Janesville’s 9/11 Memorial
Journey of a beam, the work of a team.
Story and Interviews by Teresa Nguyen
Today’s 21-year-olds had just entered the world. For those who are old enough, you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing that tragic morning of September 11th, 2001. It was a bright, beautiful and clear day over much of the nation, especially in Manhattan. At 8:46 a.m., while hundreds of offices and business workers were setting up their day inside the World Trade Center Complex buildings, a hijacked American Airlines passenger jet, Flight 11, crashed into the North Tower between the 93rd and 99th floors. People on adjacent office floors, passersby on the New York City streets below, and soon the entire world watched this all happening in real time.
There were so many unanswered questions at that moment, mainly, “Why did this happen?” Many wondered and watched in shock, but did not initially consider terrorism. Most Americans had lived peacefully for decades, with no outside attacks on U.S. soil, since Pearl Harbor in 1941.
But, for some, there was little time for figuring out the "why". Firefighters, police and EMT rescue personnel across New York City jumped into immediate action. There was no time to pause, to contemplate, to learn the story. It was likely the most grave and intense emergency of their career. Lives needed saving immediately, and they were ready to do everything possible, even risking their own lives, to do it!
Then, just seventeen minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., as rescues were in full gear inside the first tower, a second airplane, hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, blasted into the neighboring South Tower between the 77th and 85th floors. An al-Qaeda terrorist attack on America was happening before our very eyes.
Rescuers were now rushing in and up the stairs, passing civilians fleeing from both burning buildings, which had stood out against the Manhattan skyline for three decades prior to their destruction.
The horror of it all unfolded on every major television and radio station. People helplessly watched as debris fell from the upper floors of the burning towers, as bodies plummeted out of windows with no chance of survival. The wounded limped quickly out onto the streets, bleeding, choking on smoke, some trying to help others. It was all very surreal. Everyone in the area was frozen, watching, just dazed and confused. The nation and the world were glued to the horrifying news.
Under the extreme impact, intense heat from initial and subsequent explosions and powerful fuel fires, the towers, first the north, then the south, crumbled to the ground. Other buildings in the World Trade Center Complex also were damaged and collapsed.
But it wasn’t just piles of concrete, debris and beams. Thousands of lives were lost in a moment in time.
As the towers fell, concrete powder and smoke billowed around them in the collapse. Hundreds of nearby people, some wounded, all ages, men, women, some in their suits and high heels, frantically dispersed from the disaster, running as fast as possible, covering their faces to keep out the dust. In shocking realization, onlookers knew that the falling structures had crushed everyone inside, civilians and rescuers alike.
Additionally, two more hijacked planes were on a mission to cause damage and carnage; one heading for the White House, United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania as passengers fought the terrorists, and the other, American Airlines Flight 77, smashing into the Pentagon. These four ruthless 9/11 terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people on American soil.
This is a link to powerful AP photos that documented the enormity of 9/11: https://apnews.com/article/september-11-photos-80f1c7348e93ea7532a23e1afc23eacf
A Janesville Team Effort
About eight years later, around 2009, hundreds of miles from ground zero, an extraordinary effort in Janesville, Wisconsin was underway to preserve a piece of one of the buildings from the 9/11 attacks. By September of 2011, around the 10th anniversary, Dave Sheen and Dave Kemp, on behalf of Janesville Firefighters Charities, brought their plan for the memorial to the Janesville City Council.
Previously, in 2006, the Janesville Firefighters Local 580 received approval by the City Council to rename a local park, nestled just off Main Street. The park is located where Janesville’s first firehouse once stood. In 2006, the park became known as Firehouse Park.
The Firefighters Union 580 has spent countless hours maintaining this lovely park, giving downtown visitors a peaceful place to rest or picnic with a terrific view of the Rock River flowing by. Firehouse Park seemed like the perfect location for the 9/11 Memorial.
This is the story of that memorial, a lone beam, which once helped hold up an iconic landmark in the New York City skyline. The building’s collapse and that cowardly act of terrorism led to a period of unity in our nation, an American will to help our fellow citizens and a resolve to defy terror and stand strong. The beam symbolizes American resilience, which we have shown time and time again in the face of national disasters and war.
The beam, around 6 feet long, pointing eastward toward New York City, still bears the markings from the ironworkers who originally installed it in the World Trade Center. If you look closely, you can see a broken end from when the towers collapsed.
