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Artifacts keep 9/11 memory alive

When the World Trade Center was destroyed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 2,606 people died and the twin towers were reduced to hundreds of thousands of tons of debris.

Cleanup and the search for human remains was undertaken by the New York City Fire Department, and was completed in May of 2002, under budget and without a single injury.

Three years later, in February 2005, the New York City Medical Examiner’s office ended its process of identifying human remains at the site.

Tons of debris from the WTC site was trucked to a landfill on nearby Staten Island.

Immediate responses to 9/11 included greater focus on home life and time spent with family, higher church attendance, and increased expressions of patriotism, such as the flying of flags, according to a study by psychologist Bernardo Carducci in 2009. That response to the attack was seen in Wasco County, as it was elsewhere: Residents honored the fallen with moments of silence and flags at half mast, and The Dalles Chronicle printed a large flag which could be seen posted in windows across the landscape for years.

Tons of wreckage — twisted steel beams weighing up to 40,000 pounds, chunks of concrete smelling of smoke, a crushed fire engine, a dust-covered airline slipper — were salvaged from the WTC site for preservation in the weeks after the attacks. Most notable is the use of steel from ground zero in the construction of a warship appropriately named USS New York.

More than 2,600 artifacts have gone to 1,585 fire and police departments, schools and museums, and other nonprofit organizations in every state and at least eight other countries, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Each recipient has pledged to use the items in memorials or exhibits honoring those killed on 9/11.

Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue was the recipient of two pieces of steel beams from the former WTC. These were affixed to a wooden platform by retired engineer Cliff Smith and held in place by 343 Maltese crosses made by retired Capt. Bill Wolfe. The “Fallen Brothers” memorial sits in the lobby of Station One next to the “Flag of Honor” that lists the names of everyone who died in lower Manhattan on 9/11.

Inside the training room, local firefighters have hung the “Flag of Heroes” with the names of fallen New York City firefighters.

Like many of the decisions made by officials in the aftermath of the attacks, giving away pieces of trade center wreckage has been both praised and criticized over the years. Today, 15 years later, that decision has stood the test of time.

Millions of us remember the horror of that attack, the news reports, photographs and videos of the carnage. These relics, and the thousands of others now displayed, ensure that memory will remain not just in our minds and media, but in a physical form as well.

"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, a professor of art history at the City University of New York and author of "Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11."

"History is a vague concept, but if you have this tangible object that was a part of this historical event, it makes it very difficult to deny and it also makes it possible to experience it in a very visceral way," she said.

Choosing to preserve and distribute these items cannot have been an easy decision, especially in the immediate aftermath of such a large-scale tragedy. But it was the right decision.

For generations to come, these physical memorials will spark questions, inspire stories, and serve as places of remembrance. The pieces of steel here in The Dalles speak not only for the lives of those who died, but stand in remembrance for all Americans whose world changed that day in ways we are still learning to understand.


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