Tribute in steel: 9/11 beam takes post in front of fire station


Nearly 14 years ago, the eight-foot steel H-beam helped support one of the World Trade Center's twin towers.

Now it stands 864,664 feet away on the front lawn of the Westport Fire Department's Hixbridge Road headquarters.

They know that number because they've done the math, says Deputy Chief Allen Manley.

Visitors who gaze on the beam from the to-be-installed granite bench will be looking in the precise direction of the place those towers stood before the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy — just over 163 miles to the west-southwest.

"It's not done yet but it is quite moving just to see it standing there," Deputy Chief Manley said. "People stop by and tell us that all the time."

Completion, ironically, may happen near or just after Sept. 11 of this year, although that depends on the arrival of granite pieces and completion of the walkway and patio that will surround the steel.

A Fire Department delegation drove to Hangar 17 at New York's JFK Airport three years ago to retrieve the beam that had been provided through the 911 Artifacts Program. Twice a month, the Artifacts Program handed over pieces of steel beams in varying sizes to approved organizations from around the country.

Since then, the beam has been on display in the fire station lobby while plans for a more permanent monument were considered.

"In retrospect, I'm glad it took us so long to decide what to do with it, that we didn't rush into it," Deputy Chief Manley said. In that time they've received suggestions from firefighters and residents alike.

The biggest change in thinking was to put the beam outside.

Early on they had thought the best place to display it was inside the station — probably the lobby — where it might enjoy more protection from the elements.

Not all agreed with that idea.

"We got one letter from a woman who sent us a donation but berated us for keeping it inside — keeping it to ourselves," Deputy Chief Manley said, adding that others — in letters and comments — also preferred an outside location.

Another woman, a summer resident, gave a generous anonymous donation.

"Her sister had died on 9/11," the deputy said. The woman came in to see the beam for herself, a moving moment that reinforced the notion that "this is something that people need to be able to put their hands on … Outside, everyone feels more welcome to stop and look at it, to touch it," he said.

The steel beam that now stands in front of the station shows evidence of the violence of that day. Although the beam is reasonably straight, a thick bolted on piece is twisted sharply and has a jagged edge where it was ripped apart.

Creating the outdoor display has been a big job, an effort that townspeople have been more than willing to share.

"We've received donations big and small from many people" — money, supplies, equipment and labor.

Many of the gifts are small and "we had hoped for that — "we wanted the whole town to take ownership."

The beam now stands within a pentagonal base. Inside that will be a pentagonal assembly of five granite monuments.

Five bronze plaques have been cast, each with its own message:

• President Bush's quote after 911 — "Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve."

• A dedication to Westport resident Dianne B. Snyder who, at age 42, lost her life that day aboard American Airlines Flight 11.

• The precise moment and place that each of the planes was lost.

• "We will never forget the 343' members of the Fire Department of New York.

• "In memory of those who fell and those who carry on across all cities and towns across all generations."

Much of the cost of those plaques was borne by the Ronald Desrosiers Foundation, the same fund that paid for the daffodil gardens in front of the station.

Mid City Scrap of Westport provided the steel support pieces that hold the beam upright. Westport's 'Sweet Pea' Manchester handled the metal fabrication and welding while John Coletti "haas been invaluable in helping us raise money — "He approached us and asked if he could help."

One way he helped was by putting them in touch with Eric Lintala who teaches art/sculpture at UMass  Dartmouth. "He helped us a lot with the design elements."

Albanese Monuments  is supplying the five granite monument pieces as well as the granite bench (which the firm provided at no charge).

"And the Highway Department has been unbelievable," digging holes, doing the cement work and more.

Although they have most of what they need, some funds are still needed and donations are welcome — contact the Fire Department.



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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.