It represents an important piece of this memorial for our community with a purpose to help us remember those thousands of Americans whose lives were cut short in an instant.
This story is, in itself, a kind of memorial, dedicated to all the emergency workers, the firefighters, EMT, police officers and just good people who ran into harm’s way on that bright September morning. It serves to help us remember those heroes, who sacrificed everything to selflessly save innocent lives.
It is a story of how Janesville comes together in trying times, a story of honor and a story of compassion.
Retired Janesville Firefighter
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was on top of our house, as we were starting to reroof our home. I kept going down and watching this unfold on TV, but then the day kind of stopped.
I live fairly close to the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport. It was a beautiful day. But, from then on and through the next week, there was zero air traffic. It was very clear and eerily quiet. It was so strange.
I had been with the Janesville Fire Department for 33 years and retired about 10 years ago. I was still working with the department on 9/11. It didn’t make me question my line of work…you never know if you’re going home. It comes with the job. As you get older, you try to see that the kids who are working alongside you get home.
Training is so important, and when you’re in dangerous situations, you try to revert back to your training and hope it gets you out. There were times that were risky for me, but you just keep going. You have to go in it with a respect. But you can’t be afraid, either. It’s similar to war, but instead of people shooting at you, it’s fire trying to get you. You have to learn how it behaves and you have to be smart.
At that time, the idea of this project started with Kevin Murray. He was the one who got the initial gears turning.
Eventually, the six foot beam was brought to his home and stored in his garage for a week. Kevin handed the project to Bill McAfee and me. Bill took it to Station 4 out on Milwaukee Street. Bill and I looked at it and started brainstorming on what to do with it.
I went and talked to Dave Kemp, who had just retired from J.P. Cullen as a chief foreman, and he was willing to help us out. He had a good friend, Terry Frisch, who was an architect. He drew us some creative ideas for the design of a 9/11 Memorial for Janesville.
Mark Polzin of Budget Auto gave it a clear coat finish. Then it came to our garage, where it stayed for a long while. I had to approach the City Council for approval. As a municipality, they have to have control over what goes into the city parks.
The design included a 12-foot-tall concrete pillar with a vertical divider, representing the two World Trade Center towers. The beam would jut out horizontally, as it would have been in its original position in the tower, pointing eastward toward New York City. It’s meaningful.
Dave Kemp got all the forms from J.P. Cullen & Sons and helped dig the hole and pour the cement. The equipment also came from J.P. Cullen & Sons and they didn’t charge us for this.
Midstate Concrete Industries created the concrete tower, that had a plate attached in order to weld the beam to it. The piece was brought up to Janesville by Twist Trucking.
Dave Kemp also knew an ironworker, Mark Frye, and a crane operator, Lee Wollslair, who has since passed away.
The community was aware that this was happening. It was, of course, approved by the council. Then, the official dedication of the monument took place at Firehouse Park on September 11th, 2012.
What has stuck with me the most about this Janesville 9/11 Memorial project was how the community came together.
There are beautiful memorials all over the country. My wife, Sharyn, and I went to New York a while back to visit the Ground Zero Memorial. It was pretty touching. This last September, we had been in Maine, and stopped in Pennsylvania at the Flight 93 Memorial. It’s really excellent and a beautiful place to remember this.
When you’re in this career, you go to school and train with guys from all over the country. We are a brotherhood. I had met some New York firefighters and I knew some really good guys who died in the attacks. Since then, so many people are still suffering diseases from the aftermath. Almost more people have died from that than on that day.
New York lost a whole generation of experience with their firefighters. Those guys knew what they were doing. They knew they could die.
There’s a story of a firefighter going up the staircase of one of the towers and meeting someone coming down who asked, “What are you doing going up?" The firefighter looked right back at him and said, “It’s my job. I’m going up.”
The whole idea for this memorial is that it’s a place you can bring your kids, and their kids to learn about what happened on September 11th, 2001. Never forgetting means just that. We have to teach our children.
I’ve been to Europe and the people in France really appreciate their WWII veterans. We have to be like that with 9/11, to teach our kids and the future generations. We need to teach them so that they appreciate the people who willingly walked into the danger and those who sacrificed their all on that day.
Retired Janesville Firefighter
Former Chair of Local 580 Firefighters Charities
On September 11th, 2001, I was attending Emergency Medical Training at Mercy Hospital. We were all glued to the TV just like everyone else.
