A decade after it crashed to earth in smoke and flame and grief, a battered steel beam came to rest a thousand miles away on the Minnesota prairie.

The oxidized girder, 10 feet tall and forged from 600 pounds of Pennsylvania steel, is studded with bolts the size of a child's fist that once held it in place in the World Trade Center complex.

Some in Marshall, Minn., wanted to encase the artifact in glass to keep it safe from bitter cold and prying fingers.

But Craig Schafer, who brought this small piece of a great tragedy home in 2011 to serve as a memorial, had a better idea.

That broken beam is as close as most of us will ever get to ground zero.

Schafer knew we'd reach toward the steel that once held up the towers. Just for a moment, just to close the distance between us and that September morning that gets farther away every year.

"People need to be able to touch it. Put your hand on that and feel the energy," said Schafer, who was working for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency when he traveled to Manhattan to study the cleanup, to prepare just in case the unthinkable ever happened in Minnesota. "This isn't my beam, this isn't Marshall's beam. This beam belongs to those people that day. This is their beam and they're sharing it with us."

It took more than 200,000 tons of steel to raise the Twin Towers, and after they fell, work crews recovered nearly all of it, sorting through unfathomable wreckage in search of wedding rings and wallets and anything else they could return to grieving families, then selling most of the recovered steel on the international scrap metal market.

But thousands of fragments of the World Trade Center were preserved as mementos and memorials. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey distributed more than 2,600 artifacts to communities in all 50 states and 10 nations.

One of the last pieces came to rest in central Minnesota, in the small city of Rockville, Minn., home of Rosie and Daryl Steil, who made the right request at the right time.

Rockville's memorial is a splintered beam with strangely symmetrical cuts along the edges. These were voids where work crews had carved into the thick steel to make small crosses to give to the families of office workers and plane passengers and firefighters and all the others who never made it home that day. It stands outside the Rockville Fire Department, surrounded by flags and flowers.

When it arrived, the Steils and other members of the committee that had worked to bring the memorial to this town of 2,500 gathered around it in awe. Then Daryl Steil stepped closer.

"I could feel this piece of iron. I could feel it pulling on me," he said. "I had to go up and touch this piece of iron. As I moved back, nobody said a word … but one by one, everybody had to go up and touch that piece of iron."

Every year, Schafer brings local third-graders on a field trip to Marshall's Sept. 11 memorial park. He watches the children crowd around the beam, throw their arms around it and give it a hug.

"Promise me one thing," Schafer tells these youngsters who were born into an America at war, the America we turned into over these past 20 years. "When you have children and grandchildren, promise me that you'll bring them back, or bring them somewhere like this, so that they can touch it too."

Some of the children who come to the park are Muslim, part of southwestern Minnesota's vibrant and growing immigrant community. By third grade, they would have already heard taunts from bullies, blaming them for 9/11. Most would be too young to remember when vandals attacked Marshall's mosque in 2012, or when terrorists bombed the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington in 2017. Although they may have heard about the man who painted "Death to Islam" across the Moorhead-Fargo Islamic Community Center earlier this year.

Schafer visited the Pile when lower Manhattan was still gray with dust and the air still smelled like decay. Government officials were still sifting through terrorist chatter for other possible targets. Maybe something on the Minneapolis or St. Paul skyline. Maybe the Mall of America. Maybe the Mayo Clinic. Twenty years on, it's easy to forget how scary and awful those early days were; how the skies emptied of planes other than fighter jets as every channel played and replayed footage of the towers falling, the Pentagon burning, the smoldering crater in a Pennsylvania field.

It's easy to forget the other things that happened. The people who rushed in to help, the crews that labored for years to restore part of what we lost, how Americans a thousand miles away from the attacks lined up for hours to donate blood, desperate to do something to help.

"It's important to know what happened," said Schafer, now retired from his work for the state and serving his second term on the Marshall City Council. "But it's also important to know all the good things. All those people who walked into the bowels of hell before and after those buildings went down. All the human spirit that came to save and to work with people they never knew."

Schafer wants Americans too young to remember that there was a moment when it felt like we all came together. Before we started tearing each other apart.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

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