ST. JOHNS, Fla. – It all started with a letter.
Jim Springfield scanned over it and signed the bottom. He forgot about it not long after that.
There were plenty of other responsibilities on the desk of the Bartram Trail High School principal.
It wasn’t long after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that Mark Miner, then a senior at Bartram Trail and member of the Young Republicans at the school, wrote a letter — actually multiple letters — to officials in New York City asking for a piece of the World Trade Center wreckage. Time and again Miner was rebuffed. Time and again he tried.
It was a long shot, of course.
Why would a two-year-old high school in St. Johns want a piece of metal from the Trade Center? And why would that request by a school with no ties to New York City have any shot at being fulfilled?
One finally got through. One with Springfield’s name signed at the bottom of it.
More than 19 years later, that piece of the Trade Center, twisted, disfigured, dented and burned, rests in the courtyard at Bartram Trail. That piece of the North Tower was joined with another piece of steel, a polished, shiny stainless piece of metal, to create a sculpture in the shape of a V.
It symbolizes victory.
At the foot of the display, which rises 13 feet in the air, is an inscription of President George W. Bush’s words in the wake of 9/11.
“Terrorist attacks … cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel. But they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
On Wednesday morning at Bartram, three days before the 20th year marking the 9/11 attacks, Springfield, former athletic director Barry Craig and building coordinator Eddie Ponce spoke to faculty at the school, describing just how that 700-pound piece of steel wound up 1,200 miles away from ground zero. Current Bartram principal Chris Phelps wanted to recognize the significance of 9/11, and have those men who were part of bringing a piece of that day to campus.
Miner, who has held several roles in St. Johns County, is currently the chief deputy clerk at the Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller’s Office. He wasn’t able to attend. He continues to serve in the Florida Army National Guard.
Miner wrote that his father was on a flight to Pennsylvania on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and his family wasn’t able to reach him until later that night.
“It feels like a century ago. In other ways, feels like yesterday,” he wrote. “The sense of helplessness we all had and the desire to act was transformational.”
Sandwiched in between the baccalaureate and graduation festivities in mid-May 2002, Springfield said that he was at school when he received a call from someone in New York asking if he was the person who signed off on the request for a piece of the wreckage.
Springfield said it took him a moment to remember the request, the letter he’d signed. Well, the group who Miner wrote to had approved the request, as long as the school didn’t plan on trying to profit off of it.
The program of donating remnants of 9/11 relics would later evolve and fall under the guidance of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operated it from 2010-16. Under its 9/11 World Trade Center artifacts giveaway program, the Port donated more than 2,600 pieces of steel and other items.
“I had almost forgotten about the letter because it had been so long,” he said. “I started at first to think it was a prank, but then I realized it wasn’t.”
While Miner wrote the letter that caught the attention of the officials in New York, the catch was that Springfield had to go and retrieve the piece of steel. The timing was terrible, of course, but Springfield said that the only way that they were permitted to have the steel was if he, as the principal, would get it.
Springfield wasn’t familiar with the New York area, and trying to navigate the city in the months after 9/11 wasn’t going to be easy. So, he asked Ponce and athletic director Barry Craig, who grew up in New York, to go along with him.
Craig said that when the men arrived in New York and saw the sheer magnitude of the destruction, it was difficult to put into words. They took pictures and had to answer to questions of skeptical NYPD officers. The country was still operating at a level of hyper-security. When they arrived on site to pick up the steel, they saw several pieces available.
“What was amazing was the first piece they showed us was like a perfect piece of steel, nice and clean, and it looked like you could have gone to just some steel factory and just got it,” Craig said.
“We wanted something a little more descriptive, something to add a little more impact. So, they were willing to go back in, we showed the piece we wanted, and they cut it off. It’s the piece we see here now today that’s got all the bent steel on it. They told us really what the impact was and what it would have taken for a piece of metal like that to melt, how hot it had to be for that to happen.”
Driving back to Florida was an experience. A giant piece of bent and burnt steel in the back of a truck prompted dozens of questions. When the men answered those at a gas station or a hotel, the responses were mostly the same.
Grief. Silence. Questions.
A 700-pound piece of steel turned those questions into emotions.
When they arrived back at school and Ponce stored in the receiving room, Springfield said a custodian was so upset by it being there that she told him she couldn’t work.
Getting the steel back was one leg of the journey.
With it in Florida, the school turned it over to art teacher Bob Kirk, who helped design what the sculpture would look like. When the piece was taken to a local studio to work on, it did so in silence. Springfield said the studio didn’t want anyone to find out it was taking the project on.
It was still too raw.
“The day the piece of the North Tower of the World Trade Center arrived on campus the reality set in and the emotions came to the surface. We all spent time silently reflecting on the magnitude of the piece of metal before us,” Kirk wrote in an email that was read on Wednesday.
“When I saw the ravaged piece of metal my brain went into high gear. I thought about how we could create something meaningful and relevant for the whole community; something that would be long-lasting for future generations.”
Kirk said that he wanted to contrast the sculpture in a way that represented the power and resolve of a nation alongside the most horrific moment in modern history. The steel from the Trade Center was bent, burned and dented. The other half of the sculpture is polished stainless steel.
It was unveiled on Sept. 11, 2002.
The school has recognized that day on the milestone anniversaries. The first year. The fifth year. The 10th year. But 20 is a big one. Perhaps even more significant than the others.
Among milestone years, 20 marks the first where no students currently in high school, were alive when the attacks occurred.
“I was raised in the 60s and 70s and of course World War II was the oldest thing in the world, that was only 25 years before that,” Springfield said. “So, I’m sure they don’t really relate to it because they didn’t experience it. But as much as the schools can do to remind them what it was and what we did and what happened and that we’ve been fighting this battle ever since, until recently, to prevent it from happening again.”