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Beam of remembrance

Marshall man instrumental in bringing piece of World Trade Center steel to community for 9/11 memorial

A few years have passed since the western Minnesota prairie college town of Marshall unveiled its 9/11 Memorial Park.

And since its dedication in 2011, thousands have come to visit, photograph, quietly meditate and respectfully touch the centerpiece of the memorial, a rusted but still silently strong 10-foot, 600-pound World Trade Center beam of steel that once was part of the twin skyscrapers which were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of 2001.

And that pleases Craig Schafer who helped lead the inspired community effort to get the project built following a journey from Marshall to New York City not long after the 9/11 tragedy.

Schafer, a native of Hector, has worked as an emergency response specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency since 1992. He traveled to Ground Zero not long after the 9/11 disaster to learn more about debris removal and to gain knowledge which could be applied to his work in Minnesota.

His task was to see if the state of Minnesota was prepared as the lead agency in the event of a similar attack on potential targets in the state, such as the Mall of America, IDS Tower or various sports venues. He’s worked on local natural disasters, such as the Minnesota River Flood of 1997 and the 1998 tornado at Comfrey.

“We went there in December 2001, and an escort took us to the site in Manhatten, where we looked at debris loading and transfer operations,” explained Schafer. Then he returned to New York City six months later after the PCA felt the first trip fell short of what they wanted to learn.

“We met with the New York Port Authority, New York Department of Sanitation, New York police and fire departments and the FBI to gather more information,” Schafer recalled. “We went into the hole at Ground Zero and to Staten Island, where the debris pile was being stacked in a landfill to be screened for evidence of human remains,” he added.

And that’s where his debris removal fact-finding mission for the state unexpectedly turned into something more when he was told that some of the World Trade Center beams were available as artifacts for future memorial requests.

He was told by officials that he could bring a beam home if he’d like, and Schafer wasn’t going to miss the potential opportunity to build a memorial in Marshall. After consulting with city officials in Marshall and getting their support to bring a piece of steel back to Minnesota, he wrote an official request to obtain a piece of steel, which was granted by officials back in New York.

With a borrowed pickup and flatbed trailer, Schafer traveled back to New York City with a PCA colleague after Labor Day 2002 to get a 10-foot, 600-pound vertical box column beam that he picked out. “The piece kind of spoke to me; it seemed right for the project I had sketched out in my mind,” he recalled.

After the steel beam was loaded on the trailer for the 1,300-mile trek to Minnesota, Schafer made a symbolic detour along the way when he stopped at the Flight 92 crash site in Shanksville, Pa.

Once back in Marshall, the beam was appropriately stored at the fire department for several years while plans and funding for the project began to take shape for the memorial park site.

The city provided half of the funding for the $400,000 total project cost, with other contributions coming from businesses, corporations and other civic-minded organizations and individuals.

After a site was chosen, at the corner of Highways 19 and 59 near downtown Marshall, an old gas station was removed, the property cleaned up and an architect’s design approved. Ironically, the groundbreaking for Marshall’s memorial started in May of 2010, just days after 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was killed. Construction crews worked at a fast pace throughout the summer to get the memorial completed in time for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

The WTC beam became the centerpiece of the inspirational 9/11 memorial that is situated close to the banks of the Redwood River that winds through town. “We wanted a design that would be long lasting for generations to see, touch and reflect on what happened that day. It is our generation’s Pearl Harbor,” Schafer explained.

He added, “We don’t know for sure what part of the twin towers that our beam comes from but that doesn’t matter as it honors the 3,000 souls who died on that day.”

Schafer said that among those playing key roles in getting the memorial built included Marshall Fire Chief Marc Klaith, Community Services Director Harry Weilage, city government officials and Mayor Bob Brynes. “There were a lot of emotionally invested people who worked hard behind the scenes to get this done. It was a community effort.”

The memorial was designed by landscape architect Gene F. Ernst, who used durable materials that are native to the region and would stand the test of time. The bent, scarred, rust-colored beam stands in its natural state at the center of a circular plaza and tilts slightly toward New York City.

Other features of the memorial include 3,000 paver stones with colored stars that represent each person that lost a life on Sept. 11. There are 343 red stars for firefighters, 61 blue stars for police and medical personnel and 2,596 black stars for civilians who died.

Carved limestone walls provide seating for visitors while various landscaping plants, bushes and flowers are also included in the design. Another highlight donated by a local family has a life-size firefighter sculpture that stands nearby looking at the steel beam.

A “bleeding jasper” stone from the Iron Range symbolizes the charred and burnt debris and steel that remained after the fires were extinguished and the smoke had settled. The red vein in the black stone represents the blood that was shed that day.

Ten large spiraling limestone blocks plus the firefighter statue makes a total of 11 elements to represent the 11th day of September. Four apples are stamped on the pedestal holding the beam to acknowledge New York City. Visitors can enter the park from downtown on a walking bridge over the Redwood River.

The memorial is visually strong at night, too, when the beam is illuminated by a 1,000-watt bulb that shines an upward steady ray of light. Nearby is a plaque telling Ernst’s vision and his desire to “help tell the story of the day.”

The day-long dedication of the memorial held on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks included a candlelight vigil and fireworks. Since then, visitors to the well-designed memorial are estimated to be in the thousands per year.

“People from all parts of the country have stopped to see it, to touch a crumpled piece of steel and reflect on the sacrifices and lives lost,” said Schafer. “Rarely does a day go past that someone doesn’t stop to look and pay their respects.”

The memorial is not the only one built from the ruins of the World Trade Center. In Minnesota, tower remains can be found in memorials at six fire halls, one police department and at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Nearly 2,000 pieces of steel ranging in length from 6 inches to 43 feet, have been shipped to 1,400 organizations across all 50 states and seven foreign countries.

“This park has an energy of being alive,” said Schafer, who lives only six blocks away from the memorial. “It’s a tribute to the resilience of humanity in that we may have been bent when the attack occurred but our spirit was not broken. This resembles our ability to recover and move forward,” Schafer stated.

The charred beam also has an additional meaning for Schafer. “Amid all of the destruction that day, it’s now a beam of life – there’s a presence here, sort of hallowed ground that you can definitely feel when you visit the park.”

Marshall didn’t lose anybody in 9/11 but a lot of area men and women served in military service because of it, including Schafer’s own son who went to Iraq.

“So we’re connected in some way to the 9/11, event, and hopefully, this memorial can help in the healing process,” Schafer stated.

“I think we hit a home run with this memorial, and everyone who worked on it and touched that beam decided it was their job to make it a reality and all worthwhile.”

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