NEW YORK – Behind the barbed wire, the minivan’s busted windows and crumpled roof hint at its story. But forklifted to this windblown spot on the John F. Kennedy International Airport tarmac, between a decommissioned 727 and an aircraft hangar, it’s doubtful passing drivers notice it at all.
In the long struggle with the memories of 9-11, though, the van’s solitary presence here marks a small but significant transition point.
Tons of wreckage — twisted steel beams, chunks of concrete smelling of smoke, a crushed fire engine, a dust-covered airline slipper — were salvaged from the World Trade Center site for preservation after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Now, 15 years later, this van from a government agency motor pool likely sheltered in a garage beneath the complex, is the last artifact without a resting place.
When the van is claimed it will fulfil a pledge that, to move beyond 9-11 without losing sight of it, New York would share relics of that terror, along with the tales of sacrifice and fear that come with them. The decision to give away pieces of wreckage has been praised and criticized over the years. But its impact is undeniable.
More than 2,600 artifacts have gone to 1,585 fire and police departments, schools and museums, and other non-profit organizations in every state and at least eight other countries.
Each recipient has pledged to use them in memorials or exhibits honouring those killed on 9/11. While some have not followed through, the many that have mean it is now possible to touch a piece of September 11 during a Roman Catholic Mass in Port St. Lucie, Florida, while standing in the shadows of Colorado’s San Juan mountains, or in a park honouring animals in Meaford, Ontario.
“They are the relics of the destruction and they have the same power in the same way as medieval relics that have the power of the saints,” said Harriet Senie, author of “Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9-11.”
After the attacks, it wasn’t at all clear what would happen to the wreckage. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the Trade Center’s owner, dispatched an architect to comb the site, saving a fraction of the material, which was sent to JFK’s empty Hangar 17.
A judge determined the artifacts could be donated to those who promised to care for them. But where to begin?
“It was piles and piles, probably my height or higher, of steel beams,” says Amy Passiak, the archivist hired to catalogue the artifacts, recalling the first time she walked into the hangar in 2010. Passiak, a high school senior in Michigan at the time of the attacks, had been working as an intern at New York’s 9-11 museum, but says she was still unprepared for the scene.
“I remember going home that day and just being exhausted, just from being there a few hours, just being emotionally exhausted and not being able to comprehend the amount of work that was going to go into the process.”
As word spread that the Port Authority was giving the material away, requests poured in. Through August, it had distributed 2,629 artifacts.
Many went to fire departments, local governments and organizations in the New York area with direct ties to those who perished.
“That’s where the DNA is,” said John Hodge of the Stephen Siller Tunnels to Towers Foundation, named for his cousin, a New York firefighter killed on 9-11. In late July, the foundation claimed an elevator motor from the Trade Center, a piece of the parking structure, and a portion of a broadcast antenna that crowned the complex.
“Neither my cousin or anybody else from Squad 1 was ever found, but it’s in that steel,” Hodge said.
But for many of the people and groups that adopted artifacts, the loss was more abstract.
Heath Satow, a sculptor in southern California hired to design a 9-11 memorial for the plaza fronting Rosemead’s city offices, recalls awkwardly scanning a digital catalogue showing beams available from the Trade Center. But hundreds of hours creating the memorial — a 10-foot beam cradled by hands of chrome, the palms and fingers formed from 2,976 interlocking birds representing individual victims — left a deep impression.
“Every individual was attended to,” said Satow, his voice breaking. “I just was totally unprepared for it. But when you spend all that time seeing it as individuals it will just wreck you.”
At Flour Bluff Junior High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, students from an officer training program stand guard each September alongside Trade Center steel displayed near the cafeteria. Bruce Chaney, the naval science instructor who applied for the artifacts, brings another, smaller piece to his classes.
The artifact is “twisted and somewhat burned. It’s not pretty. I’m hoping it will make them think as they’re growing up, that they have to pay attention to their past,” Chaney said.
But 15 years after September 11, memories of the attacks are set against continued fears of terrorism.
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“We just don’t know where the events of 9-11 have led us,” said Rick Sluder, fire chief in Wauseon, Ohio, which obtained a Trade Center beam and, together with neighbouring departments, built a memorial at the Fulton County Fairgrounds.
“A lot of people are looking at this as, is this the point of downfall or the point at which we rose above the rest, the point of resiliency?” Sluder said.
By early this year, there was little left at Hangar 17, Passiak said. Items like police cruisers, whose purpose that day were clear, found takers. But unmarked vehicles, anonymous but for their place in the wreckage, were initially passed over.
When the Port Authority shuttered the artifact program in August, officials moved the only remaining artifact — a white Dodge Caravan — to the tarmac. It, too, is likely to go soon, to a group officials will not identify until its application has been approved.
Passiak, who recently moved to Michigan to start a job at an art museum, said some day she’d like to take a road trip, stopping to see where the artifacts have found homes.
It will not matter that they are far from lower Manhattan. The memories they hold, she is certain, will not soon fade.