In a small town of 22,000 on Florida's west coast, a group of earnest and aesthetically minded citizens gathered to talk about a new Sept. 11 memorial — something they thought they'd taken care of nine years before. Venice Area Beautification Inc. was in charge of the appearance of a 3.5-acre expanse called Patriot's Park. The park already had a small chunk of rubble from the Pentagon attack of Sept. 11, flags representing world wars and a star-shaped pad of brick pavers carved with the names of veterans. Many of the citizens who had spearheaded that project sat in the audience on this blustery August day, steely-faced. They had heard about the guy from Lakewood Ranch who wanted to put a memorial on their memorial. They'd heard he wanted to stick a steel beam from the World Trade Center in the middle of their star-shaped pad.
His name was Gene Sweeney and he was 66 years old. He was late. And he was running out of time.
He had a full head of smooth white hair and wore a fine olive button-down, khakis and black loafers with tassels.
"I really appreciate this opportunity," he started.
He told them he wanted the memorial to represent not only those who died on Sept. 11 but all fallen military heroes. He told them he wanted to place the 12-foot beam in an octagon made of dark granite, sort of like the Vietnam wall. He told them he wanted to put it on the existing memorial to save money.
His voice, loud and still bearing the sharp edges of his New York upbringing, crashed around the room. Then he paused for effect.
"Why Venice?" he asked. "The terrorists trained here, so there is a significance."
The city's spokeswoman said that "it was quite devastating" to hear Venice described as having "trained terrorists."
Fred Hammett, 69, who had once been mayor of Venice, said Sweeney's steel beam would "desecrate" the existing memorial.
"Your word is a little bit strong," Sweeney bristled. "We're not denigrating it."
"It's desecrating," Hammett shot back.
Sweeney had led sales teams for large consulting firms in Atlanta. But after two years he was still having trouble closing this deal. And Sept. 11 was just a month away.
We are obsessed with memorials, always have been.
We erect tiny crosses and silk flowers along the road to remember loved ones. There are memorials for executed witches, for organ donors, for the Irish Potato Famine, for the end of communism. They help us deal with grief and interpret history.
The Sept. 11 attacks may eventually end up being the most memorialized event in history, next to the Civil War, said Erika Doss, author of Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. There are so many of them they are becoming as common as Starbucks.
Most are made of the structural steel that held up the twin towers.
The steel was originally evidence, stored in an abandoned airline warehouse at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Two years ago, the FBI released the pieces and they became artifacts. The beams were rusted, pockmarked wreckage, but to many they were sacred relics, washed in the blood of the thousands who perished at ground zero.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sliced up the beams like celery and gave 1,300 pieces to veterans' groups, town halls, fire and police departments. The only requirement: make them public.
Here in Florida, some 55 pieces of steel — from chunks weighing a mere 30 pounds to massive beams stretching 35 feet — are either already in place or about to be unveiled today.
In his quest to be among that group, Gene Sweeney learned something else about memorials: We fight over them. Where to put them, what to make them of, how much to spend on them.
In Pembroke Pines, a city commissioner requested a piece of steel and received a modest 250-pound girder. But plans for the project blew the cost up to more than $700,000 — and included a 6-ton marble base and sculptures of the twisted towers, a 9-foot firefighter, a little girl sitting atop wreckage, a policeman, a search-and-rescue dog, a jumper and a building to house it all. The city eventually scaled that back to $167,000.
But no Sept. 11 memorial in Florida has been more elaborate than the one planned for Wellington, where the price tag shot up from $85,000 to $800,000 and back down to $485,000. This one featured a fountain, an eternal flame, a 10-foot-tall glass wall etched with names.
"I think it's a worthwhile project," Mayor Darell Bowen said. "I just didn't agree with how we paid for it."
Sweeney, who had a tea partier's disdain for large government, didn't want to create another bloated budget problem. He had vowed to raise the money himself. But as a citizen he found he was having trouble getting the approval he needed from the officials who held the fate of his project in their hands.
• • •
He had come up with the idea Labor Day weekend 2009 at a bar called Ed's Tavern in downtown Lakewood Ranch, a place that offered football on 14 TVs and 52 types of beer.
He posed the idea of acquiring a steel beam to the bar's owner, John Breiner.
