Haunting icons of Sept. 11 rise at Marine Corps museum
By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: December 10, 2018
Hand over hand, Jorge Pacheco hauled on the gantry chain, and the dented and bent, 1,200-pound hunk of American history slowly became vertical.
When he finished, what stood before him and a team of riggers at the National Museum of the Marine Corps last week looked like a piece of cosmic sculpture, and a remnant of some terrible tragedy.
In a way, it was both.
It was an I-beam salvaged from the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack there destroyed the twin towers and killed more than 2,500 people in Lower Manhattan.
And it was art, sculpted by the forces that brought down the buildings and symbolic of the anguish and resilience of the aftermath.
The workers installed the almost 11-foot beam, and a piece of stone cornice that was damaged in the attack on the Pentagon, as part of the "final phase" extension of the state-of-the-art museum in Triangle, Virginia.
The extension will cover the story of the Marines from 1976 to the present day and will focus on events such as 9/11, terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still under wraps in the new section are a Marine Corps jet, near the ceiling, that flew patrols following the 2001 terrorist attack; an M60 tank that fought in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq; and a room full of fiberglass Marines posed in action and waiting to be displayed.
The museum also has a battered wall clock salvaged from the Pentagon.
Its hands are stopped at 9:39 a.m., just abut the time one of the four hijacked airliners was crashed into the building, killing all 64 people on the plane and more than 100 people in the Pentagon.
Museum curators also salvaged from a Pentagon office a framed image of helicopters, overlaid with the words, "Current Threat Condition is: Normal."
But last Tuesday morning was dedicated to the World Trade Center and Pentagon artifact installation.
The Pentagon cornice and the I-beam, which the museum has had in a more modest display, were wheeled on dollies into the cavernous extension area, which is still under construction, a little before 9 a.m.
The massive rust-colored beam still had chunks of concrete clinging to one side, as well as numbers and symbols in white paint that appeared to date from the trade center's construction in the late 1960s and early '70s, the museum said.
The Pentagon cornice was worn and chipped and looked like a relic from antiquity.
Both items were acquired by the museum for display, said Jennifer L. Castro, the museum's curator for cultural and material history. She said no one knew where in the vast trade-center wreckage the I-beam came from.
"I had asked for a very large piece," Castro said. And after Pacheco and other riggers used the mobile gantry and chains to raise it to the vertical position, it towered over them.
They then eased it to a rectangular hole in the cement floor, lowered it into place and stepped back.
In the stark construction light, it was a powerful image.
"You see this torque, this change, something that's withstood damage," Castro said at the museum Tuesday. "It has . . . majesty in and of itself."
"You put it in context with the story — we twist, we fall, but we stand back up as the American people," she said. "You can't take us down forever."
"When I first saw it, I was like: 'This looks like art. This doesn't look like [a] building relic,' " she said.
Chuck Girbovan, the museum exhibits chief, said, "The feel of the beam kind of rising up out of the floor with some lights on it tells the story that it needs to tell [on] its own."
As for the plain elegance of the Pentagon cornice: "It does look like something that we got from a Roman ruin," he said.
Castro recalled that she and a colleague went into the wrecked section of the Pentagon on Sept. 28, 2001, about two weeks after the attack, and tried to salvage artifacts for the Marine Corps. She was then the registrar in charge of loaned items.
"We had probably spent about five hours on site," she said. Afterward, "we couldn't talk. We didn't talk the whole way home. . . . We couldn't even eat. We could not get over what we saw. . . . We didn't know what to say."
"All the pictures you saw in the newspaper, the magazine, on the news — nothing, nothing spoke to the actual devastation you saw," she said. "It left a permanent memory in my mind."
The piece of the Pentagon cornice, already fixed to a stand, was placed in an opening in the floor beside the I-beam. Both receptacles would later be filled with cement to hold the artifacts in place, the museum said.
Unlike most other objects in the museum, these may be touched once the extension opens in 2019.
Aron Kinney, 45, an account executive with A&A Transfer, which installed the artifacts, said his father had worked for IBM in the one of the fallen towers but was off the week of the attack.
He said it was an honor to do the job. "To be part of something like this is very humbling," he said. "I'll be able to bring my kids here and show them."
Pacheco, 41, a rigger and a native of El Salvador, said he had been in the United States for five years when the attacks happened.
Tuesday he wore a bright orange safety shirt, gloves and a hard hat that was same color as the rusty beam.
The beam was a lot like the heavy stuff riggers move all the time.
But this told such a story, he said.