With chunks of concrete still attached, the 19-foot brown steel beam makes for a sobering sight next to the Chatham County Justice Center.
The beam was among the wreckage of the World Trade Center, and it’s now the centerpiece of the new Chatham County First Responders’ Memorial – a testament to the sacrifices that police, firefighters and paramedics make locally and throughout the country.
The memorial is still $50,000 short of completion, with walkways and benches still to come. But organizers of the project held an emotional dedication ceremony Saturday, just a few days from the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Pittsboro Fire Chief Darryl Griffin, who was among dozens of firefighters and law enforcement officers from several counties at Saturday’s ceremony. “It speaks of what the people here think” of their first responders.
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So far, the Memorial Foundation has raised nearly $70,000 for the effort, all through small donations and T-shirt sales. Volunteers are building the walkways and installing landscaping at the site. Foundation leaders had estimated it would take $120,000 to complete their vision.
“As money comes in, we’ll buy the next walkway or bench,” said Joe Fraser, a foundation board member. “We’re building it one step at a time, all with our own hands.”
Fraser said the volunteers are driven by a simple goal: “We feel strongly that we don’t say thanks to first responders enough.”
Chatham County resident Joe Dittmar has seen the sacrifice firsthand, having narrowly escaped from the 105th floor of the south tower on Sept. 11, 2001. He told his story during Saturday’s ceremony.
Dittmar, then a Chicago resident, was at the World Trade Center attending a meeting of insurance executives when the first plane hit the north tower. A volunteer fire marshal ordered Dittmar’s group to evacuate, and he began the long trek down. He’d made it to around the 70th floor when the second plane hit the building a few floors above him.
Witness to bravery
And when Dittmar reached the 35th floor, he began to pass firefighters and other first responders headed up. He says he could tell from their faces that they didn’t expect to survive.
“They knew they were going up those steps to fight a fire they couldn’t beat,” Dittmar said. “I had a chance to witness bravery and selflessness in the most incredible way that day.”
Dittmar had been out of the building only for about eight minutes when it collapsed. Thirteen years later, he shares his experience often to make sure that the sacrifices made that morning aren’t forgotten.
He says he’s especially pleased to see a memorial in the community he now calls home. “This memorial is a true labor of love,” he said. “It’s here to forever carry on the memory of scores of first responders who have given their lives to save others here in Chatham County” and across the U.S.
Saturday’s dedication has been in the works for years. Fraser got the idea for the memorial in 2011, writing to New York City officials to request a beam from Ground Zero. Later that year, a group from Chatham County headed to New York to haul the 12,000-pound beam to its new resting place.
“This has been a long journey to get where we are, and it’s been a hard road,” Chatham County Commissioner Pam Stewart said.