- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Scorched, twisted and revered: Salvaged steel beams from the World Trade Center have become patriotic symbols, religious icons and the stuff of legend. For months, they have moved across America in slow-moving convoys, with solemn destinies.

To date, New York City officials have meted out tons of the rescued steel to more than 100 groups around the country for memorials: In the future, it will become a new church bell tower in New Mexico, a meditation site at a Tennessee high school and a remembrance statue at Manhattan's Port Authority.

Some of the most significant pieces also went to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), including a rumpled portion directly hit by the aircraft that crashed into the North Tower on September 11. It is now a pivotal part of the agency's two-year, $16 million investigation into the collapse of the trade center begun a week ago.

"It is very sobering to be around this steel. It has a story to tell, and every piece of it is worth a thousand words," NIST spokesman Michael Newman said yesterday.

"And while the steel is truly the key to vital information, we are very sensitive about its significance to the families of those who died last year," Mr. Newman said. "This is not like the Olympic torch, or some nameless artifacts. We will never parade this steel around or put it on display."

But they will be methodical. The 100 mangled, seared pieces of perimeter columns, connectors, wide-flanged beams and floor trusses are already being cataloged and identified at NIST laboratories in Maryland and Colorado.

"Lessons learned from this investigation and the companion research and development program are critical to understanding what core reforms are needed to make tall buildings safer," said NIST Director Arden Bement.

The agency plans to bring in "world class" civil and structural engineers, fire-protection analysts, and construction specialists to weigh in on the intricate patterns of destruction: burn marks, metallurgical properties, welds that held and those that didn't.

It will be a disciplined foray into the last details of the towers' collapse, plus endless scenarios: Did fireproofing fail? Would more people have survived if exit stairways had been reinforced?

NIST will take off where a preliminary study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Society of Civil Engineers left off in May.

"We realize that this work will eventually make buildings safer," said NIST spokesman Mr. Newman. "And for the surviving families, this is part of their legacy, too."

Not all the surviving steel is destined for memorials or the laboratory, however.

The city of New York opted to sell at least 60,000 tons of the trade towers' metal skeleton to a pair of New Jersey scrap yards in January, to be later processed in Southeast Asia.

One survivor's group called it "a disgrace to the memory of the nearly 3,000 people killed," while others criticized the fact that city profits would be modest. The steel would fetch about $100 a ton in the quick turnaround of the recycling marketplace.

"I'm sure that World Trade Center steel is already in products, and nobody knows the difference," Bill Heenan, president of the Steel Recycling Institute in Pittsburgh, told the New York News earlier this year.

Sentiments remain strong elsewhere, however, among the scores of volunteers who hope to ensure a new destiny for the steel.

"It's almost like you're in a funeral procession," noted California trucker Frank Madeiros, who brought a single, 25-foot I-beam to Sacramento for a future memorial in July. "These beams represent thousands of lives."

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