NEW YORK – A cross-shaped steel beam found amid the wreckage in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was a symbol of hope for many working on rescue and recovery there, so much so that the construction worker who discovered it believes he stumbled on to a miracle.
"I saw Calvary in the midst of all the wreckage, the disaster," Frank Silecchia recalled Saturday. "It was a sign ... that God didn't desert us."
The 2-ton, 20-foot-high T-beam has now become a religious relic. It was taken from its temporary post near a church Saturday and lowered 70 feet down into the bowels of where the twin towers once stood to become part of the exhibit at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum.
But for all the religious fervor surrounding the cross, it will become part of the museum because of its history at ground zero, not because of its Christian symbolism, museum officials said.
"It's powerful because it provided comfort to so many people — it is a part of the history of the space," said Joe Daniels, president of the memorial foundation.
He said steel girders made into other makeshift crosses, Stars of David and possibly some Eastern religious symbols would also become part of the museum, which will open in 2012 and will be primarily underground at the site. The memorial will open this year, on the 10th anniversary of the attack.
"It's important to have these artifacts that reflect the history, to remember, to see how people coped," he said.
For Rev. Brian Jordan, the Roman Catholic priest who led the effort to preserve the cross, it is very much a symbol of Christianity — sacrifice, loss and renewal, he said. Jordan celebrated Mass under the cross for weeks — and members of many different religions took part.
"No one was turned away," he said. "Not only did I practice what I preached, I preached what I practiced."
The rusted, twisted metal beams were dear to Jordan partly because his mentor, Rev. Mychal F. Judge, chaplain of the city's fire department, died just feet from where it was found while helping people on Sept. 11. In 2006, the cross was lifted from the site and transplanted to a spot nearby at the oldest Roman Catholic parish in New York City, St. Peter's, where it remained until a flatbed truck took it to a nearby park for a blessing, and then on to the World Trade Center site.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, along with about 200 emergency workers and families of victims who died in the attack, joined Jordan for a blessing ceremony before the cross was moved.
"This was such an important part of how people dealt with Sept. 11," said Giuliani. "The night of the Sept. 11, we asked people to be stronger," he said. "And I believe New York is stronger today than it was then. Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg and Commissioner (Raymond) Kelly have made sure we're safer now. We're better prepared."
Mike Williams, whose son Kevin died in the twin towers, placed a baseball in honor of his son in a nook inside the cross in the days after the attack. The family, all avid ballplayers, started a foundation that sends kids to baseball camps
"Sometimes I can't believe it's been 10 years," he said. "It seems sometimes like it was two weeks ago."
The cross was loaded into a flatbed truck and hauled about a block to the construction site. A horn sounded to alert crews that something was overhead as the cross was slowly lifted by a giant white-and-red crane. It was turned counterclockwise and made slow, steady movement toward a rectangular hole in the concrete.
The only sound was the whir of construction machinery as the cross was slowly lowered 70 feet, through the metal work that will be the ceiling of the museum, past black vents and twisted wiring, to the bottom. It looked like a coffin being lowered into a grave.
But Jordan and the others think it's a turning point, and not a time for sadness.
"This is one of the most cathartic moments I have felt in my entire life," he said. "I feel a relief in the sense that I know it's found a permanent home, and for many of those who lost loved ones on that day, it is a relief for them, too."