The steel beam of remembranceDec 30, 2020 02:46PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
As the early morning sun often does in lower Manhattan, it illuminates the sprouting buildings that arch halfway to the sky and turns them practically into glow sticks.
As the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 began to come into view, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center shone like a tremendous tuning fork, and the crystal blue sky offered the promise of a spectacular early fall day in New York City, the kind of day that is earmarked on a yearly calendar or jotted into a notebook for memory.
At 8:45 a.m., a massive steel beam about thirty feet long was fastened between the 92nd and 95th floors of the North Tower. It formed a very small part of a colossal intricacy of steel that had provided the building with strength and structure since it first opened in 1971. At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11, a domestic passenger flight that was hijacked by five al-Qaeda members, deliberately crashed into the North Tower between floors 93 and 99 at 466 miles per hour, killing all 92 passengers aboard, and an unknown number who were working in the building at the time. (At 9:02 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower between floors 77 and 85, killing all 65 aboard the plane. The building collapsed at 9:59 a.m.)
In the North Tower, the beam throttled loose upon impact, and at 10:28 a.m., as word of the attacks ricocheted across the globe, it joined every single piece of steel and every girder that had held the North Tower standing, and crashed to the ground.
The beam was buried under the rubble of what became the deadliest day on American soil since the Civil War, the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history, and the single deadliest incident for firefighters and law enforcement officers in the history of the United States, killing 2,977 people.
The beam was recovered and warehoused by the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, and in 2011, it became the property of the Freedom Flag Foundation, a non-profit organization formed to support educational efforts of teaching future generations about the tragic events and many lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
How a small portion of the beam arrived at Louis Redding Middle School in Middletown – and how it served to help seventh-grade social studies teacher Katie Wright introduce the 9/11 tragedy to her students this past fall – began with a connection, and ended as a lesson that was created by perspectives.
“Michelle Wall is one of our school board members, and she and her husband Jason are friends with John Riley, the Foundation's director,” Wright said recently. “Michelle contacted me and said, 'The Foundation is looking for a 7th-grade social school teacher to provide an historical backdrop to 9/11.'
“I told her, 'Sure. Let's do it.'” Wright became one of only a handful of teachers in America to obtain an artifact from the Freedom Flag Foundation, and the first teacher in Delaware to do so.
With the steel beam serving as a backdrop, Wright approached the four-day lesson not from the standpoint of an historical perspective, but from an emotional one. She called upon the school community to share their personal memories of the event, and several contributed recorded videos that provided the students with a compiled monologue of personal stories.
“I was fearful that if we dug into the motivations for these attacks, that the students would associate Islamic religions and Muslims with hate,” Wright said. “From the start, I knew that the point of these lessons was to reflect the mission of the Freedom Flag Foundation, which is to try and celebrate those who were lost and those who have survived.
“I also wanted to bring out what we all witnessed was the best part of who people are.”
Wright shared her story, as well; early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Wright was a high school junior in Seattle, who had arrived at the school for cheerleading practice at 5:45 a.m. Pacific Standard Time –a three-hour time difference.
“Someone said that the World Trade Center had just been hit, and we knew nothing about where that was at the time,” she said. Upon hearing of the news, Wright's parents had tried to contact her brother Kasey at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., but would not be able to reach him for the next few days.
“Everything was delayed because of the time difference, and everything happened far before people in Seattle were even awake, so when they woke up, they woke up to this,” Wright said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, John Riley was sitting at his work desk near Richmond, Va. when he learned that a plane had attacked the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The last time he had seen his friend Doug Ketcham was at Riley’s wedding in April of 2001– Ketcham served as one of Riley’s groomsmen. Riley knew that Ketcham had recently taken a job at Cantor Fitzgerald, whose offices were located on the 102ndfloor of the North Tower.
Eventually, Riley learned about the terrible fate of his friend, as well as one other fact: from the 102nd floor of the North Tower, Ketcham had made one final call from under his desk, as his floor filled with smoke. It was to his mother.
“He called his mother and told her that he loved her and that he had to go,” said Riley, an engineer in Midlothian, Va. “Doug’s passing left a big hole in my life and in the life of my friends.”
