Well before the sun rises, while most of Princeton is still asleep, firefighter Roy James drives to Mercer Engine Company No. 3 to meet up with a group of firefighters and motorcyclists.
He packs his supplies into a black pick-up truck with and empty flatbed trailer attached to the back, and then it’s time for the journey he has prepared for over the last five weeks to begin.
By 5 a.m. on this Saturday morning, right on schedule, the small caravan leaves the firehouse on Witherspoon Street and rides out of town, headed for New York. Several highways and two bridges later, the men arrive at an old firehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where New York City firefighters await them, standing vigil over a battered steel beam.
The beam measures about 10 feet long and weighs more than 2,000 pounds. It is rusted, with bent ends, and the inside is filled with ash, dirt and rocks. In some places, the beam is splotched with materials that melted on to it that September day more than ten years ago.
For almost a year, James, deputy chief of the Princeton Fire Department, has been trying to get a hold of a piece of that steel. He plans to use it as a centerpiece for a Princeton memorial to the victims of Sept. 11. He envisions it as a place where victims’ families can find solace and children can learn about the past., he says, “A place where the steel will be used to heal and teach others.”
The search for a piece of World Trade Center steel has been elusive at times, with arrangements for at least one piece falling through. Some firefighters admit they were doubters when they first heard about the plans, but James is not one to give up.
“If there’s one thing about Roy James, he’s certainly persistent,” says Assistant Princeton Fire Chief William Mooney. “He’s made this whole thing happen through sheer will power.”
Most pieces of steel from the World Trade Center have been claimed by other public agencies across the country, but after countless phone calls and helps from a few groups, James was finally offered one in February. He immediately began making arrangements for a fitting way to bring it to Princeton, and with the help of friends from the fire department, the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, and other organizations, he developed an intricate plan and set it in motion.
Now after months of searching and negotiating, Princeton’s piece of steel is just about ready for its trip home on this cloudy Saturday morning,
James and some of the other men at the Brooklyn firehouse load the ton-plus beam on to the flatbed truck using rollers. Once the steel is secured with ropes, they swaddle it in an American flag.
Meanwhile, the firehouse on Witherspoon Street has been a hub of activity. Just before 6:30 a.m., the parking lot is a sea of leather, jeans and chrome as bikers from a motorcycle club for firefighters called the Red Knights coast up to the building.
The group heads up to Brooklyn in a procession that includes polished red fire trucks, rescue squad vehicles, and police cars. Along the way they are joined by other Red Knight members from all over New Jersey and members of other bike clubs who will make the 79-mile Brooklyn to Princeton “run”, a motorcycle term for a charity ride.
All and all, more than 200 motorcyclists meet up at the firehouse in Red Hook. While they wait for the trip to Princeton to start, they visit the flatbed truck. Some linger near the steel, reaching over to touch it as they close their eyes. Others stand behind the beam and pose for group photos. Most of them, the men in uniforms, the tough guys in leather jackets, have tears in their eyes. A few openly sob.
The symbolism of the steel comes in to even sharper focus as they talk with their fellow firefighters from New York City.
“That steel means everything to them,” Mooney says as he explains that the little antique red engine parked in front of the firehouse is called Engine Co. 343, in honor of the 343 FDNY firefighters who lost their lives on September 11. Some of the men at the firehouse lost dozens of friends and colleagues beneath the rubble that day. The truck is etched with the names of all 343.
The little red truck is given a place of honor in the line of motorcycles, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles that forms in front of the firehouse. Then James gives the command, everyone waves goodbye to the group gathered in Red Hook, and the procession, stretching about 1.5 miles, snakes its way down a few streets and on to the highway.
At almost every turn and overpass, a group of New York firefighters is waiting to salute as the steel passes by. In New Jersey the scene is the same, with many fire companies flying large American flags. Cars pull over and drivers take pictures. Families with children line the streets, waving and clapping. A state helicopter hoovers overhead, escorting the procession all the way to Princeton.
Finally the group reaches Princeton and the ceremony at town hall starts. A bagpipe is played, the national anthem is sung, and then it’s on to the speeches.
“This piece of steel is a symbol of hope, survival, memories, and most of all sacrifice,” says James as he recounts the events of September 11. “Today, once again, we are here together, united, and ready to make this piece of steel a part of our lives in Princeton. The piece of steel that lays besides us proves that we were not defeated, but made stronger. The piece of steel proves we can overcome, and we shall never forget.”
A color guard from the National Guard removes the American flag that has been covering the steel and folds the flag as if at a military funeral. A light rain begins to fall a the ceremony winds down. The crowd of about 400 gathers at the firehouse across the street for a meal to mark the occasion.
Then the steel is stored away until it is time to build the memorial, a project that could cost up to $250,000. James is trying to raise the funds through private donors. The goal is to have the memorial done by Sept. 11 of this year so the families and friends of those who lost their loved ones have a place to honor them in Princeton this coming anniversary.
Now that the journey to Princeton is complete, James plans to take one day off to rest. But then it’s back to work. He doesn’t have time to stop. He has a ton of steel to take care of.