WTC steel makes strong statement in Denver

Special to The Colorado Statesman

When Melanie Pearlman, the executive director of Denver’s counterterrorism educational center found the perfect World Trade Center artifact to be displayed at an exhibit about terrorism next month, she thought, “This one’s just right.”

It was no easy task choosing which artifacts to include at the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (The CELL) and at Babi Yar Park in southeast Denver. Pearlman, part of the 11-member team that selected World Trade Center artifacts for Denver, said it was an emotional process. Escorted by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey into Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City a few weeks ago, she was surrounded by charred fire trucks, abandoned bicycles, incinerated motorcycles and remnants from stores obliterated during the Sept. 11 attack on New York’s World Trade Center.

A broken elevator motor taken from the remains of the World Trade Center dwarfs the anonymous bouquet of flowers placed beside it as a memorial.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“It’s incredibly, incredibly moving because immediately all of these memories come back from 9/11 and you see in front of you a bike rack with bikes that were left on 9/11 — people never rode those bikes back,” Pearlman said.

When the curator escorted the group of 11 towards pieces of World Trade Center steel from the top floors of the North Tower, Pearlman found herself in awe. The pieces were so badly mangled that they had fused to become a huge mound of steel. The curator explained how the top floors received some of the worst damage that surely took the lives of hundreds on that infamous day.

“People who lost family members believe that’s their burial ground,” said Pearlman. “You can’t help but start to cry; you can’t help but start to tear up. It’s something that even 10 years from the day it happened, it still has a profound impact because you recognize how many lives this impacted, not only that day but subsequent to that day.”

Passersby study the twisted and fractured steel extracted from New York City’s World Trade Center that will become part of a permanent display in a couple of years in South Denver’s Babi Yar Park.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Sixteen pieces of World Trade Center steel, weighing more than 200,000 pounds, began arriving in Denver on Monday. The large truck used to transport the symbolic steel from New York received a local police escort as state and city officials gathered at Civic Center Park to officially announce plans for a memorial concert there on Sept. 11. Featuring the Beach Boys, the Colorado Symphony and the Colorado Children’s Chorale, the memorial tribute is partially sponsored by The CELL.

A Denver Police motorcycle escort prepares to lead military and civic dignitaries as well as the truck loaded with New York World Trade Center steel selected for memorial here in Colorado.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Other pieces of World Trade Center artifacts will make their way to 15 communities across Colorado. The steel is being shipped from New York City on large flatbed trucks, made possible, in part, by homebuilder and philanthropist Larry Mizel, founder of The CELL and the Mizel Museum. The CELL competed with about 2,500 applicants for the honor of showcasing the artifacts from the World Trade Center. The effort is part of a program by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to donate steel recovered from the wreckage to cities, police stations, firehouses, museums and military bases. The CELL was one of about 1,200 applicants nationwide approved for the project.

Denver Police Department Honor Guard Dan McNulty stands guard over the World Trade Center transport during its stop on Bannock Street near City Hall on Aug. 8.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“I believe that The CELL has made some significant inroads into the government understanding of how we complement its efforts to enhance security,” Pearlman said of the center, which focuses on educating the public about counterterrorism operations and how terrorism is born and developed.

The CELL has been nationally recognized for its efforts, and many in Colorado’s congressional delegation — as well as numerous elected officials from across the country — have visited their exhibit since 2008 when it opened.

Melanie Pearlman, executive director of The CELL, Ellen Premack, executive director of the Mizel Museum, and Jim Bershof of Oz Architecture, the firm managing the Babi Yar memorial.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The World Trade Center artifacts displayed for the public on Monday included two rusty turbines from the elevators of the crumbled World Trade Center towers in New York City, and pieces of steel from both the first and second towers of the terror-targeted buildings. Draped in an oversize American flag, the artifacts made their way across Denver, first to Civic Center Park and then for a second event at Sloan’s Lake.

Several hundred people gathered at Civic Center Park on Monday to hear the announcement about the upcoming concert on Sept. 11 and to pay tribute to the World Trade Center artifacts that have become symbolic of the dark period of terrorism set into motion a decade ago when four coordinated attacks upon the United States left a permanent impression of fear and paranoia in the hearts and minds of Americans.

