09/14/11 10:14pm

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Firemen on Sunday, September 11 unveiled a piece of World Trade Center steel they had mounted near the Center firehouse as a memorial to the 343 firefighters who died in the terrorist attack a decade ago.

A small piece of the World Trade Center (WTC) has come to Shelter Island and is on display near the Center Firehouse as a memorial to all firefighters lost in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack. The section of iron girder is set into a simple concrete platform. Its only adornment is a brass fire department insignia and the numbers “343,” a reference to the number of firemen who died that day.

The memorial was ready for its unofficial unveiling last Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the attack, thanks to the efforts of a group of firefighters and Islanders and the “driving force” behind the project, Arthur Bloom, according to First Assistant Chief John D’Amato.

The event was low key and received no advance publicity at the express request of the department. No mention of the dedication ceremony was included in any listing of commemorative events planned on the Island that day.

“We didn’t want to publicize it and not produce it,” said Chief D’Amato. “We had such a short time frame in which to work; it really was a last minute thing.”

“We want to dispel the notion that this was a secret,” Mr. Bloom said. “We just didn’t want to announce a big gala event and then fail. We weren’t sure until almost 9-11 that it was actually going to be there.”

Chief D’Amato concurred. “It was a nice little gathering right after the Legion ceremony” on Sunday; “it was a small ceremony just to say it was here. We wanted a low key event; we’re Shelter Island. Our focus was on honoring these men, not on having a big ceremony.”

According to Chief D’Amato, Mr. Bloom had proposed getting an artifact from the Trade Center back in January. With the approval of the department, he began working with the WTC Artifacts Commission. The request was bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape and seemed doomed for oblivion until the Bethpage Fire Department unexpectedly offered to give a piece of Twin Towers girder it was not using to the Shelter Island department. Even then, the combination of the Fire Department’s Chicken BBQ and Country Fair and the arrival of Hurricane Irene threatened to derail the memorial’s completion in time for the anniversary. “The hurricane really put a crimp in our schedule,” Chief D’Amato said.

Mr. Bloom, whom Chief D’Amato called the “unofficial chairman” of the project, conceived of the idea after reading about WTC artifacts that were being transported to locations as distant as Kansas and Tokyo. “I knew these pieces were available and I thought it appropriate that Shelter Island had a small piece of steel.”

Closer to home, a girder from one of the towers resides in Peconic, where it is displayed with the osprey sculpture that was formerly in Greenport as that hamlet’s 9-11 memorial.

“Two of the 343 (killed) were personal friends,” Mr. Bloom recalled. “They were instructors at the fire academy at Yaphank and taught many of us.”

In starting this project, Mr. Bloom initially went “right to the source,” the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. By March, however, he still didn’t have an answer beyond a message saying, “You’re on the pile of requests; be patient.” In July, he was told that a piece of steel could be had once a 50-page legal document was completed. “July is followed by August,” Mr. Bloom said, “August means the BBQ and the County Fair; we couldn’t do much then.”

As luck would have it, a new fire department recruit was going to training in western Suffolk. Afterwards, a chief from the Bethpage Fire Department remarked that he had heard Shelter Island was looking for a piece of the WTC and Bethpage had an extra piece of steel. Did Shelter Island want it? It turned out that Bethpage actually had two pieces of girder, one 30 feet in length and the other about four feet. The Shelter Island Fire Department chose the smaller length because, according to Mr. Bloom, “The further you get away from New York City, the smaller the memorial should be.”

On August 3, a Center fire truck went to Bethpage to bring the girder to the island. It was wrapped in an American flag that had been flown in Afghanistan and escorted by off-duty patrolmen from the Suffolk Highway Department and three ceremonial motorcycle brigades, the Red Knights, the Patriot Guard and riders from the VFW.

Island sculptor Hap Bowditch, a member of the fire department, donated his services to execute the piece. The simple design, as envisioned by Mr. Bloom, is meant to evoke “a beam in the wreckage of a cement building. It’s supposed to make you cry, not smile,” he stated.

Other community members contributed time and talent to dig and pour the foundation and do all that was necessary to prepare the site. The timing was, in a word, tight, Mr. Bloom said. “The Country Fair had to be over before we could pour the foundation,” he recalled. Then the fair was postponed for a week on account of Irene. “The hurricane set everything back,” he said. As a result, the digging and pouring of the foundation took place under a tent in the rain just days before the anniversary.

The cost of the project has been about $300 so far, primarily for the cement, though Mr. Bloom noted that Suffolk Cement waived its usual small load fees for the project; the North and South ferries donated the ferriage. Fire department, not district funds have been used so far, according to Mr. Bloom.

He said the memorial still is not finished. Landscaping and a “meditation bench” are planned. Once these are in place, a formal dedication will be held, most likely, he said, on Memorial Day, 2012.

In the meantime, the simple memorial is a stark reminder of the events of that beautiful September morning 10 years ago. “For us, it’s about the firemen. Lots of us knew some of those 343 who lost their lives so this memorial is almost personal,” said Chief D’Amato.