Along the Shore, rebuilding 9/11 memorials for memory’s sake

Mark Di Ionno, Star-Ledger 

The lonely, distinct notes of Taps were absent from the UnionBeach 9/11 ceremony Wednesday morning. So was the 21-gun salute that once echoed over the Raritan Bay. Instead of the uniformed color guard, the solemn members of American Legion Post 321, which donated the black marble beachfront memorial, wore shorts and Legion sport shirts.

Bill Schultz, the post commander, ended the morning ceremony with an unnecessary apology.

“I’m sorry we don’t have our bugle and weapons, but all of our stuff got destroyed,” he said to the small crowd, some of them wearing red, white and blue “U.B. Strong” T-shirts. “But when we get back on our feet …”

Along the bayfront, 9/11 memorials were built to face the New York skyline. Some had etchings of the Twin Towers in the exact place they appeared on the horizon.

People who gathered along the waterfront 12 years ago to watch the black smoke rise off the NorthTower saw the fireball when the SouthTower was hit.

“A few seconds later, we felt the concussion from the blast,” said Bob McBurnie, a retired Middletown detective. “It was such a clear day. I haven’t seen a clear day like that since.”

One of the people watching that day was Robert Heltzman, known as “Stretch” around town. Heltzman was so moved — maybe distraught is a better word — he organized a waterfront memorial next to the state marina in the Leonardo section of Middletown.

It took three years to get the etched, black marble monolith in place. A similar-sized tablet with the names of all 37 of the town’s victims was donated by the Elks, and a smaller one for Mychal Judge, the New York Fire Department chaplain who died in the attack, followed.

But nature has taken it away. Hurricane Irene knocked down the brick wall, a nor’easter toppled the Elks tablet. It was moved to higher ground, as was the Judge memorial. Heltzman died five years ago, and the town’s annual ceremony was moved to WTC Memorial Gardens, where it was held again last evening.

Sandy left the memorial beach piled with sand and twisted guardrails, and uprooted the dune shrubs. The monument was knocked over, scratched and chipped; the flagpoles fell like lumber trees.

On Tuesday, McBurnie ran his hands over the monument’s scars.

“I promised Stretch I’d take care of it,” he said, before bending down to pick up an empty foil juice pack.

Asked if he felt the monument was neglected, McBurnie said, “People who want to remember it know where it is.”

In UnionBeach, the Legion post was just a couple hundred feet from the Front Street monument park, where the force of water from Sandy was so strong it turned polished black marble into a buoyant material.

“It ended up all the way over there,” said Legionnaire John Lacari, pointing to a spot 20 feet from the monument’s pedestal.

“I don’t know how heavy it is, but we put it in place with a crane,” said Frank Wells, the vice commander. “We sure didn’t expect it to float.”

The town’s World War II monument, with a 6-foot-by-5-foot granite stone large enough to include the names of 343 UnionBeach residents, was knocked off its pedestal. A piece of polished marble, 8 inches thick, that held a bronze plaque of President John F. Kennedy was cracked almost in half at the base and fell. The granite “doughboy,” perched 6 feet in the air above the “Lest We Forget” World War I monument, was snapped at the base.

All are being repaired, much like the rest of the town. During Wednesday’s ceremony, crews digging up the street closed the road but quieted their heavy machinery for the Legionnaires to lay a wreath, while the ladies auxiliary lit a commemorative candle. The flame was protected from the wind, put in a glass enclosure known as a hurricane lamp.

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