Forsyth County Fire Department Division Chief Jason Shivers recalled that he was on duty on Sept. 11, 2001. He and the rest of his crew had just gotten back to Fire Station 1 in downtown Cumming when they got a call from someone at another station.
“’You need to turn on CNN,’” he remembered them saying.
They turned on the news and saw one of the twin towers in New York City ablaze, and just a few moments later, they watched as the second plane crashed into the other tower. Much like every other American at the time, Shivers and the other firefighters in the station were glued to the television for the rest of the morning.
“When the first tower collapsed, I still remember clearly to this day the words that came out of my mouth — we just lost a lot of firemen,” Shivers said.
And he was right.
Shivers still knows the number off of the top of his head — 343 firefighters died in New York that day, fighting to save the lives of thousands of others who fell victim to the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Nearly four years later, Lt. Brian Gary delivered a Sept. 11 relic, a piece of a support beam taken from one of the towers during the recovery and clean-up effort that took place after the attack, back to Forsyth County with the help of close friends at the Fire Department of the City of New York to display and serve as a way to remember those who lost their lives that day.
Shivers said that the piece of steel was one of many that had been collected by the New York Port Authority, who owned the World Trade Center, and given to the FDNY to stockpile and use in any memorials or monuments that they wanted to plan for families in the city.
Gary, whose family is from New York and has a close relationship with those that serve in the FDNY, said that then Forsyth County Fire Chief Danny Bowman approached him in 2005 to ask if he would be willing to contact the department in New York to ask about bringing one of the pieces down to Forsyth.
Construction was nearly finished on the Public Safety Headquarters building located on Settingdown Road in North Forsyth at the time, and Chief Bowman said that he had wanted to include a memorial inside of the new building to serve as a space for firefighters and community members to pause, pray and remember all of the service men and woman and civilians who died that day.
Gary said that when Bowman first approached him about the idea, he was reluctant to even reach out about the steel piece.
“It was a mass grave,” Gary said. “And so any relic from that site, to me, was extraordinarily sacred and not something to be used inappropriately.”
Shivers said that, only four years after Sept. 11, it was still a very sensitive and emotional subject for many.
“And it still is to this day, but especially then, there were a number of firefighters, police officers, and numerous civilians who had never been found,” Shivers said.
Eventually, Bowman assured Gary that the beam would be treated with the greatest respect, and he agreed to make sure the beam would remain indoors and secure while still being accessible to the public.
Gary reached out to then FDNY Chief Salvatore Cassano, and he said he thought it was an outstanding idea to create a memorial in Forsyth County with the metal. He was proud to hand off the beam to Gary, knowing it would be in good hands.
Soon after, Gary got in his truck with his family and drove nearly 900 miles up to New York City to bring the steel home himself.
“I still remember clearly when Brian backed up to the front door and opened the back door of his truck,” Shivers said. “It was laid in a very somber place of honor, wrapped in a turnout coat.”
Shivers said that the FDNY agreed to permanently loan the beam to the Forsyth County Fire Department under three regulations: it can never be inaccessible to the public, meaning it cannot be behind glass or a rope where others cannot place their hands on the steel; it is a permanent loan from the FDNY and the Forsyth County Fire Department does not now own the beam; and if anything ever changes or they need to move the beam, it must be sent back to the FDNY.
When the department first received the beam, they had to shave off a few sharp pieces of metal that were hanging off of the front to make sure that no one hurt themselves while coming in to touch the piece, and, in a show of his dedication and commitment to the FDNY, Bowman kept the small shavings and sent them all the way back to New York.
Servicemen brought the steel into the headquarters for the first time during the grand opening ceremonies for the new Public Safety Headquarters. Both active and retired members of the FDNY carried the steel in with Forsyth County firefighters in a stokes basket, handling it with care.
“I feel very blessed to work for an agency that wanted to demonstrate that level of respect and remembrance of the sacrifices that the members made,” Gary said. “Those men saved over 10,000 human lives that day. That’s significant. We work our whole careers, and we’re blessed to save one person. That’s why we do this job.”
Shivers said that the beam was welded to a piece of Forsyth County steel, and that steel is wrapped in black, Georgia granite. Forsyth County Fire mechanics bolted the memorial through the floor and smashed the threads of each bolt so that the steel can never be moved without great effort. There are lights above where the steel now sits, shining directly onto the memorial, that never turn off, and a camera watches the steel 24/7.
Now, families can visit the headquarters anytime to see the steel, blackened from the fires in the tower. It rests more than a foot from the wall of the building to give visitors room to walk around it and take in both sides of the metal — the seared off bolts in the back and rigid fly section in the front.
“A lot of people died that day trying to protect others in that building, and it’s not meant to be a cold, untouchable monument to them,” Shivers said. “It’s meant to help remember them, and there is no better way to do that than to let families take photos with it and share that experience together for the next generation and the next generation.”
Shivers and Gary both emphasized the importance of taking a moment, especially during this time of year, to pause and remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001, of all of the nearly 3,000 American lives lost that day and to teach those who are too young to remember themselves.
Gary remembers the feeling of connectedness and collective mourning that everyone in the country shared that day.
“It was horrific,” Gary said. “We were attacked for no reason other than to cause harm and create hate. But the people who did that failed. They failed because the only thing that they did was they brought this country together, stronger than any time that I can remember.”
He recalled that after watching the news that day, everyone was suddenly able to set aside their differences.
“On Sept. 11 of 2001 by 10 in the morning, the only thing that mattered when people said where they were from — is they said they were Americans,” Gary said.
Shivers explained that one of the reasons the country builds monuments, memorials and statues is to remember those that came before us and to try to never repeat the tragedies that citizens remember from the past.
He brought up one phrase that has been associated with Sept. 11 since that day 19 years ago — never forget. It is a phrase that citizens, and especially firefighters, know very well. And one that accompanies Forsyth County firefighters on all of their calls as the letters are printed near the passenger door of every one of their fire engines with an American flag.
“That’s exactly why we have that monument there,” Shivers said. “Otherwise, we will forget. And by doing so, we never teach.
“You’ve got to mean it when you say it. Never forget means never forgetting.”