"What if we put it over there?" he'd said, and he'd pointed to a small park with palms, hibiscus and benches next to the tavern.
Sweeney, who had two adult children, lived five minutes away from the bar in a gated community with his wife, Carol Jean.
He spent his childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. His Irish father was a deaf mute machinist. His Ukrainian mother was a nurse.
In 1962, when he was 17, he enlisted in the Air Force. He served until 1968, the last two years in the Air Force Reserve. He didn't go into combat. The last few years, he said he was assigned to the Office of Special Investigations where he helped track stolen equipment and AWOL enlistees.
After he got out, he slid into a job selling steel and went to college at night. He moved to Atlanta. His specialty was sales intelligence, drilling down for company information that he could sell to other companies.
Arriving in Lakewood Ranch in 2008, he found the area full of veterans. He joined a group whose mission was to locate the discarded ashes of veterans and give them a proper burial. He became a member of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government collection of ex-military, law enforcement officers and veterans who have "sworn an oath to the Constitution, not the politicians."
He was instrumental in organizing a Memorial Day Parade at Main Street Lakewood Ranch. A 9/11 memorial seemed like a natural fit.
The developer of Main Street, with its Disney-like storefronts in a palette of rose, pistachio and yellow, considered the request and offered another location near the post office less than a mile away. Putting the beam where Sweeney wanted it would be like "a square peg trying to fit into a round hole," a spokeswoman said.
Sweeney pushed on. He tried to place it in front of Lakewood Ranch's town hall. "9/11 happened in New York City," one official said. "It seems to me such a memorial should be where it happened."
So Sweeney approached a charter school in Sarasota County. They told him they didn't want to set a precedent.
He pursued a spot in front of Emma E. Booker Elementary. He liked the idea of the beam rising up where President George W. Bush had found out about the terrorist attack.
But here, too, there were problems. The beam had to be outside the school gate to allow public access, but the school had leased that property to a nearby hospital.
Where had the country's sense of common purpose gone, Sweeney wondered.
Earlier this summer, someone suggested Patriot's Park.
• • •
As he stood before the Venice Area Beautification Inc. that day in early August, Sweeney realized he had to back down to move ahead.
Hammett, the former mayor, relented a little as well. He said he would be fine with the memorial going elsewhere at Patriot's Park.
"I have no issue with that," Sweeney had said, tensely.
A week later, Sweeney arrived for the Venice Parks and Recreation Advisory board meeting. The board, mostly elderly retirees, sat in a semicircle in Venice's City Council chambers.
Sweeney renewed his pitch.
"I'm not in favor of putting it in the center of the star," one of the board members said.
"Again, it's a time issue," Sweeney said brusquely. "I think it will enhance what's already there."
The board voted to recommend it as long as it didn't go on the existing memorial's pad. Sweeney still needed the approval of the Venice City Council.
• • •
Sweeney was getting annoyed. It was Aug. 23, less than three weeks to the anniversary and he still had three levels of government bureaucracy to pass through. The City Council chamber was packed for a budget hearing so he waited outside.
"You have to have a meeting to discuss what you're going to discuss at the next meeting," he said.
It was hard to understand what motivated Sweeney to keep pursuing this. He hadn't lost anyone in the Sept. 11 attacks. He was clearly patriotic, but all this government red tape was driving him mad.
"Because I'm committed and if you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything," he said, annoyed. "If our founding fathers, if every time they were confronted with an obstacle . . . they said: 'We've had enough of this,' where would we be?"
"What is this about?" he said, his voice rising to a shout in the empty hallway. "It's about remembering. It's about not forgetting."
Then it was his turn. He had five minutes to convince the City Council Venice needed to do its remembering his way.
After he finished, an older woman in a tan linen outfit spoke.
"I don't want to see too much more done at that park," she said.
A council member mentioned that memorials all over the city weren't being maintained. He had noticed dislodged plaques on some, mold on others.
But Sweeney, who said he had another appointment, had already left the chamber.
• • •
A few days later, Sweeney was on his Blackberry at Ed's Tavern talking to a veteran who was supporting the project. He strode back and forth by the pinball machine, his voice carrying even in the noisy lunchtime crowd.
"Yup, yup, it's going to be there," he was saying.
He didn't have final approval from the Sarasota County Commission. But he didn't want to wait any longer.
