Preserving The WTC Wreckage

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Tomorrow, a developer named by Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg will make his recommendations for revising the World Trade Center memorial design. The project is being scaled back because its budget had grown to almost a billion dollars - including infrastructure. What is certain is the final memorial will include a museum with wreckage from the Twin Towers. As the debate over its location continues, the twisted steel and other artifacts are being carefully preserved until the date when they can be shown. WNYC’s Beth Fertig has more.

Slideshow: Hanger 17

The task of sorting through the Trade Center remains is being led by Alice Greenwald, the new director of the Memorial Museum. She recalls the first time she saw the beams and columns in an airplane hangar near John F. Kennedy airport.

GREENWALD: My encounter with them was no less than stunning. I mean you walk into this airline hangar which is, you know, an airline hangar. It’s huge. And you are confronted with pieces of steel that are monumental in scale and the first thing that strikes you is ‘oh my goodness, these are human artifacts. These are things that people built, made. I mean they don’t just exist in nature. They are structures that were built to create a building of monumental scale – at the time the largest buildings in the world – and they are twisted into the most extraordinarily.. and I use this word with great hesitation but they’re beautiful forms. But it’s a kind of terrible beauty because you know looking at them what caused them to be warped.

One of the oddest shapes is called the compression. It’s so valuable that it’s been locked inside a tent within the hangar. It looks like a meteorite and nobody knows which tower it came from says Charles Gargano, vice chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the hangar and the Trade Center Site. Gargano says the compression is actually 4 stories that have been crushed into a jagged object four feet high.

GARGANO: This is metal that has been compressed again as the result of the collapse of these extremely tall buildings. And that is made up, composition of different materials steel, concrete and other materials and you can see how that was compressed.

Amazingly, it’s possible to make out individual objects. There are bathroom tiles, a pipe, and blackened pieces of paper carbonized by the heat. It smells like charcoal. Peter Gatt, who’s one of the preservationists here, points to the spine of what looks like a corporate report.

GATT: This is a book. You can find a book inside. You can read letters on these little papers and for some reason they’re still here.

BETH: You can actually make out words on some of these tiny pieces of carbonized paper. The word representative, action, employment.

GATT: we checking every inches of this piece and we photographing every inches.

Gatt has been watching for any signs of deterioration. Cracks emerged over a year ago and they’re now marked with tiny green pins, to monitor the slightest change. The humidity and temperature in this room are tightly controlled.

Preservationists have taken similar steps for other relics that document the human experience of 9-11. One is a 35-foot long column. It’s lying on its side like a relic from some other civilization, covered with messages from the recovery workers who were part of the cleanup of Ground Zero. Amory Houghton, who manages the preservation project, points out where Port Authority police painted the number 37 in blue – representing the number of officers who died on 9/11.

HOUGHTON: They covered it with about 5 coats of paint. And then they stenciled the 37 on. So as you can see this paint was literally flaking off.

To restore the writings, Gatt and his crew spent six months mounting the paint chips and flaking rust with magnets. They also injected spots with a solution to prevent more chipping.

GATT: We saved the rust which fell off the column we save it. We make it a little bit stronger. Found the right spot for it, put it back and restored the whole image with these little magnets and the injection that you can see.

The column now looks exactly the way it did when it was removed from the World Trade Center site in a 2002 ceremony, marking the end of the cleanup. All of the photos, prayer cards and messages from the iron workers have been lovingly restored. Houghton reads a few.

HOUGHTON: There's Jimmy from Local 14, Tattoo from the electrical union.

But the preservationists cannot re-create the gothic looking structures that remained standing after the Trade Center collapsed. Those beams were so large and unstable that they had to be cut into separate pieces.

Everyone here is also battling with nature.

HOUGHTON: They’re the bane of our existence!

Birds are a constant presence in the airplane hangar. Little white droppings are visible on some pieces of Trade Center steel. The Port Authority is building a net to keep the avian visitors out, while also repairing the roof. And Gatt has perfected a way of cleaning the steel with a vacuum pipe and cotton instead of destructive chemicals.

GATT: And then when the bird poops are I put sterile cotton on it and leave it there for 1 hours or 2 hours to make it softer and with a very fine brush, brush down.

Gatt is a Hungarian immigrant who’s lived in New York for the past 20 years working in art preservation. When he got the call about the Trade Center project he was initially hesitant. There was so much sadness he says, so much loss. But in the past few years he’s come to love these pieces of steel.

GATT: I know every single piece here. This look like a sculpture. For me how I see that every piece could be a sculpture for me. They have beautiful texture they have beautiful colors.

Gatt says that appreciation keeps him going as he works to save the richness of the wreckage for future generations.

Alice Greewald, the museum’s director, says she has no idea how she’ll exhibit the wreckage. She used to head the U-S Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. She does have a vision for this new Memorial.

GREENWALD: This is about honoring memory and educating people about not just dark day of 9/11 but best of humanity that responded in reaction to the darkness.

Those involved in the restoration spend every day looking for the light in that darkness. Like a lot of his coworkers at the Port Authority, Amory Houghton feels a personal investment.

HOUGHTON: We lost a lot of people. And I lost a lot of really good friends. And not only do we have sort of a historical obligation we have a moral obligation to do this.

An obligation the agency intends to fulfill, regardless of where the memorial and museum are finally housed. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.