Sept. 11 Artifacts Await Home Amid Debate Over Memorializing Attacks

There are no bodies here — just rusting chunks of steel twisted like ribbons, crushed cars and burned-out elevator motors. Off a service road at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a hangar that once housed Tower Air is now a gigantic graveyard for what's left of the twin towers.

Here are the trident columns that held up the 110-story buildings — now broken, scorched and stacked on their sides. A piece of the 350-foot-long antenna that collapsed into the falling north tower looks big enough to fly into space.

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Laid out like a coffin in a climate-controlled chamber is a 62-ton steel column — the last one to be removed from ground zero eight months after the buildings fell, adorned with pictures of dead firefighters and messages scrawled by rescuers and ironworkers.

"Now you walk with angels," reads one. "May God keep you safe."

Twenty miles away, where the towers once stood nothing but two clean bedrock slabs 70 feet below the earth are there to tell the story of how nearly 2,800 people died on Sept. 11, 2001.

The objects in the hangar that return to ground zero will help shape a Sept. 11 story that in many ways is still been written.

"It's something that everyone experienced, but everyone experienced it differently," said Alice Greenwald, the director of the planned World Trade Center Memorial Museum. "There are many different interpretations of it. We have to look at how we want to convey the story."

The plans to memorialize the terrorist attacks have been revised again and again, but debates still rage about how to arrange names of the dead, whether to build on the twin towers' footprints and whether shattered pieces of the trade center should by the memorial.

"I'm one of those that will push for as graphic a representation we can do and stay within in the bounds of decency," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Burlingame said she wants news footage of the attacks to play in a memorial museum, and wants large remnants of the trade center to stand tall at the site to greet visitors.

But she said she is not yet ready for other parts of the story to be on display, such as the pictures of the 19 hijackers who took control of four jets that crashed into the trade center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

"Will this be some kind of triumph for them?" she asked.

The artifacts that wound up in the JFK hangar were chosen by a team of architects hired to recover objects that would one day bring meaning to the destruction. Bart Voorsanger, who owns the firm that retrieved the relics from the rubble, didn't spend much time asking himself what seemed the most relevant.

"I wasn't interested in our particular generation. They've already seen it," said Voorsanger. "If your grandchildren came to visit, would it mean anything to them?"

Workers cutting the trade center up into 50-foot chunks of steel were first suspicious of Voorsanger and his team, thinking they were voyeurs at a crime scene. Once they realized the team was trying to save pieces of history, the workers would bring the relics to them.

The "archive," as Voorsanger called it, includes tons of steel from the two towers, as well as art objects like pieces of Alexander Calder's "Bent Propeller" sculpture, pulled from underneath rubble with streaks of red paint still intact.

He also found relics left by the people who worked there — a half-dozen bicycles, one still with a chain lock, left in a rack outside the trade center, 250 commuter rail tickets stuffed in turnstiles the morning of the attacks, file cabinets from a bank office.

For Amy Weinstein, a museum curator who spent a dozen days at the site and the landfill where more than 1 million tons of debris was carted, the magnitude of the crushed steel and fire engines "really took your breath away."

But the tiniest objects were the most poignant, like a set of mangled, dust-covered keys and a souvenir baseball with a picture of the twin towers at night.

The items are part of the New-York Historical Society's permanent exhibit, and small pieces of trade center steel have already found their way into small-town memorials and art exhibits.

What's left of it is at Hangar 17, property of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and protected from further rusting by climate-control machines that keep the humidity at 35 percent.

Besides the last column, which has its own room surrounded by several American flags, signature pieces include a section of four crushed trade center floors that looks like a meteorite and merchandise from the trade center mall, including an oversized, dust-covered Bugs Bunny from the former Warner Bros. store.

"The Port Authority is prepared to preserve and protect these artifacts as long as we have to," said vice chairman Charles Gargano. He said he thinks much of it will go to the Sept. 11 museum and eventually will be requested for donations to museums around the world.

Greenwald only committed to bringing the last column to the museum, saying there are enormous logistical challenges to placing artifacts in an underground museum built into the trade center site and around the tower's footprints.

"In this case, we also have to ask the question, what fits?" said Greenwald. "These items are monumentally large." She said the choice will depend on what Sept. 11 story is told in the museum.

All this talk is premature, say scholars on mourning and memorials who say it normally takes a generation — 30 years — to place an event like Sept. 11 into historical context.

"It's much too soon," said Yale University history professor Jay Winter. "There are so many different levels of loss here."