Riley’s desire to remember his friend and the victims of 9/11 – as well as to educate current and future generations of students about the events of 9/11 -- led him to join the Freedom Flag Foundation in 2008, and he is now its president.
At the center of his commitment, there is the powerful symbolism of a flag – the Freedom Flag.
“Fast forward 18 years, and my role in the Foundation remains in large part to my connection with Doug, but it has evolved into something much larger,” he said. “It has been to fulfill a desire to make the Freedom Flag the National Symbol of Remembrance for 9/11.”
With the passing of Va. Code, Section 1-510, the Freedom Flag is now flown annually at the Virginia State House and at hundreds of K-12 schools across the state. There is little irony that Virginia is the only state in the nation who has adopted the Freedom Flag as the official Flag of Remembrance for 9/11; Arlington County is the home of the Pentagon, which was also attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
In March 2014, the Foundation began a partnership with Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia to use the Freedom Flag as a teaching tool in 7th grade social studies classes. A special pilot project was created at Tuckahoe Middle School using a collection of 9/11 items (including a Freedom Flag and a small piece of WTC steel) stored in a mobile “travel trunk.”
The success of the pilot project resulted in its expansion to other middle schools in the district, and it is now taught in a dozen schools in Virginia, and three other schools in the nation, including Louis L. Redding Middle School.
“I sent Michelle Wall a text late August last year, and asked her, ‘Do you happen to know a dynamic teacher in your school district who would be able to teach students about 9/11 if we put a WTC Steel artifact and Freedom Flags in their hands?’” Riley said. “Michelle responded, “I know exactly the right person.’”
For Wright, teaching about Sept. 11 was the hardest lesson she has ever had to create, she said.
“Often times when I plan classes, it’s about history that I have no emotional connection to at all,” she said. “Many times, the events that I teach the students about happened 200 years ago, whereas this was a day in my life. For me, it was challenging for me to come up with something that could be meaningful to them and have an impact on them.
“These students were born in 2007, so they have never known a world without 9/11, but for those born years before, we can tell each other what we were doing at the exact moment we found out what was happening.”
The impact of Wright’s plans were immediate and lasting.
“I knew all about the planes crashing into the towers, and I thought that it was so awful that someone could do that,” said Peyton Brockell, a student in Wright's class. “I was surprised as to how that happened. I’m definitely interested in learning more about 9/11 because I liked the way we learned it.”
“The class allowed me to learn about the fact that there were multiple planes set up to go to different destinations, and it was shocking to me that someone would go to such great lengths just to cause chaos and violence,” said student Darryl Turner. “As for the artifact, I was surprised that we were able to obtain an actual piece of the North Tower.”
The beam is now showcased in a display case at the Louis Redding Middle School, and each day, hundreds of students walk by it, and some stop to read about its history and its placement in the North Tower, and how it arrived at their school. It will remain at the school for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, and then be returned to the Foundation. For Turner, the introduction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001 also introduced him to what many still recall as the lone shining moment to a tragedy that killed nearly 3,000 people.
“I was inspired by how such a tragedy also brought people together to do something for the greater good, and come together for each other,” he said. “I also want to know if there is anything out there that could prevent something like this from ever happening again.”
To learn more about the Freedom Flag Foundation, visit www.freedomflagfoundation.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].
About the Freedom Flag
On the evening of Sept. 20, 2001, Richard Melito sat in his restaurant in Richmond, Va. and sketched a symbol commemorating the events which occurred nine days earlier. His intention was to create a symbol for display on the wall within his establishment that would always remind his patrons of the tragedy and triumph of September 11, 2001.
Sixteen months later, the Freedom Flag became a part of Virginia history when it was designated the state’s official symbol of remembrance honoring the victims and heroes of 9/11 by then Gov. Mark Warner. In 2018, the Freedom Flag was added to the Code of Virginia (§1-510) as the Commonwealth’s official Flag of Remembrance for September 11, 2001. It is believed to be the only state-codified symbol of remembrance for 9/11 in the United States.