There are a lot of now familiar ways to begin an essay about 9/11, starting with “An unusually warm fall day…” or “A plane flying low…” or “A massive plume of smoke on the horizon.” These phrases conjure images — from television news, online videos, newspaper photographs — that still feel immediate two decades on.
This article, however, starts in New Zealand in 2002.
The sculptor Graham Bennett had been invited by the Christchurch City Council to create a tribute in conjunction with the World Firefighters Games, to be held there at the end of the year. The project, for Bennett, was “full of constraints.” Not least was the fact that the centerpiece of his commission would be a 20-foot-long “spear” of steel from the World Trade Center — a section of beam that, on September 11, had fallen from the 102nd floor of the South Tower. Transportation of the steel was facilitated by special arrangement with the Office of Emergency Management in New York City, although the piece would not arrive until months after Bennett needed to begin work. 1 In the meantime, he used cardboard maquettes and photographs of “the beams lying on the pavement” in the space where they were being stored, the 80,000-square-foot Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy Airport, in Queens. 2
Starting in 2009, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owner of the World Trade Center properties, created an elaborate gifting process by which to handle 9/11 steel. Since then, less than one percent of the total steel recovered from the WTC has gone to memorials. Still, more than 1,800 pieces have been distributed, to sites in all 50 states and more than a dozen abroad. 3 Only a few of the American memorials are in major cities. Most have been erected in liminal spaces between suburban office parks and parking lots, at the centers of traffic circles, outside public buildings in small towns. The majority lack any plinth or landscaped surround. The steel column at the Fire Training Center in Overland Park, Kansas, for instance, stands a stone’s throw from the “burn buildings” used in fire training — a jarring juxtaposition. The “fallen cross” sunk into a field in East Meadow on Long Island is accompanied by a sign stating that it is an ACTUAL WORLD TRADE CENTER STEEL ARTIFACT. The section of square column displayed outside the National WWII Museum in New Orleans weighs five tons, but resembles nothing so much as an open trash bin.
More than 1,800 pieces of structural steel from the World Trade Center have been distributed, to sites in all 50 states and more than a dozen abroad.
A few memorials, like Bennett’s Tribute to Firefighters, were conceived in the months following the attacks. But most were created in the lead-up to the ten-year anniversary. These installations physicalize and parcel out the memory of the towers and their destruction. In doing so, they situate the attack in public consciousness not only as a shared loss but as the opening salvo in a war — support for which, a decade on, needed shoring up. The regional monuments concentrate overwhelmingly on the 343 firefighters and 71 law-enforcement officers who died on 9/11, prioritizing a narrative of blue-collar male heroism and sidelining other victims, such as the 73 restaurant workers lost at Windows on the World, or the 658 financial-services workers who perished at the firm of Cantor Fitzgerald.
The process of this steel’s salvage and distribution across the United States speaks to the persistent social and political power of relics — parts of bodies or objects imbued with auras from another realm, “spiritual electrodes that transmit waves of sacred energy.” 4 Just 20 survivors were pulled alive from the collapse of the Twin Towers. Of the bodies recovered, just ten percent were intact. The dead were, from the first, spoken about as martyrs, and the rescuers as heroes. Yet there were few remains to mourn or to enshrine. Even in our globalized digital age, the demands of memory remain stubbornly tactile, and alternative death rites were needed.
Relics are not neutral, however. The Crusades were fought, in part, over the meaning and ownership of relics. The dissemination of “relic steel” helped to create some sense of collective closure, to comfort the nation. It also played into flag-pin politics, helping to connect local sentiments to the global War on Terror. Many of the regional memorials thus work by proxy, linking the act of terrorism on domestic soil to a rallying of support for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As early as the evening of September 11, 2001, trucks laden with debris were pulling away from the smoldering hole that had become Ground Zero, taking the Battery Tunnel to Brooklyn, and crossing the Verrazano Bridge to Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. The landfill had been officially closed less than six months prior, but was reopened that night by executive order from New York Governor George Pataki.
Regional memorials often work by proxy, linking the act of terrorism on domestic soil to support for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fresh Kills had been decommissioned after years of lobbying from neighbors overwhelmed by smells and feral seagulls, and its notoriety made the arrival of WTC rubble instantly contentious. 5 Moreover, an engineering problem quickly emerged. Authorities had failed to consider that a capped landfill is delicate — layers of mounded trash pierced by pipes that release accumulating methane. Just 48 hours (and several hundred truckloads) after the attack, the structural steel piling up in Staten Island was starting to crush the mounds and damage the pipes. 6 Officials worked out another plan. They would move large segments of steel directly from Lower Manhattan to scrap yards in New Jersey, while non-metal debris would continue to be sent to Staten Island.
