MARSHALL, MINN. - They drive here from the Twin Cities and the Dakotas and from towns across the Midwest to sit, reflect and run their fingers across the rust of crumpled steel.
They stop in the cold to leave holiday wreaths and in the heat of July to be photographed with friends and loved ones. Many come alone, to quietly study the scarred and twisted beam that once helped support a towering skyscraper that crumbled that September morning in 2001 when terrorist attacks shocked and stunned a nation.
"I didn't know it existed," Sam Adler, 87, of Midland, Mich., said the other day as he walked up and touched the nearly 10-foot, 600-pound World Trade Center beam that has become the centerpiece of this city's 9/11 Memorial Park. "But I've seen lots of pictures of the mess it came out of."
A year has passed since this windswept southwestern Minnesota prairie town of 14,000 people unveiled its memorial, but rarely a day passes that someone doesn't stop to look, touch and pay respects.
More will visit Tuesday, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks, when the city holds an 11:30 a.m. prayer service to honor the nearly 3,000 firefighters, police officers and civilians who died in New York City and Washington, D.C., and on United Flight 93, which crashed in a western Pennsylvania field after passengers tried to take control of the plane from hijackers.
"We're so far from New York City," said Sue DeSaer, a local resident who visits the memorial often. "Yet, it affected all of us."
'Story of the day'
Marshall's memorial, designed by landscape architect Gene F. Ernst, isn't the only monument built from the ruins of the Trade Center.
More than 1,800 pieces of steel ranging in length from 6 inches to 43 feet have been shipped to 1,400 organizations across all 50 states and seven foreign countries, said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In Minnesota, tower remains have been sent to six fire halls, one police department and to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
Marshall's interest is a bit surprising because no one from the city, located 150 miles west of Minneapolis, died in the attacks.
Much of the inspiration behind the project originated with Craig Schafer, a local history buff who works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. While inspecting the Trade Center ruins at a Staten Island landfill in 2002 as part of his job as an emergency response specialist, Schafer was told that he could take a beam home if he wished.
He later returned to New York, picked up a beam, then drove it home, where it sat for years in the city's fire hall while he, Fire Chief Marc Klaith and other city leaders debated how to display it.
Years of discussion ended in spring 2011 when the city broke ground on the $400,000 memorial project. Four months later, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the city dedicated the memorial in a day-long ceremony capped by a candlelight vigil and fireworks.
The beam stands exposed in the center of a downtown park just off the banks of the Redwood River. By design, it tilts 1-2 degrees toward New York City, with a 1,000-watt bulb flashing a ray of light skyward at night. Ten limestone columns and a firefighter statue surround it, along with 3,000 stone pavers with red, blue and black stars in honor of those who died that day.
Nearby is a plaque outlining Ernst's vision and his desire to "help tell the story of the day."
He also said he wanted to make sure that the work would allow visitors to "reflect on the events," and "explain and educate a younger generation about ... how that day changed our lives."
'Something about this place'
City officials haven't kept track of how many people have visited over the past year. But Schafer and Klaith estimate it to be in the "thousands."
Dan Weck, a New Jersey native who jumped in his truck and headed to ground zero to help after seeing the planes hit the towers that morning, has visited twice.
Weck, who moved to Minnesota about a year after the attacks and now works in law enforcement, came for the unveiling and was moved to tears. He made the three-hour trip several months later to simply sit and reflect.
"Just seeing this one in its natural state, and leaning towards New York, there's just something about this place," said Weck, who lost several friends in the twin towers. "It provides a lot of comfort. I equate it to visiting a family member's grave. You soak it in."
Klaith said he drives by daily, sometimes stopping to walk the grounds, other times just to sit in his car and watch as visitors pass through.
"The thing that amazes me is that people are touching that beam all the time," he said.
A few weeks ago, DeSaer and her husband took several friends to the site before a high school reunion. The sight of the beam and the stars immediately stirred memories.
"It's an emotional thing," she said. "All the people who lost their families and all the people who tried to do things. And it still makes me angry that people can be so horrible to kill so many innocent people."
Schafer, who lives six blocks away, stopped daily in the first months after it went up. Some days, he stops with his wife. Other times, he stops on his own to remember.
"I still get goosebumps and water up when I touch that beam," Schafer said. "It just makes me feel complete."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425