ON THE ROAD WITH ARTIFACT H-0035A — Back home, where Rick Sluder is the police chief of a village of 3,000 surrounded by corn and soybean fields, traffic wouldn't be an issue. But this morning, at the helm of a rented 15-passenger van mired in a New York City traffic jam thicker than the summer heat, he's way out of his jurisdiction.
Inching up a ramp that dumps into the Cross Bronx Expressway, Sluder's eyes dart between the road and the rearview mirror, tracking a red Ford F-250 pickup that trails close behind, towing precious cargo. It takes a special mission for men to leave families, jobs and the familiarity of northwest Ohio and drive 1,200 miles. But now, after nearly two years of waiting, the big city has entrusted Sluder and his band of small-town firefighters with just what they came for:
A piece of its heart. A piece of the World Trade Center.
So far, though, the newly claimed treasure — a rusting 3,600-pound I-beam, shrouded in an American flag — isn't winning them any favors from drivers jockeying for position. Unlike some other convoys pulling away from John F. Kennedy International Airport with trade center steel in tow, there are no motorcycle escorts to usher them home, no fire engines or police cruisers to clear a path out to the suburbs.
Back home in Wauseon, friends and co-workers are well aware the group is on its way. Here, though, drivers in surrounding cars and trucks don't even seem to notice the I-beam trailing Dave Murry's truck.
Construction chokes traffic to a single lane as the mini-convoy edges past an unshaven and grim-faced panhandler standing on the shoulder. He sizes up the trailer and its cargo, before his eyes meet Murry's. Then he raises his hand and silently traces the sign of the cross — forehead to chest, shoulder to shoulder.
Moments later, the traffic dam breaks.
The Wauseon procession picks up speed as it reaches the George Washington Bridge and crosses the Hudson River. With the Manhattan skyline receding fast, Sluder points the van due west onto the highway that will take the I-beam — catalogued and tagged as artifact H-0035A — to its final resting place.
"80 West — almost seems like home now!" Sluder says, smiling for the first time in more than 20 miles. "It goes right through our town."
In the weeks after the World Trade Center toppled, caretakers picked their way across the still-smoking ruins, carting hundreds of steel beams and other artifacts to Hangar 17, with its 50-foot ceiling built to garage airplanes. Eight years later, when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey offered to give the steel to groups for use in their own memorials, officials weren't sure how many would apply or what to expect.
Clearly, the attacks had touched many communities in the greater New York area. But then applications arrived from the Central Crossing Fire Protection District in Shell Knob, Mo. and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, China, from groups in Guymon, Okla., and Giddings, Texas, and Galliate, Italy.
All told, more than 1,500 requests came in. By this coming September — the 10th anniversary of the calamity — the Port Authority plans to dispatch more than 1,100 artifacts to fire and police departments, schools and churches, museums and military bases in every state and seven countries beyond.
The size and scope of the plans for the steel is at least as varied as the geography of the requests. Each applicant was asked to specify roughly how large a piece they wanted. The largest piece granted so far is a steel beam 43 feet long; the smallest spans just 6 inches.
Large and small, near and far, the applicants shared a reverence for the events of 9/11 — and a feeling that, however distant they might have been from the scene, the tragedy of that day happened to them, too.
On Sept. 11, "it was around 7:15 in the morning here and all our guys were just getting up to go on shift," says Brent Hunter, assistant chief for the Shoshone-Paiute Fire Department, which protects residents of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in the high desert straddling the Nevada-Idaho state line.
"After the second plane hit, there was no doubt in my mind that we were under attack. There was anger, sadness, and a feeling that you want to do something, but you couldn't do anything. ... I guess 'helpless' would be the word for it."
Every September since, the Shoshone-Paiute department has hosted a memorial ceremony in front of the flagpole outside its station, inviting local police and ambulance workers to say a few words about the sacrifice made by their counterparts in New York. This year, a piece of steel from the World Trade Center will join the tribute.
