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Hidden In Plain Sight: Damaged Beam From World Trade Center On EMU Campus Serves as 9/11 Reminder

On September 11th of each year, we are reminded of the horrific day when America found itself under attack. The Pentagon was hit. Another hijacked plane went down in a Pennsylvania field in a crash that spared a Washington D.C.  target because of the heroics of some of its passengers. And, for those old enough to remember, we will never forget where we were when word broke that one of the towers of New York’s World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. Then, the other tower was hit. Any question of whether it was a terrorist attack was removed. Then, we watched, and listened, in disbelief as each of those towers collapsed and crumbled to the ground, claiming 2,997 lives. From that day forward, as a nation, we made a promise: “We will never forget.”  Today marks 16-years since that fateful day. On this anniversary, 89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan takes you to a spot on the Eastern Michigan University campus where a piece pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center sits, open to the public, and yet, “Hidden in Plain Sight.” 

It's 14 feet long and weighs about 7,000 pounds.  Yet, many people walk by a steel support beam located at West Cross and Perrin Streets in Ypsilanti every day and don’t know what it is.  

Reporter: "So did you know that this was part of the World Trade Center?"
Caroline: "No, I did not know that until you told me."

Caroline Kameta is a freshmen at EMU.  She says she's seen the beam a few times since moving to the area from Africa but has never gotten up close.

"I think that everyone should know it and get educated about it. Not just only Americans, just anyone from around the world."

Since 2011, the beam has called Pease Park at Eastern Michigan University home. 

"It came from the 74th floor of the South Tower, which was the second tower that got hit. And we think that it was a column surrounding the elevator shaft at that level."

John Donegan is Vice President of Operations and Facilities at EMU.  He runs his fingers over the beam as we stand at the memorial.  John and his co-worker Kevin Abbasse drove to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to pick up the beam.  EMU got the piece after former university president Susan Martin requested it.  Kevin, who was a safety systems manager at Eastern and a retired first responder, passed away earlier this year. 

"When we lost Kevin, a part of me left with him and the fact that I lost my partner in this experience and now it's just me left to talk about it, which is difficult at times. I loved the man, and he was well received on campus, and this was an event that we had shared and brought a lot of comradery between him and I as two men that I will never forget."

It was a three-day trip there and back for the friends.  John says the drive back was a lot more interesting, because the beam attracted a lot of people when they stopped to pump for gas or for a meal.

John: "We had people praying over it, we had people crying, we had people spitting on it. We had all kinds of emotions.
Reporter: "Why would they spit on it?"
John: "They thought the whole thing was not a true story, that it didn't really happen. I can't explain that."

But John says one person stood out from the rest.   

"He was kind of giving us this kind of a shy look. He'd come look and then leave and come look and leave. We found out that he was a salesman for an insurance company, and he was in the building that this beam came from and survived. We had a chance to talk to him. We invited him to the day that we were unveiling this."

That unveiling took place on September 11th of 2011.  An EMU committee helped design the memorial that consists of four circular concrete platforms that lead to the beam that's horizontally resting on two pillars, just a few inches off the ground.

EMU graduate student Nicole Scherwin was in the second grade when the attacks took place but says the few times she's walked by the memorial, she's felt a connection.

"It gave me the chills earlier. My boyfriend is actually a firefighter, so it really hits home with me when I see stuff like that, because it's appreciation for the people who serve us and things like that."

John kneels down next to the beam to show me just how damaged it got when the plane hit the South Tower.  It has baseball-size dents that look like someone scooped steel out of the beam.      

John: "And you can see where the jet fuel lines were.
Reporter: "That's from actual jet fuel?"
John: "Yeah. The beam got so hot that it bent the steel like this. And look at all the gashes. The beam got so bad that it tore like a phone book here. This is where the failure of it we think took place."

For John, this beam is extra-special because of the experience he had in bringing it to Ypsilanti.  For others, this Hidden in Plain Sight object will serve as a reminder of just how brave our first responders were during one of the most tragic moments in American history.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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