of American history,” he said.
Brannon’s department and other Vienna Township officials will unveil two pieces of the World Trade Center in a ceremony Sunday at the Vienna fire station.
Remmler said memorials will take on even more significance when witnesses and survivors are no longer living.
“Memorials are extremely important because it keeps people actively debating questions of why do we remember this, who are we actually remembering and how do we move forward,” Remmler said. “You have to ask what is the real function of these memorials?”
Back at JFK Airport, Hangar 17 has become a memorial itself. Taylor, Connolly and Brannon all spoke of the overwhelming emotion they experienced at that site.
Connolly said that when he went to the hangar, it was “9/11 all over again.”
“They had vehicles, like the coroner’s vehicle and the ladder truck, plus the steel on the outside. ... It was unreal. To see a motor from an elevator and the bicycles that people rode ...,” he said, his voice trailing.
He described a tent inside the hangar where air-purification machines hummed as forensic scientists did DNA testing on the remnants.
“They never identified all the people,” Connolly said. “Here’s the ironic thing: Evidently there were people that would walk into the World Trade Center every day to go to the bathroom or get coffee and could never be identified unless somebody reported them missing. It gets me to this day.”