Looking at The Firefighters’ Monument, a new 9/11 bronze relief unveiled just yesterday across the street from Ground Zero on the wall of Engine and Ladder Company 10 in lower Manhattan, makes me think of ancient tributes that have withstood the test of time. I recall seeing such pieces in Europe, most specifically on Charles Bridge in Prague, where centuries’ worth of lingering fingertips have rubbed the bronze so bare that it glares like polished silver in the sunlight.
For the first time yesterday, friends and loved ones of the 343 firefighters lost on 9/11 found their names on the monument and ran their fingertips over the engraved letters. Some of the children in attendance placed paper over the names and used crayons or markers to etch rubbings in order to bring something tangible (the remains of many of these lost heroes have never been found) home with them. Watching such indelible moments reminds me the significance of this monument but also stirs passion and anger, for the proposed 9/11 memorial across the way on the site of World Trade Center still remains in limbo.
Nevertheless, here is something fittingly magnificent to honor those brave men and women who went up while so many people were coming down. The dedication of the 56-foot long, six-foot high piece is to those “who fell and to those who carry on.” This is a stark reminder that many of those who did not perish continue in the job, working each day to serve and protect the city they love and for which their comrades perished. These firefighters soldier on, despite the emotional and physical toll 9/11 has taken, and it is quite fitting that this monument recognizes the necessary and compelling duty of New Yorkers and all Americans to honor these living heroes while remembering those who died.
The full panorama features an 8-foot long centerpiece depicting the flaming twin towers just after the second jet hit the South Tower, and the two 24-foot side sections show courageous but all too human firefighters in amazingly realistic details. The men, their equipment, hoses, and trucks are captured with painstaking accuracy; some are shown to be weary from their valiant effort; others are pushing themselves to move forward and continue the gallant struggle against overwhelming odds.
Thus, The Firefighters’ Monument tells a story that is vividly and viscerally presented. Its impact on those who were present for the unveiling cannot be lost on the rest of us who were not: this panorama is a permanent memorial that will forever tell the story of 9/11 for those who did not live to tell. Generations of New Yorkers and visitors from all over the world will be able to stand there on the appropriately named Liberty Street, run their fingers over the relief, touch the names of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and remember that moment when New York’s Bravest earned their hallowed place in American history.
The Holland and Knight Charitable Foundation raised the money for the monument, and Vice Chairman Brian D. Starer is the one who enlisted Rambusch Decorating Company to create the piece. Chairman emeritus Viggo Rambusch immediately thought of the eternal flame and mentioned something to Mr. Starer about Trajan’s Column, an ancient Roman monument that had withstood the test of time and captured a story for future generations. Mr. Rambusch declared that the 9/11 monument would be made of bronze and enlisted Joseph A. Oddi, a delineator, and Joseph Petrovics, a sculptor, to work on the project along with his sons Martin and Edwin Rambusch. To learn more about this labor of love, please watch the interactive video from The New York Times.
Back in 1819, the great English poet John Keats wrote “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and in that memorable and achingly beautiful poem he honors the still figures captured on a Greek urn. He finds perfection and timelessness in the art that is so opposite of the living world that is flawed and ever changing. One of the figures is a handsome young man who is frozen in time, unable to kiss the lips of his beloved. While this may seem like eternal frustration, Keats reminds us that the youth is forever young and can never lose the girl. He tells us, “Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”
I find a similar kind of comfort in The Firefighters’ Monument because here the Twin Towers are still standing, the firefighters may be weary but are still with us, and their heroism and sacrifice are forever present tense. This moment in history on September 11, 2001, is frozen in place for us in this work of art: we see the anguish, the horror, but also the glory of a New York City that was but never will be the same again.
Perhaps one day poets will write about this memorial in a way Keats did about the ancient urn, or maybe even in the distant future it will end up preserved in a museum because the old firehouse had long ago crumbled to the ground. In the end it is all about honoring those lost and providing a fitting and lasting memorial for their loved ones, friends, and comrades. The Firefighters’ Monument more than accomplishes that goal, and it captures the heroism and humanity of those unbelievably brave men and women who saved thousands of lives on 9/11. As the words engraved on the right panel of the monument remind us: “May We Never Forget.”