Steel beam from New York's World Trade Center arrives in Gig Harbor

Monday was a day for remembering, for touching a painful part of our nation’s past and for celebrating the fraternity that exists between those who serve.

And for members of the crowd that gathered at the headquarters of Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One, it was also a way to welcome home a team of four Gig Harbor firefighters who traveled cross-country to bring home a tactile reminder of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001.

Kent Cooper, Ryan Watson, Josh Bissenas and Rob McCoy drove to New York City to retrieve a section of a steel beam recovered from the collapse of the World Trade Center. The beam, 5 feet long and weighing 1,000 pounds, will find a temporary home at the fire company’s main station. The plan is to eventually move it to a memorial garden that will honor those who lost their lives on 9/11.

As the trailer bearing the beam arrived at the station Monday, covered in an American flag and perched on a trailer pulled by a Fire Department pickup, it threaded its way through an honor guard of firefighters and police officers in dress uniform. They were flanked by members of the Patriot Guard motorcycle group, who stood at attention holding flags. The Pierce County Firefighters Pipes and Drums corps sounded a solemn note.

Cooper addressed the gathering and gave an emotional account of his team’s time in New York City. They were welcomed and escorted around the city by members of the Fire Department of New York. They rode on the city’s newest fireboat – a high-tech wonder christened Bravest, built by a Port Orchard company – floating around Manhattan Island, past the Statue of Liberty.

“Our guys were just speechless,” he said.

The team also inspected a historic fireboat, built in 1938, that was a veteran of more than 50 fires. They slept in a city fire station and enjoyed their fellow firefighters’ hospitality.

But the most moving part of the experience, Cooper said, came during a tour of Hangar 17 – the spot at John F. Kennedy International Airport where World Trade Center artifacts are stored.

He described large pieces of steel that, like the one brought to Gig Harbor, were warped and tested by the powerful destructive forces unleashed by 9/11. He spoke of subway cars and bike racks – with bikes still attached – that had been recovered from near ground zero. Cooper choked up as he recalled the feelings for those who died that the artifacts evoked.

Altogether, more than 1,000 steel beams like the one brought to Gig Harbor have been given to police and fire departments around the country to be used in memorials.

Gig Harbor’s quest for an artifact began in 2009, spearheaded by firefighter Ryan Kress, who lost a friend on a plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. Kress is currently deployed with the Washington National Guard and was unable to make the journey with the Gig Harbor team. But team members stopped at his family’s home in Troy, Ohio, on the trip back. They presented his family with a flag that had covered the steel bound for Washington state.

“He was seriously missed on this trip,” Cooper said of Kress. “We spoke of him frequently.”

Other members of the team talked after the ceremony Monday about the experience of traveling through America’s heartland with a piece of American history.

They stopped in the Pennsylvania town where one of the doomed flights crashed on 9/11. They visited Mount Rushmore for a flag ceremony with local veterans.

“The trip wasn’t about Gig Harbor or Gig Harbor Fire,” said McCoy. “It was about connecting with our nation.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635