PHILADELPHIA – PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Massive steel remnants of the fallen World Trade Center towers returned Wednesday to the Pennsylvania city where they were made more than four decades ago, in a solemn homecoming that was never meant to be.
A mile-long procession of 28 flatbed trucks arrived in Coatesville carrying 500 tons of structural supports, referred to as "steel trees" because of their upward branching shape. Fire trucks flashed their lights in welcome, and hundreds of residents lining the sidewalks waved U.S. flags and reached up to touch the wreckage. Some posed for pictures or saluted; others wept.
Forged in 1969 by Lukens Steel Co., the supports framed the perimeter of the twin towers' first nine floors and massive lobbies before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks reduced both skyscrapers to rubble.
But the World Trade Center's twisted steel supports, among the few remaining pieces of the 110-story skyscrapers still standing, became an iconic image of defiance and strength for a mourning nation.
"They're here, and we're happy to have them, but we didn't ever want them back, certainly not for the reason they're coming back," said Coatesville resident Mary Sullivan.
Officials hope to use the steel as the centerpiece of an industrial history museum. The 10 five-ton support structures made up part of the first nine floors of the north tower.
"They were born here, but they lived and died in New York," said Scott Huston, a descendent of the Lukens family and president of the Graystone Society, a local historical preservation group that is forming a committee to oversee the design for a memorial to incorporate the structures.
The trip from a Port Authority of New York hangar to Coatesville was about seven years in the making, Huston said.
From here, conservators and designers will determine the best way to protect the steel from the elements and create an outdoor memorial that will attract visitors from around the country, he said. One smaller steel beam will go on display in a couple of weeks, and the full memorial may take a couple of years to complete, he said.
Though the event was somber in tone, the arrival of the World Trade Center artifacts is also seen as an element of the rebirth of Coatesville, a city of 11,000 residents just west of Philadelphia that grew alongside the steel industry and has declined with it.
Kevin Larkin, a firefighter and Brooklyn native now living in Downingtown, lost his friend Eric Olsen, a New York firefighter, on Sept. 11.
"Americans have short memories. People forget," he said. "This is an inspiration to bring back the memory of the people who died that day."
John Gillen, 71, who worked in shipping for Lukens Steel in the late 1960s when the World Trade Center steel was being forged, recalled how the enormous beams made their way to New York on railroad cars specially configured to hold such a massive weight.
Lukens employees were always proud of everything they made, from armored plating for aircraft carriers to sonar spheres for submarines to the steel skin of what were among the tallest skyscrapers in the world. That feeling was evident even during the horrible days after 9/11, Gillen said.
"Everyone was so proud the day after (Sept. 11), when we saw they were still standing," said Gillen, who retired after 40 years at Lukens. "They were standing, and we made them."
On the Net:
National Iron and Steel Heritage Museum: http://www.steelmuseum.org