By Skye H. McFarlane
It didn’t look like much from the outside an off-white steel beam atop a plywood platform inside a gravel-covered construction site. Yet people came from as far away as Texas, Florida and Ireland to see it, to touch a piece of the future and to remember the past.
Hundreds of 9/11 family members, first responders and members of the general public including Gov. George Pataki gathered in Battery Park City on Sunday to sign one of the base columns for the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower. The column is one of 27 multi-ton “jumbo” beams that will form the perimeter of the tower by the end of the spring. Two of the beams were placed on the site Tuesday in a formal ceremony co-hosted by Gov. Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Sunday’s event, however, was decidedly informal, despite a brief appearance by the governor and World Trade Center master site planner Daniel Libeskind. There were no prolonged speeches or official lines to wait in, allowing the participants to interact with the beam and with one another for as long as they pleased. For many, it was a welcome shift from the more regimented 9/11 anniversary events.
“Some people want to write a lot; some people just want to be here,” said Peter Marino, whose father, Lester, and friend, James Cartier, died when the towers collapsed. “No one’s telling you where to go. It’s not a pressured schedule. It’s much more relaxed.”
Marino rode to the event with several other members of the Queens-based Motorcycle Club of America, which formed after 9/11 in the memory of Cartier and Lester Marino. Marino said he was grateful that family members and first responders were given their own time to sign the beam (10 a.m. to noon) before the area was opened up to the public. It was an on-your-honor distinction, however, as the Parks Enforcement officers who controlled the event welcomed anyone with identification into the site at the corner of North End Ave. and Murray St.
“That’s going to be full today,” Edward Malone said of the beam. Malone signed in honor of his cousin, Dianne Signer, who perished just a week before her scheduled wedding in late Sept. 2001. Malone’s three-year-old daughter, Kayla Dianne Malone, also signed her name to the beam and Malone said he will be excited to bring her back to the completed Freedom Tower some day.
“We can come and say we were a part of it,” he said. “It’s really great that we get to leave a lasting impression.”
Although the beam will not form a visible part of the building, many signers spoke of a desire to leave their mark on history. Most took photos of their signatures and of the platform, which was gradually festooned with flags and posters.
“It’s pretty overwhelming, but inspiring, that they’re finally rebuilding,” said Stephanie Wallen, a New York native who now lives in Florida. “It’s a piece of history and we got to make a contribution to it.”
Though the beam itself is inextricable from larger politics Anthony Shorris, whom Eliot Spitzer recently appointed to direct the Port Authority, said the new administration will take a “fresh look” at the oft-delayed Freedom Tower project and Spitzer had questioned the project’s finances prior to the federal government making office lease commitments the beam signing remained primarily personal. It attracted just a handful of protestors from the W.T.C. Restoration Movement, a group that wants the original Twin Towers rebuilt. Michael Burke, who has been outspoken in opposing the random listing of names at the W.T.C. memorial, also used the occasion to insist that the same details that family members were writing on the beam, including the ages, titles and companies of lost loved ones, ought to be etched on the memorial as well.
“How does that offend anyone?” he asked, gesturing to the inscriptions on the beam.
To read the inscriptions, scrawled in red, black and blue sharpie, was to jump aboard an emotional rollercoaster that lurched between somber lists of names, hopeful wishes of “God Bless” and “Good Luck,” defiant statements of “Never Again,” and heartbreaking letters to the lost.
“Dear Daddy, happy holidays…,” began one message, written in pink marker. “Peter, your daughter is now a teacher and your son is a firefighter with Ladder 120. How proud are you!” read another. “Watch over everyone in this new building and keep them safe,” implored a third.
Due to quiet publicity of the event, most people said they had only heard about the signing a few days beforehand. Still, there was a steady stream of visitors that persisted until nearly an hour after the scheduled 3 p.m. closing time.
One couple, Tony and Adeline George, rushed over Sunday after seeing the beam on the morning news. The Georges lost a close friend, Peter Hashem, on 9/11. Hashem, whose family lives in Andover, Mass., was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the north tower. Though the Georges live in New Hampshire, they happened to be in the city for a family reunion. The couple said they felt lucky to be able to participate.
“We did this for his wife and his kids,” said Adeline George. “Sometimes things are meant to be.”