In the following months, Fresh Kills developed into a massive staging ground, where trucks were met by FBI agents and archeologists in Hazmat suits, who sifted the pulverized debris in search of human remains. 7 It took nearly a year to process 1.8 million tons. A great deal of effort and money went into this forensic analysis, though families of some victims continue to object that “micro-remains” — fragments too small for visual identification, or those caught in larger pieces of material —now lie buried on Staten Island. When sorting ended in July 2002, officials returned to a previously developed plan to transform the landfill into a regional park, and revised that plan to incorporate a memorial. 8
Those scrutinizing each phase of this process at Fresh Kills might have been surprised to learn that, by spring 2002, most of the structural steel that had been moved by barge from Ground Zero to New Jersey had entered the international scrap-metal market. More than 200,000 tons were sold to wholesalers, primarily in India, China, and Turkey, some of whom were not made fully aware of the origins of their purchase. 9 By the first anniversary of the attack, most of the WTC’s metal frame was beginning a new life in Asia, recast as cladding, rebar, even cookware. This left a small percentage of steel pieces that were categorized quite differently — first as items in an archive, and then as public talismans, emotionally charged and sacrosanct.
An aerial photo of the World Trade Center taken just after the collapse shows an alarming jumble of steel scattered across a fourteen-acre debris field. Skeletal portions of curtainwall tilt precariously. Dust and smoke linger above what became known as the Pile.
The exceptional nature of the 9/11 attack (and the internecine politics of New York City law enforcement and service agencies) meant that no single authority, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Army Corps of Engineers, had overarching control at the site post-disaster. Rather, response was locally overseen and, to a surprising degree, extemporaneous. The Pile was divided into quadrants, each managed by a private construction company. Their operators cleared heavy rubble, while brigades of volunteers drawn from first-responder corps sifted smaller debris. (Cases were reported of competing groups fighting over turf. 10) Some weeks later, as work shifted from search-and-rescue to removal operations, the Port Authority imposed some order. This included setting up an Archive Committee to save objects of interest. 11
The Archive Committee was tasked with identifying items that could show the “three chapters” of the WTC’s life: the years before 9/11, the day of the attack, and the aftermath. Bartholomew Voorsanger, chair of the Design Review Committee at the Port Authority, worked with Saul Wenegrat, an art consultant with the same agency, to collect and catalogue their findings, in a process that would take nearly three years. 12 They gathered more than 2,000 objects. Some were the miscellany of office life, tragically burned and twisted (eyeglasses, file cabinets, a Three Stooges magnet). There were parts of crushed fire engines and police cars, and posters left onsite by the hundreds of volunteers. Above all, there was structural steel, roughly 7,000 tons of it. 13 This was the material laid out in Hangar 17 at JFK.
The steel pieces were categorized first as items in an archive and then as public talismans, emotionally charged and sacrosanct.
Law enforcement personnel were collecting evidence that might help to determine how the towers’ structural elements had failed. Voorsanger’s team, in contrast, was looking for charismatic pieces that somehow expressed the character of the buildings. This included sections of the WTC’s signature “trident” curtainwall and Vierendeel trusses, as well as workaday box columns and the large-scale channel welding for which the building was known. Some pieces had been spray-painted by clearing teams with wayfinding instructions and warnings, but many emerged from the Pile as the archivists watched; they would say, “save that,” and “immediately a crane would come over to take it away.” Workers who noticed interesting shapes might tell the team, “you’ve got to come see this.” 14 Segments chosen weighed as much as 25 tons. 15
On May 30, 2002, the “Last Column,” a three-story length of steel spray-painted with the numbers of fire companies, was ceremoniously extracted from Ground Zero and lowered onto a flatbed truck. 16 At JFK, it was laid out on the hangar floor under a huge American flag. Occasionally thereafter, officials visited for walkthroughs — pilgrimages for a select few with high security clearances. The dim space took on a hallowed quality. “After one of these tours, I thought, ‘These guys don’t have to build a multi-million-dollar memorial,’” Voorsanger told us in an interview. “All they gotta do is bring people out here. … It was just so raw and you could smell it and, virtually, almost taste it.” The steel was largely out of public view, but the social process of relic-making was underway.
It was not clear, even so, that the steel warehoused at Hangar 17 would be distributed. The 9/11 attacks took on immediate international significance, yet observers questioned whether municipalities outside New York would seek to establish memorials. Many of those involved with the Archive Committee assumed, rather, that materials they gathered would enter the collection of a future museum. 17 (The National September 11th Memorial and Museum does now have more than 20 steel fragments, including the Last Column, around which its main hall was designed.) As the inventorying continued — well into 2004 — just a few pieces were released. One went to Graham Bennett’s project in New Zealand, and this helped to set the stage for subsequent efforts.
