9/11 tower beam brings immediacy to Wauconda site

Gregory Harutunian for Chronicle Media
The Heroes of Freedom memorial plaza in Wauconda features a column beam from the 91st floor in one of the New York twin tower buildings. (Photo by Gregory Harutunian/for Chronicle Media)

The Heroes of Freedom memorial plaza in Wauconda features a column beam from the 91st floor in one of the New York twin tower buildings. (Photo by Gregory Harutunian/for Chronicle Media)

As the commemorations and tributes subside in recalling a day of tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, images of the New York City twin towers collapsing into dust continue to haunt and ingrain man’s capability to destroy. One marvels at the engineering genius which makes the domed roof retractable at Milwaukee’s Miller Park, and yet, darker visions can eliminate it.

Fifteen years after the incident, a 20-foot beam from the World Trade Center site quietly stands erect in a memorial park, located at 301 S. Main St. in Wauconda. The 13,000-pound artifact is the centerpiece of a site, the Heroes of Freedom, dedicated to honoring the victims, the first responders, and military called to action that day, and acknowledging their efforts in the days before, and after.

“The unveiling and presentation to the community was on Sept. 11, 2014, and it was a cold, damp morning,” said Alise Homola, the village’s executive administrative assistant and special events coordinator. “We had contacted officials from both Lake and McHenry counties to involve them, and bring awareness to this incredible piece of history in Wauconda.

“The sky eventually cleared with sunshine, and at 9:07 a.m., we observed a moment of silence,” she said. “It still seems like yesterday, the emotions you have … and being so close to the beam makes it feel more personal and immediate, whether in Wauconda, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia. It’s chilling, and we’re honored to have a place where people can come and pay tribute.”

The Wauconda site evolved from a proposed memorial plaza meant for Gurnee, and the galvanizing person was that village’s former trustee, Kirk Morris. Beginning in 2010, a nonprofit foundation was formed to honor Morris’ son, Geoffrey, a marine killed in Iraq, six years prior. Village officials and the foundation were at odds over the memorial’s progress, instigating a lawsuit, settled in early 2013, with a $200,000 reimbursement to the foundation from the village.

As Morris searched for suitable venues to construct the memorial, the foundation had procured an artifact, the beam, from the New York Port Authority. The agency has overseen the dispersal of materials, from the World Trade Center site. Stored in its warehouses since 2001, pieces and sections have made their way across the country for memorial tableaus. As of 2016, those items are now down to the remaining few for distribution.

“Kirk Morris had lined up the rights to a beam, and approached Mayor (Frank) Bart, asking if we could have it in Wauconda,” said Wauconda Village Administrator Doug Maxeiner. “A volunteer committee was convened to get this off the ground, and that’s what they did. We look at this site, as a piece of civic pride for anyone that lived through 9/11. They can go to the site not only to remember the tragedy, but the heroism of the first responders.

“The first responders and the military were in the direct of fire of this event,” he said.

Several design recommendations were made, ultimately incorporating the beam as the centerpiece. The site was chosen for its proximity to the Village Hall, the police and fire stations, and a parking lot.

The Heroes of Freedom Memorial includes a column from the 91st Floor of the World Trade Center, North Tower, set in a Pentagon base adorned with the seal of each branch of the Armed Forces, surrounded by four benches representing each of the four hijacked planes that crashed that morning with landscaping using soil from the flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, Penn., and a wall with the names of those that lost their lives that fateful day.

Evening hours display raised lamps illuminate the steel beam, in the manner of the twin lucent pillars that rose from the World Trade Center to depict the two towers, during the New York observances.

“At last year’s ceremony, we were blessed with a visit by two firefighters from New York, and one of the fire trucks that had been restored,” Homola said. “It had remembrance pieces on it, photos, artifacts. It’s just the feelings you have…and this memorial site makes that day more tangible, more real.”