EMU unveils powerful piece of history on Sept. 11

by Geoff Larcom, Published September 09, 2011

The story of Eastern Michigan University's new 9/11 memorial began nearly two years ago, as President Susan Martin was reading the New York Times.

She saw an article about the New York Port Authority's plan to distribute artifacts from the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center to various public bodies. Martin noted the story to John Donegan, head of EMU's Physical Plant, and the two wrote a letter indicating the University's interest.

They heard nothing for about eight months, and then the authority indicated that EMU would receive something, though it wasn't clear what type of artifact or building piece that meant.

Then came another long period of silence. Finally, this past summer, Port Authority officials told EMU to come out and gets its piece, and right away.  Only then did it become clear this would be a large, substantial piece of the wreckage.

Donegan and colleague Kevin Abbasse of the Physical Plant set out for Manhattan on a large flatbed truck capable of hauling heavy loads. After navigating the streets of America's busiest city in the truck, the two were led into a large hangar at JFK airport. They drove away with a stunning artifact that exceeded anyone's expectations in terms of its size and significance.

Donegan and Abasse encountered a wide of emotions on their trip back from Manhattan with the beam. People marveled at the huge steel object at various rest stops along the way. They cried, stood silent, and everyone wanted to touch it, Donegan said.

What the two brought back to the EMU campus the morning of Aug. 5 is impressive. The 14-foot steel support beam weighs about 6800 pounds, and is pockmarked with dents made from molten metal falling on the beam. Written on the side are "south," which is presumed to mean the South Tower, the second one hit but the first to collapse. The number "74" inscribed appears to mean the 74th floor, just several floors from the 78th floor, where the second plane crashed into the tower.

A side on one end of the beam is simply sheared off, testimony to the overwhelming forces at play in the collapse of the tower. It is as if the beam had simply been torn away.

The beam was formally unveiled on Sept. 11, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, during a brief and moving afternoon ceremony at Pease Park. It rests on two six-inch concrete supports, which stand atop a graceful circular platform with steps.

The memorial and the site came out of extensive yet fast-moving discussions of a committee of faculty, students and administrators formed shortly after the beam's arrival on campus. Among the key distinctions was labeling the beam's display a "memorial" rather than a "monument."

Whereas a monument has the effect of being thrust upon you in terms of its position and prominence, the committee thought EMU's display should be more reserved and respectful, and not directly accessible to passersby, said Colin Blakely, head of the EMU art department, who served on the committee.

The Pease site, situated in the low-lying, southeast corner of campus and partially shielded by trees and tucked into a hill, offered the perfect venue for experiencing the memorial in a setting that can offer quiet and individual reflection.

The committee also decided on a simple design that eventually will offer ADA access via a concrete path extending up the back of the memorial. Another committee will likely be formed to come up with appropriate text, Donegan said.

The location, at the corner of Cross and Perrin streets, epitomizes the town-gown nature of the memorial. "It's really a community piece," Donegan said.

While noting the project's cost of about $25,000 could be paid for in part by some gifting, Donegan spoke of the singular nature of the project and EMU's good fortune in obtaining such a powerful piece of history.

"To me, the beam is priceless," he said.

Geoff Larcom

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