Princeton deputy fire chief fights for 9/11 memorial despite cross etched into World Trade Center beam

By Jon Offredo The Times of Trenton

Princeton Deputy Fire Chief Roy James poses for a portrait with a steel beam from the World Trade Center in Princeton. Andrew Miller/for the Times of Trenton

Princeton Deputy Fire Chief Roy James poses for a portrait with a steel beam from the World Trade Center in Princeton. Andrew Miller/for the Times of Trenton

PRINCETON — For three years Roy James, the town’s deputy fire chief, has pursued a plan to build a 9/11 memorial in Princeton with a piece of wreckage from the World Trade Center complex.

“When I get something in my head, I’m going to do what I have to do until I get it,” he said. “I don’t take no for an answer.”

On Monday he brought that plan to the town’s council, having finally secured a 10-foot-long, 2-ton, steel beam salvaged from the Twin Towers. It was brought down from Brooklyn last year on a flatbed truck in an emotional procession of motorcycles and first response vehicles. James said the beam was the only one available and it came with a hole in the shape of a cross that had been cut into one side of the beam.

That cross had town officials concerned this week that displaying it on public property could violate the separation of church and state and leave the town vulnerable to legal action.

“It’s very meaningful for Princeton to have something from the site. We know our community was affected by the tragic events,” Councilwoman Heather Howard said Wednesday. “We have to do due diligence on the legal end with issues if government is promoting one religion over another. There may be legal risks.”

An easy fix they say is to hide the cross. The plan, as currently proposed, calls for the beam to be sandwiched by several limestone pillars on each side and partially driven into the ground. Town officials believe the cross could be turned so it faces the limestone and is out of public view. The memorial would be erected on Monument Drive, near the center of town.

Hiding the cross is something James doesn’t want to see happen, though he accepts that he may have to make concessions to see some of the memorial built this year. He said the goal is to at least drive the beam into the ground by September 11 in time for a small ceremony and winterization. The full unveiling would be the year after, he said.

“I believe it (the cross) is part of history. By hiding it or doing anything else with it — you’re hiding or taking away history from people,” he said. It was common practice shortly after the terror strikes for workmen to cut symbols out of pieces of wreckage for people to keep as memorials.

The 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people, including many from the Mercer County area who worked at the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan.

James has long contended that the cross on his piece of metal has nothing to do with religion. “It’s a symbol of hope and a symbol of remembrance,” he said. “It was never supposed to be a religious symbol. It was always supposed to be something that got people through. I’m Jewish and it doesn’t make me think of Christianity.”

Council members said this week that they’re not opposed to the project at all; they just harbor concerns that having the cross so prominently displayed could offer up the notion that Princeton endorses one particular religion and is potentially doing so with taxpayer money, on public property.

Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said Wednesday she’s heard concerns from several residents about the cross and expects the town to get sued if they turn it into a memorial.

“Some people don’t like religious symbols on public property,” she said, adding that she wants to see the project done, but with the cross hidden if possible.

Mayor Liz Lempert said she thinks the cross is part of the history of the attacks, but she said it would need to be explained in some way at the memorial.

“We need to do something that is appropriate, sensitive and that helps everyone remember,” she said.

Dave Muscato, public relations director with the American Atheists, headquartered in Cranford, said Wednesday he had not heard of the proposal in Princeton, but that public officials have to be very careful about giving the perception that their government endorses a particular religion.

“Ideally you wouldn’t have religious symbols on government property, just in the spirit of the separation of church and state,” he said.

Ultimately it comes down to how the beam is interpreted, he said.

“It’s really up to every person to decide in some sense whether or not something has religious significance or not,” he said.

If built, the site would feature more than the beam, James said. It would also include another column residents could have their own symbolic meanings of 9/11 etched onto.

James said he wants to have a website component allowing residents to post stories explaining the story behind their unique mark. There are also plans to have strips of limestone laid in the ground featuring poetry.

“We really want to involve the community and create more than just a piece of steel in the ground,” he said. “We want people to be able to go there, sit there, learn something and never forget.”

The overall cost of the project would be somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000. The money could either be fronted by the town, or obtained via donations, James said. He said he’s had plenty of interest so far from potential donors, but wants to avoid taking people’s money prior to gaining town approval.

After being heard by council this week, the plan is expected to go in front of the Historic Preservation Commission for review. Then, it could possibly come before council again. In the meantime the town will consult with their attorney over the project and the cross, and try to figure out how it could provide funds for the memorial.

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