On Wednesday, Bruce Hezlep and Jeff Berneburg set off on the road trip they’ve been waiting almost two years to take.
Along with Hezlep’s 10-year-old son, the Cranberry Township firefighters boarded the department’s heavy-duty pickup truck and got on Interstate 80 for the seven-hour trek to New York City.
Tonight, they’ll return with a piece of American history.
The September 11th Families’ Association chose the company from a pool of more than 1,200 applicants to receive a piece of steel that fell from the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Thursday’s pickup of the 832-pound I-beam will cap off an almost two-year application process that started in October 2009.
“We’ve finally gotten to the point where they’re releasing the pieces of steel,” Berneburg said.
Berneburg, who put together the lengthy paperwork, said the company first had to prove its status as a nonprofit organization before the association would agree to give it a piece of the Twin Towers. He also had to provide photos of the area where the steel would be used for a memorial.
“It couldn’t be for a personal collection or used for resale,” Berneburg recalled. “There’s a chain of custody that goes with every piece of steel.”
Once they arrive in New York, the firefighters will have a three-hour window to remove the 7-foot piece of steel from a heavily-guarded hanger at John F. Kennedy Airport that houses more pieces of World Trade Center wreckage.
Hezlep, the company's president, said each piece of steel is designated for a nonprofit that applied for it. In March,also received an 898-pound portion of a support beam from the trade center's North Tower that it will add to its veterans memorial.
“There’s a piece that’s already numbered and assigned to you,” he said.
Once it arrives at its new home in Cranberry, the steel will be fashioned into a memorial by McIlvried, DiDiano & Mox, LLC, the Warrendale engineering firm where Berneburg works as a site planer.
Berneburg said he and other members of his company are waiting to see the steel before designing a memorial around it. This is a project that is close to all the firefighters’ hearts.
Like most people in the United States, Berneburg and Hezlep can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when the first of the two planes stuck the Twin Towers.
Particularly moving to them was the thought of the New York firefighters who rushed into the building in the hopes of saving others before the collapse.
“I saw the pictures of when they entered the towers, and you had to wonder what the hell they were thinking,” Hezlep said.
To Berneburg, it could have been any one of the Cranberry volunteers in that situation. He wondered what would have happened if the plane that crashed in Shanksville instead had come down in Cranberry
“Brother and sister firefighters lost their lives that day, and it affects all of us,” he said. “Who knows what this might mean to any member of the community. It might mean something to them, but more importantly it means something to us in Cranberry as the first responders who would have responded that day.”
Each year on the anniversary of the attacks, Hezlep said the Cranberry fire department remembers the lives lost on Sept 11 by flying an enormous U.S. flag from the highest point of the department’s tower truck.
“Almost three-quarters of our company or more will get here early to raise the flag,” he said. “It’s something our organization comes together on.”
Members of the fire company also will be there Thursday to receive the Ground Zero artifact as it enters Cranberry.
Hezlep said police would escort their truck as they enter the township from New York. Once they reach the Park Station on Route 19, the township’s supervisors and members of the police, fire and ambulance services will greet them.
Hezlep said they hope to arrive in Cranberry by 7:30 p.m. The public also is invited to attend the event, and light refreshments will be served at the station.
Next up is the actual building of the memorial, which will be located in a grassy patch just outside the entrance to the Park Station on Route 19.
The men are hoping contractors will offer their services in puting together the memorial. Berneburg’s company has donated assistance by drafting the plans for the memorial and Hezlep, who works for L.B. Foster in Greentree, said his company also gave $1,000 for the project,
They would like to have the project complete before September 11 of this year.
“That will be the 10-year anniversary, if you want to call something like that an anniversary,” Hezlep said.
To find out how to donate to the memorial project, visit the Cranberry Township Volunteer Fire Company website.