9/11 Steel Arrives at Tosa Fire Station as Permanent Reminder of Tragedy
After a two-year wait, Wauwatosa has its own relic of the worst loss of life in the history of American firefighting.
A misshapen, 96-pound steel form resides in the Wauwatosa Fire Department lobby – an artifact from the World Trade Center Twin Towers that collapsed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In appearance it is a study in contrasts. It is immobile, yet fluid; cold, yet seemingly afire; harsh, yet reminiscent of the gentle shape of a cradle.
The contorted I-beam serves as a tangible reminder of a day that changed the world and commemorates the 343 New York City firefighters who were to lose their lives while attempting the rescue of thousands.
When the artifact arrived July 6, it was unpacked and laid on the lobby floor, where it now rests atop a thick cushion of cardboard. A committee of firefighters was convened to decide how to display the nearly 5-foot-long, 18-inch-wide steel relic. Although just how the artifact will be displayed is yet to be decided, the display location likely will be right where it was set down.
"It was put there by accident, but I think it's perfect," said Deputy Fire Chief Bill Rice. "People can actually see it and touch it."
Even when the main lobby is closed, the artifact will be visible through the station’s large front windows.
"You will be able to see it 24/7," said firefighter Daniel Shepherd, a member of the fire department’s 9/11 memorial display design committee.
Seeing and touching the mangled steel beam evokes a mix of responses, among them a communal and almost palpable sense of awe, solemnity and respect for all that the artifact represents.
"When you see a piece of twisted steel like that, the significance goes up. ... It makes it real," Shepherd said. "It's a tangible piece of steel that was there when it happened."
“Everyone has been looking at it and is awestruck,” said Lt. Barbara Kadrich. “It’s very moving even to touch it. ... It lets me remember how hard it had to be for all the firefighters there.”
The Fire Department applied to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey two years ago to receive one of more than 1,000 artifacts stored in Hangar 17 at the John F. Kennedy International airport since the World Trade Center ground zero site was cleared. The Port Authority is shipping the pieces to cities, towns and villages across the country where, like the Wauwatosa Fire Department, communities plan 9/11 memorials.
Each I-beam artifact is different in size and shape, from a few inches to more than 40 feet long. Some remain straight while others, like that at the Tosa Fire Department, are so contorted as to appear a piece of art as much as artifact.
For Tosa firefighters, creating a 9/11 memorial from an actual relic of the World Trade Center is another way to pay tribute to the many firefighters killed when the twin towers collapsed, people with whom they share a bond as tight as family.
"Whenever a firefighter dies, we all feel it," Kadrich said. "Every firefighter across the country feels it. ... We are a brotherhood, a sisterhood.
"Any time locally or in the state when a firefighter dies, you have an instant kind of emotional attachment to that, and that's just one person.
"This was 343."
The artifact arrived a little more than two months before the nation marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and a month before the Tosa Fire Department commemorates the 30th anniversary of the only two Wauwatosa firefighters to die in the line of duty, paramedics James Lorbeck and Lawrence Schampers.
Lorbeck, 42, and Schampers, 38, died while battling a blaze at Alioto's Restaurant, 3041 N. Mayfair Rd., on Aug. 15, 1981, after they were trapped in the basement where the fire started.
Creating a memorial to commemorate and celebrate fallen firefighters is important, Shepherd said, because the collective public memory of those who died, while not forgotten, often can fade.
“The terrorist attacks that day changed the world as we know it, and we lost 343,” Shepherd said. “Even with something as tragic as that, it just kind of goes away.”
A 9/11 memorial at the main Tosa fire station will help raise awareness and ensure that people never forget the risks and sacrifice in serving as a firefighter, Shepherd said.
"It's a great opportunity for Wauwatosa to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice on that day," said firefighter Bob Arteaga.
“Any time we leave in the morning, it’s (a question of) are we coming home tomorrow, are we not coming home tomorrow,” said firefighter Mike Sauer.
A local 9/11 memorial will mean many things to many people. For firefighters, Sauer said, it also will be a tangible, visible reminder that “even though we’re having a bad day, it could be worse, and we’re still doing the right thing.”
Editor's note: The Wauwatosa Fire Department requests the public's patience while proper arrangements for the permanent display of Tosa's artifact of the 9/11 tragedy are being made.