Bennett’s memorial stands beside the Avon River, opposite Christchurch’s main fire station. This placement, when announced, raised concerns for the Ngāi Tahu, the Māori iwi (tribe) who are traditional custodians of much of the South Island of New Zealand. Water is fundamental in the Māori worldview, and iwi leaders balked at the idea that such an inauspicious object would enter a sacred area. After consultation that included iwi members as well as members of the Christchurch Muslim community, it was decided that installation could go forward provided that the steel was handled as specified by the Māori.
The shipping container arriving from New York was received in a dawn ceremony, presided over by iwi elders and city officials with an honor guard of firefighters. The container’s doors were placed to face the rising sun, and when they were opened, Bennett recalls, a plume of dust came out; “a shaft of light exposed dusty and rusted beams.” In that moment, “you had to remember that in that [dust] was the building … and it contained unspeakable horrors.” The iwi directed that all shavings from the steel be buried onsite, and this instruction, along with the reverential reception of the beams themselves, in effect predicted how other recipients would work with relic steel.
Eventually, the Port Authority codified their own guidelines in a Request for Proposals, solicited from groups interested in acquiring a piece of WTC steel for public display. Email chains, fire-department magazines, and listservs helped to spread the word, and by early 2009, requests were coming in. Applicants stressed the public nature of their sites, their intended adherence to “patriotic traditions,” and personal connections to the attacks. Proposals were meant to be accompanied by design specifications, but many were vague, contingent on the sizes of steel chunks to be received. And the specimens do run a gamut: many are no bigger than a microwave oven, while some are billboard sized. One ten-foot piece was sent to a Denver counterterrorism “learning lab.” A very small piece was requested to make a Purim grogger or noisemaker, for exhibition at a St. Louis Jewish museum. 18 A special cache of seven-and-half tons of steel, which had been warehoused at the request of Governor Pataki himself, was melted down and cast into the hull of the U.S.S. New York. The vessel received its commission in 2009; its motto is “Strength forged through sacrifice. Never forget.” The ship was later deployed in the Persian Gulf.
The first 9/11 memorials were murals. They sprang up in the weeks and months after the event, and focused on what became standard iconography: the towers, American flags, the epitaph “Never Forget,” borrowed from remembrances of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But there was also a piece of WTC steel that gained early prominence. This was a seventeen-foot crossbeam section that a worker noticed poking from the Pile during the first week of search-and-rescue operations. Dubbed the “WTC cross,” it appeared in numerous news photographs, and, in early October 2001, was placed on a plinth near the Church Street edge of World Trade Center Plaza, where it was blessed by a Franciscan priest. A weekly service was held beside it for workers at Ground Zero; it is now in the collection of the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
The realization that the ten-year anniversary was imminent galvanized widespread interest in using relic steel.
The accidental Christian iconography of the WTC cross contrasts — but also harmonizes — with the obelisk-like proportions of the Last Column, creating a pair of monuments recognizably related to familiar forms of religious and civic statuary. 19 Within a few years, however, habits shifted somewhat. Beginning in 2001, television networks in the U. S. agreed informally to a five-year moratorium on airing footage of the attack, and even some pre-9/11 scenes from movies and television programs were recut to remove glimpses of the towers. 20 More oblique memorials took precedence, notably Tribute in Light, the installation of vertical searchlights conceived by a group of artists and designers that debuted in 2002 and has since been central to the annual remembrance in New York. 21 Absence seemed to be the leitmotif deemed most appropriate in thinking about the losses of 9/11.
It was the realization that the ten-year anniversary was imminent that galvanized widespread interest in memorials using relic steel. Projects were often brokered by individual fire departments through grassroots efforts, sometimes spurred by a feeling that official memorials — at the WTC, at the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the town closest to the crash site of United Airlines flight 93 — were taking too long to complete. Such official markers had to go through funding rounds, design review panels, and revisions, while smaller-scale projects could proceed with basic permits and small budgets, installed by contractors who often donated their time.
Many of these memorials followed a basic pattern established in New Zealand, treating WTC steel as an “antiquity” to be framed and positioned but not altered. 22 The dawn ceremony in Christchurch presaged rituals that would greet pieces of steel as they were sent around the United States — as in 2008, when a brigade of leather-clad bikers accompanied a fourteen-foot segment to Shanksville, where it was erected in front of the volunteer fire department. 23 An important difference was that these American ceremonies rarely incorporated indigenous leaders or practices. In many ways, Bennett too was atypical of the artists who would erect the later sculptures, in that he was a well-known figure working on a well-funded commission, while suburban installations in the U.S. tended to be designed by engineers and welder hobbyists. This wasn’t quite do-it-yourself memorialization, but its hyper-local affect might be thought of as akin to the display of “POW MIA” flags or WWI memorials in village squares. 24 As the shock of the attack subsided and a feeling of vulnerability entrenched, small-town memorials served to rally civic energies and proclaim allegiances.