"We're kind of a ranching community so you know the risk of a terrorist incident is really, really low," Hunter says. "But, you know, brother firefighters, they went down. That's what links us all together. We're all here to serve the public and to keep them out of danger."
It's 600 miles back to Wauseon, but the convoy is making up for lost time, bee-lining across New Jersey.
Inside the van packed tight with firefighters and luggage, Chris Nelson opens a computer across his lap and sends his father — also a Wauseon firefighter — a file containing 303 pictures from New York to relay to local newspapers and the chamber of commerce. Sluder hands his cell phone back to firefighter Rich Browne to chat with WNDH, a small radio station in Napoleon, Ohio, which is broadcasting live reports on the beam's progress.
In the cab of the pickup just behind, Dave Murry trades thumbs-up signs with other drivers who recognize the provenance of the beam strapped to his trailer.
Murry isn't a firefighter. He's here because a few months ago, Sluder's group asked if he could loan them a truck.
"I looked at them and said, 'Fellas do you know what you're in for? Have you ever driven in New York traffic?'" says Murry, superintendent of public works for Wauseon.
Actually, Murry hadn't seen New York traffic, either. But in his spare time, he picks up work driving a semi-trailer, including runs through Chicago. Before he knew it, he was at the wheel at Kennedy, waiting to take guardianship of trade center steel.
This morning the group from Ohio was second in line, just behind firefighters from St. James, N.Y., who arrived at Hangar 17 with photos of fallen comrade Capt. Douglas Oelschlager tucked inside their caps. Oelschlager, a father of two, volunteer in St. James and full-time firefighter in New York, was killed when his ladder company rushed to the trade center. The frontispiece from his helmet was salvaged from the wreckage. His body was never found.
The immense steel cross entrusted to his hometown department "gets us a little closer to Doug and to all the family and friends we lost that day," Chief Liam Carroll says.
But most of the groups receiving steel are more like the firefighters from Wauseon, with no direct link to the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the farming community of a little more than 7,000 people, "a high-rise building to us is anything bigger than three stories," Sluder says.
Most of those who answer Wauseon's 130 or so fire calls each year (and close to another thousand emergency calls of other sorts) do it as a sideline. Sluder's full-time job is policing neighboring Delta. Chris Nelson put his one-man landscaping business on hold to come to New York. Phil Kessler has taken a few days off from his job as an emergency room nurse. As soon as Rich Guise gets back, he leaves on another trip for his job as an auto parts engineer.
Still, the Wauseon department has battled some serious blazes, including a 2007 fire that destroyed most of a block in its red-brick downtown. But it has never lost a member in the line of duty. For months, its members have been preoccupied with the trade center project.
"None of us could sleep before we got out here. The excitement was just too much. I mean, we left at 3 o'clock in the morning," says Rich Browne, a firefighter from nearby Perrysburg and the only one in the group who had ever been to New York. "Just the anticipation and everything that goes along with it. And as we got closer, I think everybody realized what we were doing."
Now, they can't wait to get back. But just before leaving New Jersey, the group makes a quick stop at a McDonald's off Exit 3. When they return to the parking lot, Cheryl Berry, a mother of four from Ashland, Pa., pulls her Jeep Cherokee alongside. She asks whether the column might be from the World Trade Center and if she can take a picture of it together with the men who are its guardians.
The request catches Sluder and the others by surprise — they hadn't expected anyone to be interested in them.
"I wish my kids were here," Berry says. Looking at the steel, she thinks back to when her son was born, four months after 9/11, and all the doubts she felt then about bringing a baby into the world.
"My kids, at school they hear about history, about the Revolutionary War. This is something that they're actually part of," she says. "It'd be nice to see every museum have a small piece of it, for generations honestly, because it touched everybody."
It's a little past 12:30 and time to get back on the road. One of the Wauseon firefighters, Rich Guise, passes his MP3 player forward and the van fills with the thump of "Fire," by the Ohio Players. There's still six hours of Pennsylvania to cross and firefighters in Medina Township, Ohio are expecting them tonight.
