For the past decade, much of the sacred steel recovered from Ground Zero has been held in Hangar 17 at John F. Kennedy Airport.
From the outside, it’s a colorless industrial building. On the interior, it’s an unsettling sculpture garden of huge rust-colored beams bent into fantastical shapes, resembling works by Alexander Calder.
“It’s like art, right?” says Nancy Johnson, gently.
Johnson directs the World Trade Center Artifacts project and has overseen the preservation of the Ground Zero wreckage since 2006. Ten years ago, she just missed being in the North Tower in her Port Authority office on the 63rd floor because she was late to work. The steel has categories, she explains. There is composite steel, facade steel and, worst of all, “impact steel,” the melted ore struck directly by the planes. The steel at the base of the buildings was up to four inches thick. At the top, it was as thin as a quarter-inch.
Then there is that interesting category she calls “symbol steel,” the icons created by welders during their downtime. Cutouts of the skyline. Stars of David. Police shields. And, of course, crosses.
The hangar is relatively empty now compared with the tonnage it once held. Much of the steel has been scattered by the Port Authority’s 9/11 Steel Distribution Program, through which thousands of artifacts have gone to smaller memorials.
Each piece is treated reverently, escorted to its new location by police or fire units in full dress. There is now World Trade Center steel in 1,500 parks and fire stations across the country.
Some of the most evocative items remaining in Hangar 17 are hard to classify, more than souvenirs but not quite museum pieces. A rack of bikes, a battered shovel, a dented file cabinet bursting with papers.
In a shadowy corner, Johnson unlocks a door to a smaller, climate-controlled room. Inside, the contents are stunningly unexpected: giant statues of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and the Road Runner loom, smoke-damaged but grinning, the remnants of a Warner Bros. store in the World Trade Center. A sign in golden script reads “That’s all Folks!”
“Isn’t that something?” Johnson asks. “It brings a human element to all the inanimate objects.”
It’s her favorite part of the hangar, though she can’t say why. They would hardly seem to be important artifacts — yet they are. Later, it comes to her, and she sends an e-mail. “Wreckage becomes relic when it is associated with people and experiences that brought you joy,” she writes.
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You can take the cross out of the World Trade Center. But can you take it out of someone’s skin?