A number of articles appearing soon after 9/11 commented that the event had helped to “reconnect” the mainstream to the nation’s largest city. New York, these writers editorialized, is a cosmopolitan oddity, remote to “real” Americans, who had long ago written it off as too crowded and too foreign. Now it was welcomed back. There was a cloying Ryan Adams song (“Hell, I still love you, New York”); there were t-shirts (including an update of Milton Glasser’s famous wordmark that reads “I ♥ NY More Than Ever”). Scores of “patriot tours” brought visitors to see the clearing operations in Lower Manhattan. At the end of 2001, a plywood viewing platform, designed by Diller & Scofidio and subtly echoing the shape of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was set up on Fulton Street to give visitors a 180-degree view of Ground Zero.
For Americans who couldn’t make it to Manhattan, the dispersal of steel around the country helped to turn the loss of a distinctly New York icon into a “national sorrow” akin to the assassination of a president. The hope was that the salvaged steel might be educational, instilling discipline and patriotism in young people, to “make them think as they’re growing up.” 25 Indeed, some of the first memorials were not fixed sites but touring exhibits that could be hitched to trucks and wheeled into school parking lots and recreation centers. The distant tragedy could thus be brought home. A memorial in Cornelius, North Carolina, is “oriented towards New York City,” as is a small memorial outside a housing complex in Brownsburg, Indiana.
The fragments are synecdochic not only for the destruction of the buildings, but for the violence done to human bodies.
At the same time, relic steel posed a quandary for artists and craftspeople. It was durable and eminently workable, but also “sacred.” The Port Authority’s guidelines recommended minimal intervention, yet gave no advice regarding aesthetic form. The results, in the municipal monuments, tend to mix depictions of Minoru Yamasaki’s towers with the de facto abstraction of the steel as received. Irregular, corroded, crimped, and crushed, the fragments are synecdochic not only for the destruction of the buildings, but for the violence done to human bodies; each piece carries a unique expressionistic charge. At the same time, the steel fragments are often anchored by representational elements, including bronze eagles and depictions of the intact buildings. It’s easy to pan the kitsch of designs that juxtapose the visceral steel segments with downscaled models of the Twin Towers in commercial stone block (not to mention the memorial outside Dayton, Ohio, with a plane eerily stenciled on its tower). Of course, the annual Tribute in Light projection also invokes the vanished structures, albeit at monumental scale. The same could be said for Michael Arad’s memorial fountains, based on the buildings’ footprints, which opened at the WTC site on September 11, 2011.
The distribution of WTC steel unfolded in the context of two foreign conflicts, both of which, we are told, are at last winding down. This essay has focused on the thousands of small installations across the U.S. But there are also memorials adjacent to NATO headquarters in Brussels; in London’s Olympic quarter; in the main square of a small town named Oberviechtach, in Bavaria; and in a traffic circle in Eilat, Israel. All incorporate relic steel, as does Daniel Libeskind’s grandly scaled Memoria e Luce in Padua, in Italy. Steel memorials existed at three locations in Kabul. Now that coalition forces have fled Afghanistan, there has been concern that these three pieces have been left behind. One 900-pound segment that was displayed at Bagram Airfield has already gone missing, upsetting the local chapter of the Sons and Daughters of America from Breezy Point, Queens, who donated it to the base in 2010. A colonel who served at Bagram notes that the “beam was sent with the hopes that every soldier, every day had a reminder of the real reason they were there and how this war started.” 26
The relic steel of 9/11 is imbued with conflicting emotions: it has served as an emblem of closure, organizing civic attention at sites of grieving and solace, while also encouraging militarism and celebrating an almost primordial fascination with strength. In the distribution and placement of the surviving steel, we can see the sacralization of a common building material and an emergent form of memorialization, in which small towns and suburbs receive and treasure a literal piece of a faraway structure fraught with geopolitical significance. Perhaps the only good analogy in recent times would be the distribution of chunks from the Berlin Wall. But the 9/11 steel differs from those graffitied hunks of concrete, too, in that the Wall was a symbol of division, decommissioned after years of realpolitik maneuvering, gleefully chipped apart by Germans, and sold off. The WTC was violently destroyed on a single morning, mournfully disassembled, packed away, and then slowly shared out. What is certain is that the relic steel pieces remain mutable symbols, onto which people can — and will — project their own memories and politics.