PRINCETON: After four years, 9/11 steel beam still has no permanent home


A steel beam from the World Trade Center

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Five years since he went public with wanting to create a local 9/11 memorial, former Princeton deputy fire chief Roy James is waiting to realize his goal.
The centerpiece of that memorial, a steel beam from the World Trade Center, remains in storage in the firehouse on Chestnut Street. Draped with an American flag, it sits on wood pilings to keep it from touching the floor.
“For it to be where it is, it’s not right,” said Mr. James on Tuesday in a phone interview. His preference is for the beam to be on public display, although that might not happen anytime soon.
As the nation on Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Princeton officials have given no indication when, or if ever, it would be used as part of a memorial.
Councilwoman Jo S. Butler said Tuesday that she thought a decision was pending whether the town decides to renovate the main firehouse on Witherspoon Street. She said she felt that location would be an “appropriate place” for it to go.
Before consolidation, Mr. James approached officials from the then-borough and the township, in 2011, with an idea for a 9/11 memorial. He received a warm reception at the time, with one official telling him he would have “so much support.”
Subsequently, he went through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to get a 10-foot-long piece of the World Trade Center, back in 2012. The beam was transported from Brooklyn with a motorcade along the route to Princeton. There was talk a few years ago of a memorial costing up to $100,000.
But with the project in limbo, it was not clear if the Port Authority would want the unused beam back or if the town simply should return it. A spokesman for the bi-state agency did not return a phone call seeking comment this week.
“I’m not at all familiar with the situation in Princeton, which I would consider a local affair,” said state Assemblyman Jack M. Ciattarelli (R-16) by email on Wednesday. “Speaking generally, if any town has WTC steel in storage with no short-term plans for its usage, and there are other communities on a wait list for their own 9/11 memorial, it seems only fair and appropriate that the town return the steel to the Port Authority.”
Asked if the beam should be sent back, Mr. James said that is “not up for me to say.” Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.
Any project might face a lawsuit, however. This week, a lawyer for the Cranford-based American Atheists reiterated the organization’s vow to sue if the beam ever is made part of a stand-alone memorial on government property. The controversy stems from the beam having a cross cut out of it, something that ironworkers were doing after 9/11 to create keepsakes for victims’ families or to accompany the remains of people killed in the attack.
“It’s not a generic symbol,” said the group’s lawyer, Bruce I. Afran, about the cross on Tuesday.
Ms. Butler said the town has taken the group’s concerns to heart. She called it “problematic” to display on government property an object with a cross deliberately cut out of it. She said she hopes it would be part of a 9/11 memorial, but she gave no indication where such a tribute would be located.
Mr. Afran suggested that a proper home for the beam would be in a museum or a church. But to display it alone, he said, the beam becomes an “immediate religious symbol.”
In the meantime, the World Trade Center steel is kept in one of the bays at the firehouse on Chestnut Street. Fellow firefighter Bill Shields, president of Engine Company 1, thought a few years ago that the beam should be moved from where it was, at a firehouse on Harrison Street, to its present location so “nothing would damage it or happen to it.”
“If I left it down there, I was afraid someone was going to mar it with something, deface it,” Mr. Shields said. “Eventually, it should find a decent home.”
At its temporary home, light shines on the beam 24 hours a day; a photo of firefighters raising an American flag at ground zero 15 years ago stands at the base; and two flags — one an American flag and the other a fire department flag — stand at the top. He even lets people come in to see it if they want.
“The word goes out, and they’ll come by at night, they’ll see the light on,” he said. “It’s in a fitting place.” 