He had sent for the beam. He had contacted the Port Authority. A trucker with Reliable Carriers of Michigan was days away from picking it up. He was going to hold a service with it at Patriot's Park on Sept. 11. Everything was lining up. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. John Saputo of Gold Coast Eagle Distributing of Sarasota had donated $4,000. A 14-year-old girl had e-mailed him that the Young Conservatives of Sarasota would come with flags for each of the victims.
"It'll be done," he said into the phone. "Believe me, I've been all over this for two years."
He hung up. Someone asked him how a person with so little patience hadn't given up already.
"I have things to do," he said, "and this is on my bucket list."
• • •
On a humid Friday morning before Labor Day, Carol Wallin of Bradenton sat in the passenger seat of her husband's 18-wheeler at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Her dogs, Zoey, 2, and Griffin, 6, a pair of Malti-Shihs (half Maltese, half Shih Tzu), sat in her lap. A 9-year-old bichon frise named Quincy sat on the floorboard.
A year or so before, she read in the newspaper about Sweeney's memorial. Her husband, Carl Wallin, was a long-haul trucker. They volunteered to transport the beam when the time came.
On Sept. 11, Carol, then 39, had been on the 45th floor of 1 New York Plaza when she witnessed the second jumbo jet crash into the South Tower.
She hadn't lost anyone that day, but she wondered why the attacks left her so broken while others had been more resilient. Maybe taking this beam down to Florida would give her closure.
"I have no idea how I'm going to react," she said as her husband backed his massive orange tractor-trailer up to the faded warehouse. "Certain things I see and I break down."
Workers were waiting outside the hangar with the beam on a forklift. It was 12 feet long, about 12 inches wide. Rusted and bent slightly at one end. Nothing special to look at.
A woman in a turquoise blazer appeared and complained that Wallin's truck was enclosed. There was no way to drive the forklift up onto it, she said. It was Nancy Johnson, the woman in charge of the artifact program.
"Relax, Nancy," Carl Wallin said.
"Carl, we've never dealt with a van before," she said.
Carl opened the back of the truck, jumped up and straightened out the chains in the back.
"It'll work out," Carl said. "My wife was in 9/11. There's no need to be like this."
They snapped at each other for a few more minutes.
Carol was standing nearby, tears leaking behind her sunglasses. She went back into the truck and took an anti-anxiety pill.
Johnson ordered her maintenance staff to take the beam back to the hangar.
Carl Wallin called Sweeney. Sweeney called Johnson, who wanted an apology.
Sweeney called back Wallin, begged him to apologize. "For the beam."
Wallin walked up to Johnson.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Let's start over. Hi, my name is Carl."
"Hi, my name is Nancy," she obliged.
The forklift operator manipulated the forks to pinch the 3,400-pound beam on the end like a french fry, then he drove it up to the truck and dropped it inside.
Johnson was now all smiles. She offered to take them around the 80,000-square-foot hangar.
The Port Authority had received 2,500 requests for artifacts from the site and had obliged half of them. Seven pieces had gone to foreign countries, including a military base in Afghanistan and a museum in China. Most of the pieces had already been retrieved.
Inside, they passed a piece of elevator shaft twisted like a roller coaster, a beam with crosses and stars of David cut into it by the iron workers who had cleared the World Trade Center site, a rack still holding its melted bikes. There were mangled police cars. A crippled fire truck with melted wheels and blasted-out windows. A small trailer plastered with pictures where family members had awaited news of their loved ones.
Carol Wallin walked through it all, calmly. It was easier to look at it arranged neatly around the quiet warehouse. Not as traumatic as, say, in a pile of devastation.
"Somebody asked me when does the wreckage become a relic?" said Johnson, who had worked at the World Trade Center. "What reminds me it's a relic is when people come in full uniform and they have escorts. But otherwise it doesn't really look like the World Trade Center to me. Wreckage becomes a relic because of the loss you experience or the person you associate with that. Once they are gone and you can no longer get it back, it's a relic."
Carol Wallin had been thinking about this, too.
"I look at the steel and I think 'Wow, there are remains tied to all this,' " she said, "and you don't know who they are."
• • •
In Vineland, N.J., the Wallins stopped to sleep and pick up a sign they'd ordered to let everyone know they were carrying a piece of the World Trade Center.
