Eight years ago, Roy James first broached the idea of bringing a nine-foot fragment of steel, salvaged from the World Trade Center, to Princeton. James, who is the former deputy chief of the Princeton Fire Department, wanted to create a permanent memorial to those who perished when the twin towers were destroyed on September 11, 2001.
The proposal has been met with significant roadblocks since that time. But current plans call for the twisted fragment to be permanently installed outside the new headquarters of Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad (PFARS) on Mt. Lucas Road. A spot has been reserved for the beam, and a fundraising campaign is underway.
?We?ve waited all these years, and we wanted to make sure it?s done right,? James said this week. ?To us, it?s a monument for many people who lost their lives that day, and after.?
Nine people from Princeton died on 9/11. James? wife, who used to work at the World Trade Center, could have been one of them. But pregnant and on bed rest at the time, she stayed home that day. James was haunted by the possibility of what could have been ? not just for his wife, but for numerous people he spoke with who, for various reasons, didn?t go to work that day and avoided the disaster.
A motorcyclist, James began taking part in memorial rides to commemorate the disaster. He and William D. Shields, who is president of Princeton Engine Company No. 1 on Chestnut Street, rode together in one of them and were struck by the surges of support from those who lined the sides of the roads they passed through.
From other riders, James learned that pieces of steel had been saved and were available for memorials. He obtained one of the beams, and proposed that the municipality place it on state-owned land, possibly near the Princeton Battle Monument or near the former Borough Hall.
But the plan hit a snag when the American Atheists, a group headquartered in Union County, threatened to sue the town if a small cross cut out on one side of the steel beam was clearly displayed on public property. The town pulled out
of the plan, and the beam was stored in the back of the Princeton Hook & Ladder facility on Harrison Street. A few years ago, Shields arranged for it to be brought to Engine Company No. 1 and displayed where it could be viewed through windows, lit up at night ? with the cross covered by an American flag.
?When I first saw this piece of steel, my eyes were drawn to the cross, and I asked why it was there,? James said. ?I did some research and I found out that during the recovery process, when they were cutting the steel beams and looking for people, the steel workers would carve these symbols when they found any kind of remains. Some of those lost were first responders ? people they knew. Some beams had crosses, some had Stars of David, some had hearts, some had moons. And they would give the pieces they cut out to family members if they could. It wasn?t a religious thing. I?m Jewish, and the cross never bothered me.?
Since then, the Princeton September 11th Memorial Committee has formed, and plans have been put into place for the steel beam to move to its permanent home at PFARS. A special area has been allocated for the site, and will be visible from Route 206, Valley Road, and Mt. Lucas Road.
PFARS President Mark Freda is on the Memorial Committee and has been instrumental in arranging for the installation. ?PFARS is private property, so this is not tied to the municipality,? he said. ?We said we?d be happy to house it. I was in New York City on 9/11, so the whole aspect of it not being displayed has always been on my mind.?
It will take about $40,000 to complete the project. ?Some of the work has already been done,? said Freda. ?The concrete apron was donated, and we are hoping for more in-kind donations. We still need to do some work.?
The funds will cover design, foundation work, lighting, bronze plaques, and treating the steel beam so it is preserved. Those who donate $100 will receive a special commemorative coin that shows an illustration of the memorial. It also lists the number of miles between Princeton and the World Trade Center, as well as the other two sites where planes struck ? the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Shanksville, Pa. The coin can also be purchased for $20.
With the cross cut into the beam not visible when the beam is installed, those on the Memorial Committee are hoping there will be no cause for protest. ?No one wants to create any more issues,? said James. ?The squad has been figuring out a way to display it so that it doesn?t offend anyone.?
James worries about a change he has observed in the way people think about 9/11 since the attack. ?It used to be that on these memorial rides, it would be jammed. People would be on the sides, cheering us on,? he said. ?You couldn?t move.?
Shields, who is also on the Memorial Committee, added, ?Things just get lost in the shuffle as time goes on. People become complacent. But the squad is doing us a huge favor by housing this, and we couldn?t be more grateful. This is a story that shouldn?t be forgotten.?