Education

9/11 I-beam Finds a Home at Hunterdon Central High School

Former Franklin Township (Hunterdon County) Committeeman Rob McGeary ponders this 9/11 artifact. Credits: Rick Epstein

RARITAN TWP., NJ – A bent steel beam from the World Trade Center is now where it should be – on display in the lobby of Hunterdon Central High School.

Meant to be part of an elaborate monument to all who were harmed by the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, for several years it had lain under a canvas cover in Rob McGeary's garage. Instead of bearing mute testimony to an event that changed America, it haunted McGeary as an informal monument to the failure of the Remember Together Foundation.

In 2009, when McGeary was a Franklin Township committeeman, he read in a magazine that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey had a lot of artifacts culled from the wreckage of the Twin Towers available for use in 9/11 monuments.

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McGeary got in touch, and went to a Staten Island warehouse to see a length of steel I-beam that had been set aside for his consideration. He said the warehouse was enormous and contained a vast amount of 9/11 wreckage, including a jet engine and “giant beams as tall as trees.” But the 300-pound beam selected for Franklin Township was just right. It had been 6 feet long, before 9/11 trauma bent it double at the 4-foot mark. “I like that it's the size of a human being,” McGeary said.

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With the artifact safely stowed in his garage, the nonprofit Remember Together Foundation was incorporated, and an ambitious plan took shape. The foundation would gather items from the two other 9/11 sites and display them on a hilltop off Sidney Road on parkland known as Landsdown Meadows.

A crescent-shaped driveway would provide access to a pathway leading up a hill to a paved plaza. An American flag would wave at its center. The terror-site items would be arranged around it so visitors could walk among them, and read explanatory signage that would indicate the direction, site and distance from which the items had come, along with other information.

The foundation was chartered in February of 2010 and the goal was to complete the project by Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks. “I thought the monument program we had was perfection,” recalls McGeary.

The county freeholders, who control the parkland, agreed to it. The woman in charge of the Shanksville, Pa., federal site where United Flight 93 came down agreed to furnish a boulder, and the Pentagon, after a dogged struggle for access, agreed to donate part of what had been a wall. An engineering firm and a paving contractor donated their services to the project.

McGeary chaired the foundation's board, and, in his own inventive style, named each member of the board a co-president, so each trustee would feel acutely responsible in a team of equals trying to meet a difficult deadline.

But something happened or rather didn't happen. Details? McGeary will only say, “The board of trustees failed to do it in a timely way by the tenth anniversary. Time got lost, and it died. I take responsibility for it.”

But with the bent I-beam lying in his garage, the death of the dream did not bring closure. “It was a very weighty thing on me over the years, since it's been in my control and I had it in my garage, wrapped in a shroud,” he said.

Then one day in early 2014, he showed it to Dave Berger, a friend who shares his love of guitar picking and history. Berger, who has been teaching history and social studies at Hunterdon Central High School for almost 38 years, recalls, “It dawned on me that this would be an excellent educational tool.”

He said his current students who were born in 2001 and the ones who will come after them “have lived in the shadow of this event their entire lives. They don't know a world where you couldn't just walk onto an airliner.” They only know post-9/11 “paranoia.”

They need to see “evidence of the game-changer” and “appreciate what happened and see the forces that must have been involved for this beam to be bent like a pretzel,” he said.

Years ago, Berger had given the school a “Flag of Honor,” upon which were printed the names of all the people killed in the 9/11 attacks. But the flag was put in the library, “tucked away where nobody sees it.” He thought the flag and the beam would make a powerful combination in a more prominent spot on campus.

In the spring of 2014, he pitched the idea to Hunterdon Central High School Superintendent Christina Steffner, cultivating her growing enthusiasm for the high school project. Last summer she got the school board to accept the beam and agree to McGeary's condition that it be “displayed in a dignified and noble” manner.

The beam was delivered ceremoniously to the high school on Sept. 11, and later Ron Bowlby of the maintenance department mounted it securely on a steel dolly. The beam now stands upright, clamped into place, in the lobby of the Route 31 entrance to the school, with the Flag of Honor on the window behind it. Anyone is free to examine and touch the bent beam.

Hunterdon Central spokeswoman Nancy Tucker said art students are designing a permanent display for the beam, which will remain in the lobby. She predicted its completion by the end of the school year.

A video about the 9/11 beam has been made and will be posted online soon. Tucker said the video will include a student's reading of a poem written by McGeary, which will be part of the display.

McGeary had written the poem after Steffner asked him to suggest what should be written on the display's plaque. He went to bed with a headful of disjointed ideas and awoke at 3:30 a.m. with the poem “ringing in my head,” he said. He wrote it down right away. It explains that the beam is a tangible symbol of that terrible day, and the second half says:

Now, this I-Beam's higher purpose

Is to serve as a witness to ring out

To all who might stand before it:

That the event happened;

That this very steel

Holds the sounds, the heat,

The smoke, the lost people;

And that now perhaps

You may remember them kindly

Through the measure

And touch

Of your own life.

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