They passed tomato farms in Maryland and trees cracked in half by Hurricane Irene in North Carolina.
Carol was mostly quiet, thinking about what this all meant.
She'd worked as a client analyst at Goldman Sachs for 16 years. Her desk was near a bank of windows with a clear view of the Twin Towers blocks away.
She was standing at the windows, looking out when the second jumbo jet appeared. The force of the collision knocked Carol to her knees.
She looked up. Clouds of black smoke and fire engulfed the middle of the building. Behind her: screaming, running, crying, chaos.
Am I next?
She escaped out the front of the building, walked with a friend to the Staten Island ferry. The crush of people flattened her against the glass.
She remembered a noise.
Phunk! Phunk! Phunk! Phunk! She didn't know at the time that it was one of the towers collapsing.
She eventually got home to her husband and three kids in New Jersey. Her brother, a New York City firefighter, had survived.
She went back to work two weeks later. She couldn't function. She never went back and eventually they gave away her job.
She couldn't sleep. She was afraid of everything. She was depressed.
A doctor diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her doctors told her that something changed in her brain that day. She went on disability.
She moved to Florida. She got divorced. She remarried.
She's still not working.
She's still afraid.
The truck was pulling into Beaufort, S.C. They were delivering a 1970 Dodge Dart, the other piece of precious metal in the truck.
In a dark parking lot, Wallin maneuvered his rig up in front of a 54-year-old man with long blond hair.
"Woohoo!" the man yelled in the darkness, as the truck opened. It was the car he'd driven as a teenager. He'd bought it on eBay for $13,000.
The man put his hand on the metal hood.
"I've been waiting for this day for 30 years," he sighed.
His girlfriend spotted the rusted beam in the truck.
"Is that from the twin towers?" she asked.
Carl Wallin nodded.
She put her hand on her chest and her eyes grew watery.
• • •
At the border of Florida, several Florida Highway Patrol troopers met the truck to escort it the rest of the way.
The Wallins hadn't had much reaction from fellow drivers up until this point, maybe because it was hard to tell what they were carrying unless you scrutinized the signs on their truck. But now they got a thumbs-up, a wave, a horn.
"I have butterflies in my stomach," Carol Wallin said. "It's like the anticipation of a wedding day. I never felt so special."
"It's bigger than ourselves," her husband responded, grabbing her hand.
Finally, Carl Wallin pulled his Peterbilt into a Harley-Davidson dealership in Bradenton, exactly one week before the anniversary.
Gene Sweeney wasn't there. He missed the exit.
Carol's kids and Carl's parents were there and a few people carrying flags, a TV camera.
A few minutes later, Sweeney whipped his black Jaguar into a parking spot and ran across the lot.
He grabbed Carl Wallin in a bear hug, slapped his back. Then he began talking to the Highway Patrol trooper, still selling his vision.
"It will be made out of the same material as the black granite in the Vietnam Wall . . .
"This has been two years . . .
"It was done at no taxpayer expense . . ."
His voice was loud and a crowd gathered and he was at the center of it all. His wife was teary.
At one point, Sweeney turned around and looked briefly at the beam inside the truck. Then he turned around and kept talking.
• • •
In the days that followed, Sweeney got the final governmental approvals he'd been seeking for so long.
The Sept. 11 memorial would be built in Patriot's Park, proving that while we argue about memorials, we always get them done — as long as there's someone with passion behind them.
Most memorials happen because of loss. Sweeney wanted to memorialize the victims he didn't know, but he acknowledged that his motivation was even deeper. He was proud of the six years he'd served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. But he hadn't seen combat, hadn't had it as hard as some of his comrades.
"Perhaps," he wrote in an e-mail, "unconsciously I must have the feeling that I could have done more."
Memorials help us with our feelings today. We hope they'll give us closure. But can they?
"We spend lot of emotional energy on them," said Doss, the memorial expert, "and then we tend to forget them."
Around the country, people walk by memorials to World War I and World War II and Korea and Vietnam and they barely take notice.
Today, in a small park 1,209 miles from ground zero, one more memorial will break ground. Nearby a piece of rusted metal will sit on a flat-bed trailer, quietly available to offer its meaning to whoever happens by.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.