A young girl carries an American flag as she walks in front of the flatbed truck with the steel remnants from the World Trade Center on display outside of Denver’s City and County Building on Monday.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Former Gov. Bill Owens attended the news conference on Monday. He was serving as governor during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and says he remembers that “beautiful, crystal clear Colorado morning” as if it were yesterday. At the time, he recalled, he thought it very odd that a plane would hit a building in New York City. When news broke that a second plane went into the twin towers and that both planes had been hijacked, Owens became fearful. He began making plans to activate the Colorado National Guard, at the same time keeping in constant contact with the Colorado State Patrol. Owens rushed back to the state Capitol.

“It was the only time as governor that I actually used the sirens and the alarms that were on the state Suburban because T-Rex was being built and there was a lot of traffic,” Owens reminisced as he shared his uncertain journey back to the Statehouse. “We simply didn’t know what we faced.”

Cunningham Fire Chief Jerry Rhodes greets former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens near the WTC display.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The days following Sept. 11 were uncertain, explained the former governor. But he says the years since have allowed Colorado and the nation to become better prepared to handle such a catastrophic event.

“We are winning and we will win this war on terror,” Owens said outside Denver’s City and County Building across from Civic Center Park.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said Monday that he hopes the exhibits will serve as a reminder to Coloradans to never forget 9/11.

“These artifacts serve as a stark reminder to Colorado, to Denver, indeed to all of us as Americans of our obligation to remain vigilant and work together to keep our communities, our states and our country safe and secure,” the mayor stated.

Following the news conference, Hancock said he believes the City of Denver is prepared to handle a terrorist attack if one were to occur in the Mile High City.

“9/11 changed our lives in America, it will never be the same,” said Hancock. “Being now the mayor of the city, I constantly think about how we go about keeping our citizens safe and how we would respond… We’re as ready as any city in this nation.”

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia talks about the upcoming Sept. 11 memorial program to be held at Civic Center Park on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

But many citizens still live in fear. Arlene Boone and Carol Quintana remembered working at the Centennial Building across from the Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001 at the Division of Water Resources. Upon hearing the news, several staffers grabbed a television out of one of the conference rooms and turned it on to witness the “horrifying” scene.

“It’s a sadness that so many lives were lost because of them, and you just feel for the families that lost their loved ones,” Boone said this week as he stood beside the flatbed truck carrying the World Trade Center artifacts. “It was just so tragic and dramatic.”

Both Boone and Quintana say their lives changed forever following the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I’m always more aware of my surroundings now,” said Quintana. “We work in a state building so when we see shifty looking people we’re aware.”

A very small minority, however, aren’t as convinced that al-Qaeda or terrorists caused the Sept. 11 attacks. Standing just feet from the World Trade Center artifacts in Denver on Monday, a couple skeptics wore black T-shirts that read, “9/11 was an inside job.”

Flag-draped steel from New York City’s World Trade Center is watched over by a Colorado Army National Honor Guard prior to a press conference in front of Denver’s City and County Building.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Final plans are still being developed for the Sept. 11 events in Denver. The exhibit at The CELL, located near the Denver Art Museum, is scheduled to reopen in late September, and the Babi Yar Park memorial in honor of all victims of terrorism is still two years away from completion.

The memorial in Babi Yar Park will feature a so-called “earth sculpture” built into the hillside along Havana Street, creating a vertical surface with a marble and glass reflective wall leading to a plaza where steel artifacts from New York’s World Trade Center will be displayed, according to Jim Bershof, a principal with Oz Architecture, the firm managing the project.

“When a visitor walks into the plaza they will not only see the steel pieces, but the pieces themselves reflected in the glass wall,” Bershof explained.

With the Colorado National Guard’s Honor Guard standing at the WTC display behind him Denver Mayor Michael Hancock makes remarks during a press conference organized by The CELL.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

For The CELL’s Pearlman, the issue is about educating the public and increasing awareness to prevent future terrorist attacks.

“It’s more sadness and really understanding what we were angry at — the inhumanity of the event,” said Pearlman. “It’s really more of a profound sadness.”