WTC steel centerpiece of numerous 9/11 memorials

MA communities, organizations received 60+ Twin Towers artifacts

BOSTON — When the World Trade Center towers fell, there was hope rescue workers would find survivors in the massive mountain of debris. And, initially, they did: some people were pulled out alive by September 12. But ‘The Pile,’ as it came to be known by those who reported for rescue work, would yield heartbreak after that.

“Sometimes I look at it like it was yesterday,” said Gerry Giunta, who headed to lower Manhattan hours after the towers fell as a member of the FEMA Urban Search & Rescue group Massachusetts Task Force One.

“The enormity of the site was just incredible,” Giunta said. “It was so surreal when we got there. Driving down to the site the first morning, we saw a jet engine that had careened down the chasm of buildings -- bouncing off high-rises and buildings, all the way down to where it ended up on the street quite a ways away from the World Trade Center.”

What did survive and remain in the vicinity of what became known as Ground Zero, was the steel used to construct the Twin Towers. The girders and beams -- along with other salvageable artifacts, were collected and then stored in a hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

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Between 2010 and 2016, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey distributed the contents of that hangar to communities and organizations in all 50 states and to 10 nations, for the purpose of creating memorials to remember the victims of 9/11. In all, the Port Authority found permanent homes for more than 2,600 artifacts, including nearly 1,900 pieces of steel.

The Port Authority supplied Boston 25 News with a complete list of communities and organizations that received artifacts from the World Trade Center -- and more than 60 went to entities in Massachusetts.

Five years ago, The Task Force dedicated a large girder from the North Tower at its Beverly headquarters. It now serves as the focal point for the organization’s 9/11 memorial.

“There’s a lot of meaning in this from being there,” Giunta said. “It has a meaning for everybody that was there.”

And the girder’s logistical placement was carefully planned, Giunta said.

“What I’m facing is the entrance to our Task Force,” he said. “So every day, everybody that comes in here to represent this team and work for the Task Force sees this the first thing they do when they come in here. And that is a representation of the dedication that every team member puts into this team.”

Natick received two pieces of steel from the World Trade Center. One is set up in a memorial outside the town’s fire station. The other is outside the local VFW.

“It’s a visual reminder of what the tragedy was that day,” said VFW member and Vietnam veteran Byron Prescott. “I’m a retired firefighter and my heart goes out to all the firefighters, police and other first responders that died that day. And many of them got sick later on from inhaling all the dust that was there. It’s been a tragedy right from the beginning.”

With 20 years having gone by since 9/11, Prescott said it’s important to have visual reminders of the horror of that day.

“America has a 30-day memory,” he said. “And the news changes all the time. And it doesn’t even take an event as horrendous as 9/11. Just fades after a while.”

What hasn’t faded for so many: the memories of where they were and what they were doing when they learned America had come under attack. Take Norfolk Fire Chief Erron Kinney. At the time, he was playing in the NFL for the Tennessee Titans but had a long interest in firefighting, even working as a volunteer firefighter while in college.

“We had just played on Sunday,” Kinney remembered. “So, Tuesday was supposed to be our day off. But you don’t really have days off if you want to be competitive and good in the NFL. So, I had gotten up and was doing my normal Tuesday routine, about to go in and start watching film of the next opponent and get a little workout in and just stopped. My wife was like, ‘honey you need to sit down and look at this.’ At that point just the first plane had hit. And everything was chaotic, and I actually watched the footage as the second plane hit and then sat and watched from there.”

What Kinney remembers most is the sounds he could hear after the towers collapsed, the chirps from multiple PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) devices. He knew it was an indication that numerous firefighters were in distress.

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“At that moment, I remember I got up and I went and got my fire gear,” Kinney said. “I was going to drive to New York. I was going to drop everything and just go. I’m like: they need help.”

Kinney’s wife talked him out of doing that, and he wound up organizing a fundraiser instead.

“I did a six or eight-hour autograph session,” Kinney said. “All day. Just trying to raise money, whatever I could, to do something to help the families of the firefighters.”

In the Norfolk Fire Department lobby is another piece of World Trade Center steel.

“I know, for me, I never thought in a million years that building, either building would collapse,” Kinney said. “I don’t think they thought that was a possibility, either.”

But they did collapse. And that forever changed the lives of not only surviving family members but also those who hoped to rescue survivors only to find there were no more survivors to rescue.

Norfolk Fire Department paramedic Richard Yunker headed to Ground Zero within 24 hours of the buildings falling.

“It was a surreal picture of complete devastation,” Yunker said. “There were a lot of people going in, a lot of people looking like they were defeated, coming out.”

Yunker helped set up medical stations in case survivors were found but also to assist rescue workers who might need medical attention. Because working ‘The Pile’ was a dangerous job.

“I can tell stories of firefighters that were injured there that refused to get off The Pile,” Yunker said. “They would continue to work on The Pile because they didn’t want to go home. They wanted to find their brothers.”

As emotional as it was in the immediate days after 9/11, Yunker said the psychological impact didn’t really hit him until many years later.

“It didn’t hit home until probably a couple of years ago when I actually went back to Ground Zero with my wife,” Yunker said. “Walking on to the plaza is when it really, really hit home. I stutter-stepped. I almost couldn’t do it. But we actually went into the museum. And I had a tough time in there.”

But it doesn’t bother him to see a piece of that horrific tragedy in the workplace every day. Yunker sees the piece of steel given to the Norfolk FD as a way to commemorate the lives that were lost and a reminder of the promise so many Americans made after 9/11: to never forget.