It is poignant that practically all that remains of the World Trade Center lies inside a Kennedy Airport building once home to an airline called Tower Air.
There, for the past several years, the Port Authority has been caring for a heartbreaking array of remnants carefully spread across 80,000 square feet in Hangar 17. The vast building was born of the optimistic heyday of Pan American Airlines but is now charged with a solemn purpose for which it was never intended -- the preservation of less than one percent of the once tallest buildings in the world.
"We built those buildings, and we owned those buildings, and they were our home," said Amory Houghton, a Port Authority official who oversees the preservation of artifacts at the hangar and is helping to guide the agency through a $10 million effort to save them.
Nothing can prepare a visitor for what lies inside. About 1,800 objects are there, including ghostly facade elements that survived the collapse and became symbols of 9/11, a rack full of bikes seemingly awaiting their owners and a marker from 1973 honoring the people who built the towers. How these pieces will fit together at the 9/11 museum poses a significant challenge, said Jan Ramirez, its chief curator.
"We have to find the right balance between that kind of awesome magnitude of this event and the more intimate, individual, personally scaled pieces that can allow individuals to actually associate with someone who was there," she said.
But tours by survivors' groups of Hangar 17 offer an early hint at the power of these relics. One visitor, said Houghton, found peace -- and finally a good night's rest -- in the knowledge that the objects had a safe home.
"If even one person is able to come to a small degree of closure because of our efforts, then it's worth every minute of the five year effort," Houghton said.
A powerful story Right away, visitors see the few remaining Gothic columns -- or tridents -- that for decades brought whimsy to the tower bases, and later served as symbols of destruction. Nearby are beams, some contorted into shapes that speak to the forces of collapse and recovery from Ground Zero.
"This irony is that all of this stuff is lying down, and the World Trade Center was really all about height and enormity. That's one of the sad things, that that these pieces are now horizontal," Houghton said. One possibility for these pieces, suggested Ramirez, is that some may be incorporated into the fabric of a new building at the site, so that, in a way, they will return to what had been their only purpose until Sept. 11, 2001 -- supporting a World Trade Center building.
Most of the artifacts are stored in enclosures, resilient tents designed to protect the objects from the environment, in particular the corrosive power of humidity. A conservationist, Peter Gat, maintains meticulous records of the moisture in the air.
One room speaks to the heroism of the day, and to the brutal fate that awaited many who rushed to the rescue. Many of the cars here belonged to Port Authority police officers, but they also include a medical examiner's truck, a smashed yellow taxi and fire trucks. Pointing to one, Houghton said, "The interesting thing about this one is that there was a cab in front, and the cab is gone."
One of the Port Authority cars belongs to David Lim, of the Port Authority's K-9 unit.
He had rushed to the trade center to join in the rescue, and was caught in the collapse of Tower One. He and the woman he was saving were among the few people who survived the actual collapse of a tower. His dog, Sirius, died in the kennel below Tower Two. Ramirez said one of the fire trucks carried Capt. William Burke Jr., a storied figured in the FDNY who died helping two men, one a paraplegic, escape the North Tower.
"These tell a powerful, powerful, powerful story," Houghton said.
Mementoes and mystery The final structural piece to be removed from Ground Zero, "The Last Column" became a totem to recovery workers in the last weeks of May 2002 as the recovery wound down. Workers signed the 60-ton column, listing the names and numbers of their dead. Photographs of the lost, prayer cards and other objects were affixed to the column, which before 9/11 had stood in obscurity at bedrock below Tower Two. Preserving it required a mix of ingenuity -- using syringes to glue pieces of paint back on -- and long hours.
The goal was to preserve the column in all its complicated imperfection, a task for which experts from around the world were brought in, including Gat, who is at the hangar working on the objects almost every day. Said Houghton: "If this thing had been shaken, a lot of these things would have fallen off."
The authority has also been preserving delicate but hulking objects that resemble meteorites but are respectfully called composites -- one is a mass of three tower floors compressed into three feet.
The striations of the floor plates are evident; tucked inside are the pages of a large book, as are carbonized bits of paper. Words can be made out -- "expenses" is one -- but not enough to discover who those papers belonged to.
Nearby are columns from the parking garage, as well as chunks of its floor still covered in ash. Sculptor Alexander Calder's World Trade Center Stabile survived, but in pieces, recognized because of its chipped red paint, but not before some workers took a saw to parts of it, thinking it was mere twisted metal. Recently, Ramirez said, elements of the crown of the Koenig Sphere turned up, the iconic plaza sculpture that now stands in Battery Park.
Difficult reminders And there is a room full of painful reminders of the trade center the world knew. The facade of the Twin Towers was 2 million square feet of aluminum, shimmering at high noon and glowing at sunset. Today, a battered few hundred feet of the thin cladding remains.
In an indication of how every object at the hangar has multiple stories, Ramirez learned in a tour with a Port Authority cop who had supervised work at the site that some of the aluminum was not necessarily blown off by the collapses. It had also been peeled back from the columns in a careful search for remains.
Nearby is a part of the huge antenna, which once cast signals across the metro area. There are the remains of an elevator cage (each tower had 99 elevators), along with gargantuan plaza signs for 5 World Trade Center and events at the complex.
There is a PATH train turnstile -- hundreds of tickets found inside of it -- and two exit terminals, two PATH train cars, and shopping concourse signs for the Broadway revival of a show -- "Death of a Salesman." One sign urged office workers to "Never Settle."
"On 9/11, [the concourse] was also for a period a safe evacuation route for people. Had people not had the opportunity to cross underneath the plaza and avoid all of the spewing metal, many more people probably would have been killed," Ramirez said.
Inside another room lie some of the more mundane artifacts: A lotto machine, mannequin heads, and souvenirs from a trade center shop, including a magnet of the WTC. This room also contains unexpected items from the era of the towers' construction -- a copy of The New York Times from June 23, 1969, that reports the death of Judy Garland. A construction worker had tucked it into a column, surely thinking it would never see the light of day again. Ancient cans of Pepsi soda and Rheingold beer likewise surfaced.
Flags from the trade center lobbies, each neatly rolled in a tube, were found intact inside a box. Symbols of international cooperation that the trade center represented, they had hung in the lobbies until July 2001, familiar to tourists and office workers alike. In a twist that would save them, new leaseholder Larry Silverstein ordered them taken down as part of initial modifications to the complex, Houghton said. They were stored well underground -- clearly in one of the safest places at the trade center on 9/11.
And there are contents from the Warner Brothers store -- Bugs Bunny and pals still covered with dust but surprisingly little worse for the wear. Houghton said Port Authority officials invited studio workers to examine the relics. They were inspected and notes were taken. But ultimately, Warner Brothers decided that they should stay in New York, where it seemed they belonged.
Nearby lies a sign from that store.
"That's All Folks."