Sluder makes good time before pulling off for gas at Exit 173. At the pumps, a civil engineer named Rich Vannucci walks over to ask about their cargo. Seeing H-0035A rekindles his admiration for the World Trade Center's design — and recalls the way he felt watching it come down.
"This is such a small piece of it and look how big it is. You can't even get your arms around it," marvels Vannucci, from Glenshaw, Pa., walking slowly around the trailer. "It reminds you of the aura of that day — and that we really need to stick together."
In a small, but significant way, the steel column, which the firefighters have been told likely came from the trade center's north tower, is already doing just that. When Sluder applied for the steel, he envisioned a small memorial just for Wauseon, in front of the station house. But after the Port Authority granted his request this winter, he started to reconsider.
Each February, more than 200 first-responders and local officials meet for the annual Fulton County Fireman's Association dinner, a rare coming together of small-town departments that mostly go their own way. The program is set well in advance, but shortly before the dinner, Sluder asked organizers for a few minutes at the lectern.
"This year, Sept. 11 falls on a Sunday," he told the group that filled the Founder's Hall. "It will probably be another beautiful fall day. Most of us will have just finished up another busy week at the fair ... and the Buckeyes will be well on their way to another 14-0 season. This will be the 10th anniversary of a horrific attack on this country and, most importantly, on our innocent civilians. Will you forget? Or will you take time to remember?"
Then Sluder told them about H-0035A — and a decision that the honor should not be his town's alone.
"We invite each and every one of you ... to take ownership in this project," Sluder said, "and show our fellow citizens that we realize that 9/11 happened to all of us and we will never forget them."
That night, Sluder's speech brought police officers, emergency medical technicians and firefighters to their feet. When the Wauseon men return to Fulton County with the column, their brethren promise to be waiting. But now, crossing from Pennsylvania back into Ohio, Sluder and the others aren't sure what to expect.
In Medina Township for the night, they pull the trailer into a corner of the lot at Buffalo Wild Wings. This is Browne's hometown and his father, mother and other family members have come to welcome the group and see the steel beam. But for the better part of two hours, diners and waitresses also circle out to admire H-0035A.
A woman Browne has never met stops by with two boys in baseball uniforms. "That's a piece of history," she tells the boys.
"Put your hands on it," says Browne. "People just want to touch it."
The boys do just that as their mother explains the artifact's origin and recalls the 343 firefighters who lost their lives when the trade center fell. Then, just before they head for the car, she turns to Browne.
"Thank you so much. Thank you for everything you do," she says. For a moment, Browne is rendered speechless.
"Thank you," he finally responds. "Today was a special day."
H-0035A departs Medina Township Fire Station No. 2 the next morning in a parade of 15 fire engines, police cars and ambulances, their lights flashing.
It's a reminder of the brotherhood that firefighters from cities big and small talk about, a kinship the Wauseon men say sharpened in the wake of Sept. 11.
Sluder and the others recall that sitting in the station house in 2001, watching television footage from ground zero, the thing that jumped out at them was the continuous beeping that came from the wreckage. The Wauseon men knew that sound well from their own training — the alarm from the Personal Alert Safety Systems built in to the air tanks all firefighters carry on their backs.
"You hear that noise, you know you've got firemen in trouble," Sluder says.
Listening to those alarms back in Wauseon and knowing lower Manhattan was 600 miles away, the firefighters felt an overpowering urge to climb in their trucks and rush to the scene, a longing to do something, anything, for their fallen brethren. A decade later — with a 12½ foot beam strapped to the back of their trailer — they've finally got their chance.
Inside a truck dispatched from Wauseon's sister village of Lyons, Dawn Hamer texts friend Colby Bradley, an Army specialist stationed in Afghanistan, and attaches a photo of the I-beam. When Bradley first heard Wauseon was getting a piece of the trade center, he asked if they'd send him the flag draped across it so he could take it on patrol. Hamer tells him the flag will soon be on its way.
"I don't know if I can carry it," Bradley texts back from the other side of the globe. "I'll cry the whole time."