We wanted to help and felt both anger and sorrow at once. We started to get requests from the public to help. We all wanted to do something.
It was a unifying thing for both the country and our community, as well.
We did a local t-shirt fundraiser and between that and donations, we raised $30,000 for the New York Firefighters Relief Fund. The money went to support the victims and families of 9/11.
As an extension of that, there was also a lot of interest across the nation in memorializing the event.
The New York Port Authority organized the distribution of multiple pieces of the Twin Towers. However, they were not simply giving them away right and left. There was a complicated application process for a community or organization to receive a piece of the buildings to create monuments. There had to be a solid, well-organized, meaningful plan.
At the time, I was working as a Lieutenant with the Janesville Fire Department and was Secretary for the Local 580 Union. I was one of the founders of the Firefighters Charity, a non-profit organization of the department. So, I was a natural conduit to make this happen. My role in all of this was mainly just getting the paperwork done.
Then Chief Larry Grorud helped me make the initial contacts and get the application for the piece. To apply, we had to prove who we were and we had to demonstrate with photographs and documentation how and what we were going to do with the item if it were granted to us. Fortunately, we already had a good location with Firehouse Park, which is owned by the city, but maintained by us.
We had a wonderful setting for it. We demonstrated what we were going to do with it and filled out the application. There were no blanks. Every part of it was filled out. Then, once it was done, we waited.
Then, next thing you know, we got a “Congratulations” letter! We were getting a piece of one of the towers. We then had to figure out how to transport it here. We had two choices: to go get it or to have it shipped.
Our Firefighters Charities organization paid for the cost to ship it here. It was a reasonable fee. They gave me a notification that said, “Where do you want it?” I told them to bring it to my house on South Randall Avenue. Then one day, along came a giant semi-truck, which pulled up in front of my house. We unloaded the beam and put it in my garage.
It stayed in my garage for about a week. Firefighter Bill McAfee, who has welding and metal work skills, cleaned it up and prepped it for display.
There was a group of wonderful guys, who are smarter than I am, that got the ball rolling to design and install the memorial.
We did it to remember. It’s a piece of downtown Janesville and we hope that visitors will come and see it, to pause and reflect.
Lieutenant Justin Wiskie
Lieutenant Firefighter - Janesville Fire Department
Former Chair of Local 580 Firefighters Charities
On September 11th, 2001, I was living in Menomonie, Wisconsin. My roommate woke me up and told me something crazy was happening in New York at the World Trade Center buildings.
I got out of bed and sat down in front of the TV, just as the second plane hit the South Tower. I remained glued to my TV, as the rest of the day unfolded.
Watching the horror, I figured two things were for sure. One, a lot of people just died. Two, we were most likely going to war.
I knew I couldn't do anything about #1. But, I seriously considered joining the armed forces. I later decided to join the fire service instead.
Local 580 is made up of mostly Janesville firefighters, though we have members from other Rock County communities.
Our Janesville Firefighters Charity gives to local organizations such as HealthNet of Rock County, the homeless shelter, area sporting teams like Janesville baseball groups, Janesville Youth Hockey, Janesville football, plus scholarships to local kids at Craig and Parker who are pursuing a career in firefighting or EMS. We want to help local causes.
This year, Lieutenant Jack Morse is taking over as chairperson of the Firefighters Charity. We have a board, made up of members of the union, that helps with the charitable decisions.
When 9/11 happened, the charitable foundation of the union made a sizable donation to the 9/11 fund. Kevin Murray had made the arrangements for us to receive a piece of one of the buildings.
I was actually at his house the day when the beam finally arrived and we put it in his garage.
There were a couple of different renderings created for the idea of the memorial monument, which were shown to our group. We decided on the one that was installed. A monument company created the plaque and Mark Bobzien created the inscription.
The majority of the work to install the beam down at the park was donated. Before it was installed, we had the beam on display for a 9/11 Memorial ceremony. We all collaborated on this project. This memorial is important to me because it is an actual piece of history. It reminds us that no matter how many years go by, we must always remember and never forget the brave men and women who died that day.
Watch the JATV Media Services video of the 2012 dedication of the 9/11 Memorial here:
You can donate to the Janesville Firefighters Charites by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also like the Local 580 Facebook page for updates: