DECATUR – Firefighters, police officers and motorcyclists honored the victims of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by providing an impressive motorcade for a steel I-beam that was salvaged from the wreckage of New York City's World Trade Center.
Starting out from Coziahr Harley-Davidson dealership at 1:15 p.m. Saturday, firefighters from about 20 Central Illinois departments and officers from several police agencies blasted their sirens and flashed their emergency lights as they drove at a steady clip to the Decatur Airport.
Because of the dogged determination of individuals at George A. Mueller Beer Co., the steel beam – one of the last pieces of the Twin Towers available – was donated to the Decatur community to be used as the centerpiece for a mounument, which will likely be on display at Nelson Park.
The beam, which was driven from New York to Decatur on a flatbed trailer, with state police escorts along most of the six-state route, will remain at the airport until the mounument's design is completed.
The journey toward receiving the 13-foot-long, 1,500 pound beam began with a boat ride on Lake Placid, N.Y.
Eric Mueller, owner of the beer distributor, was in the area for a wedding with his wife, Kathy, when they struck up a conversation with another couple. The man said he was a former New York firefighter, who took early retirement due to health problems resulting from working at Ground Zero, following the collapse of the towers.
Mueller was wondering what happened to all the steel from those tremendous piles. The former firefighter said some was sent to China, where it was melted down. A lot of it was dropped in the ocean. Officials did not want it to be used for commercial purposes.
The commercial airliner suicide attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, took the lives of 343 firefighters and 60 law enforcement officers in New York City, the greatest tragedy in the nation's history for first responders.
When Mueller returned to Decatur, he discussed with Lauren Axe, the company's controller, the possibility of obtaining steel from the fallen buildings.
After discovering that the New York Port Authority controlled the materials, she obtained a spot on a list to possibly receive a piece of history.
“There were just 30 pieces left,” she said. “We were 150th on the list.”
Despite those long odds, Axe was not discouraged. She submitted a plan, specifying that the Decatur monument would resemble the Twin Towers.
She received letters of support from political and community leaders, including the late Mayor Mike McElroy, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, state Sen. Chapin Rose, former City Manager Ryan McCrady, Decatur fire and police departments and Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider.
“I just kept calling. About every week, we sent a letter of support in,” Axe said. “Finally, Aug. 7 we got an email saying we had an opportunity to accept a beam.”
Her husband, John, who picked up the beam at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday morning, said the beam had a tag on it marking it for the National September 11 Museum.
“They decided to give it to us,” said John Axe, after speaking to a crowd gathered at the airport about his journey from the East Coast.
He said he drove on interstates and back roads. When he stopped in some towns, people asked him to stay awhile, so other people could see the beam.
“In Attica, Ind., there were 400 people waiting for us, wanting to see it,” John Axe said.
Bob Brilley II, vice president of the Decatur Park District Board, said the tentative plan is to display the monument on the lakefront, in the vicinity of the Beach House restaurant.
“Our park district will be involved in it,” Brilley said. “We're really proud to have it.”
A total of $55,000 is needed to construct the memorial and create a maintenance fund, Lauren Axe said. All donations for the memorial will be held by the 911 Memorial Community Foundation and are tax-deductible. To contribute, go online to www.endowdecatur.org.