Today, Sluder has charted a course through small cities and towns whose fire and police departments have been told to expect them. Passing the Root Candles factory in Medina, a woman in a doorway presses her hands together in silent prayer and bows her head. Outside Litchfield, an Amish man in a buggy pulls off to the side of the road and turns to wave.
Most of the vehicles in the procession peel away as the miles pass. But it regains strength and broadens to two lanes before crossing the Maumee River into Toledo. Police officers keep traffic at bay as the truck carrying the I-beam turns down Huron Street, where Chris Nelson brings it to a stop below an American flag draped from a pair of ladder trucks. A man steps forward to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
After the ceremony, bystanders approach the trailer timidly. Cathy White, a retired waitress in a gray Snoopy T-shirt, steps forward. At first, she says, the artifact got her thinking about all the people who gave their lives on Sept. 11. But it also unearthed much older memories — of the two friends she lost in Vietnam.
"To look at this you really want to stop and almost pray," White says. She reaches down and strokes the orange-brown metal.
After two days on the road, it's time for the final leg of the journey. The Law Dogs, a leather-clad motorcycle contingent made up largely of off-duty police officers, leads the procession out of Toledo, through suburban Perrysburg and on to Maumee. Along the curb, the flag wavers and picture snappers begin to resemble a crowd.
"There it is!" they shout at the I-beam.
Piloting the F-250, Nelson — a soft-spoken, third-generation firefighter — props his camera atop the steering wheel to take pictures of the passing faces. "I definitely have to say this is one of the greatest honors I've ever experienced," he says.
But H-0035A isn't home yet.
A three-wheeled motorcycle pulls into the procession, its driver wearing black jeans and a shirt covered in Harley Davidsons and American flags: Wauseon Mayor Jerry Dehnbostel, come to pay his respects.
Crossing the line back into Fulton County, people pour off the curb in the village of Swanton. Others wave flags from lawn chairs set up along the road. The procession regroups in the parking lot of American Legion Post 179 and when it re-enters the road, it stretches nearly a half mile.
A LifeFlight helicopter chops the air overhead as the procession parts the fields of corn and soybeans, the table-flat landscape interrupted only by silver-roofed barns.
Then, at long last, H-0035A turns down Shoop Avenue and enters Wauseon.
"Oh boy!" Nelson says, his breath catching in his chest.
"We Will Never Forget! USA Heroes! Thank You," crows the sign in front of Zeller's Garden Center. Down Shoop and up Fulton, crowds cheer. Police Chief Keith Corbet, holding back traffic, salutes the I-beam and its keepers as they pass by.
When the procession passes under the arch created by crossed ladder trucks and reaches Dorothy Biddle Park, a crowd presses forward and Dehnbostel climbs atop a stage.
"This nondescript piece of steel ... represents every man, woman and child that wants to stand up from the rooftops and shout, 'I'm proud to be an American!'" he says.
Over the next hour, speeches and songs ring across the grass, proclaiming this as a singular moment in a town's history.
Then, as the sun drops over the ball fields, the crowd ebbs away and Wauseon appears just as it was before — big enough for a Walmart Supercenter, small enough that you can see two barns from the parking lot.
By the following morning, New York might as well be Brigadoon. The I-beam is gone, hauled off to the Northwest Ohio Volunteer Fireman's Association annual convention. The signs welcoming it that were posted in front of the bank and the garden center and the Dairy Queen have all been taken down.
But already, three people have come by the stationhouse asking firefighter Phil Kessler to let them touch H-0035A. And when another man finds Dave Murry at the county fairgrounds — where the firefighters plan to build a memorial plaza with the beam as its centerpiece — he explains how he's driven all the way from central Michigan to see it.
"Thank you!" the visitors keep saying.
For what, Kessler asks, shaking his head. "I didn't really think I did anything special." Then he stops to reconsider.
It's taken the men from the station on Clinton Street nearly 10 years to reach ground zero — far too late to change history, but just in time to honor it.
Adam Geller is a New York-based national writer for The Associated Press. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.
© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.