Special Reports

Honor the fallen

By Meghan Boyer

Fabricating the National September 11 Memorial requires precision, innovation and the ability to work under pressure

November/December 2011- Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001: 2,753 people were killed in New York, 184 people were killed at the Pentagon and 40 people were killed on Flight 93. After the horror of that day, the nation looked for ways to remember and honor them—first with tears and vigils and eventually with permanent memorials.

The National September 11 Memorial opened for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Moving from design to completed memorial required precise metalwork, innovative techniques and the hard work of dedicated fabricating teams at Service Metal Fabricating Inc., Rockaway, N.J., and KC Fabrications Inc., Gardiner, N.Y.

The expectations for the memorial were high. “The pressure to deliver and perform at a high level has never been larger than this. Everybody is watching,” says Joe Moretti, president of Service Metal Fabricating.

Despite the pressure, it was an honor to work on the memorial, Moretti says. “For a lot of these people, this is their final resting place. This is their tombstone. A lot of these families never got to have a proper burial,” he says. “You have got to honor them.”

Victims’ families would look at the memorial, and “they were so appreciative of what we were doing. I could just never begin to imagine what they were going through waiting for this to happen,” says Christopher Powers, a co-founder of KC Fabrications. “This isn’t the most complex fabrication in the world, but it’s the most important fabrication in the world, and it needs to be treated that way.”

The memorial, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, consists of two pools that rest in the original footprints of the World Trade Center towers, according to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation Inc. Each side of the pools measures roughly 200 ft. in length. Lining the memorial pools are 1⁄2-in.-thick bronze plates that bear the 2,983 names of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and also those killed in the Feb. 26, 1993, World Trade Center bombing.

Service Metal Fabricating performed the initial fabrication of each bronze parapet that surrounds the pools, including waterjet cutting victims’ names, machining the plates and bending them. KC Fabrications assembled and welded different parts of the memorial and applied a patina to the surface. The company also worked on-site to assemble the pieces, weld the corners and complete finishing details.


Names in bronze
For most national memorial visitors, the bronze plates are the focal point because they display the waterjet-cut names of the victims. The memorial includes roughly 15,000 sq. ft. of bronze surface made up of 152 straight brass parapets that measure 5 ft. by 10 ft. each as well as eight corners, says Powers. The material is C280 marine-grade brass, which can be extremely difficult to weld because of the zinc content, he says.

In addition to the waterjet-cut names, the panels include engraved numerators, such as N for North and a numeral to indicate which panel number from one to 76. For instance, a person could be looking for a name on panel N30 or S48. The panels also have raised letters for categorical separation, such as Flight 93 or Flight 175. Service Metal cut the names, machined the raised letters and etched the numerators.

Determining how to create the raised letters was a challenge, says Moretti. “We developed a process where we embossed the panels up about 3⁄16 in. and then machined away what we didn’t want and left the raised letters behind,” he says, noting a lot of trial and error went into developing the process. “We required a lot of lace cutting and ball-milling and those kinds of techniques to get it to look right, to give it the illusion that it was cast, but it’s really not cast.”

Each panel was unique in terms of the names it included and how many raised letters it required. Depending on how many embossments workers had to complete on a panel, it could take from one week to form and up to two weeks to machine. Panels without raised letters moved more quickly through the fabrication process.

If there were no raised letters, workers could waterjet cut the panel shape and the names immediately. “If there were raised letters in it, the first process would be to emboss the plate in all of its proper locations and then take it to the waterjet,” says Moretti, noting the embossing process had to occur first because it would have caused pulling and stretching of the waterjet-cut letters. “The embosses would have to be very close to the letters, so you wouldn’t have been able to do it the other way around,” he says.

The average panel took roughly six hours to cut using a waterjet from Tallmadge, Ohio-based WardJet. Cutting the names was not a complicated process, says Moretti. “We received CAD files from the architect, which arranged the names, created the spacings of the names and had the spellings of the names,” he says.

To engrave the numerators, Service Metal had to develop a process that would machine scripted letters and numbers. “Basically, there wasn’t a straight line on the entire geometry,” because the original plan called for making a casting and welding it in, says Moretti. “It really stretched our engineering and fabrication to the limits.”

After engraving, workers flipped over each piece and began v-grooving them and machining the other features. This included tapping hundreds of holes for the letter counters, which are the middles of letters such as O, D and R. The design incorporates both large and small capital letters, so the team was working with 14 potential letter counters. The small-capital A was the most-frequent letter counter, with roughly 5,000 occurrences, says Moretti. In total, there were more than 17,000 counter pieces that workers had to machine, he says.

The original plan was to waterjet cut the letter centers and then weld a wire to the back of them and also weld the wire to the back of the panel. That method would require more than 100,000 welds just to put the counters in place and make quality control difficult, says Moretti. “We basically engineered all of that out of it by making it screw-on and then making every counter unique so you couldn’t possibly put the wrong one in the wrong spot,” he says, which means a counter for an O could not be screwed into the spot for a D.

Quality control with the names and counters was paramount: “You can’t have a family go out there and see something wrong with a loved one’s name,” says Moretti.

Internal components 
On the underside of the bronze plates, workers had to fabricate many internal components to house the plumbing equipment, lights, heating and cooling systems, hinges and more, says Moretti. The parapets sit on a concrete pad, and the supply for the plumbing and electrical components is underground. Two 10-ft.-long hollow pedestals hold each parapet section, and the wires and pipes for the different elements snake through them, he says. Notched doors around the pedestal block everything from view.

“If you look at the back of the panel, it’s just peppered with machine features, holes, tapped holes, chamfers on the edges,” says Moretti. All of the machined features had to be fabricated tightly to hide them from public view. “It’s a very precise job. We had to work with very close tolerances for all of this to sit, work and be concealed,” he says, noting he used type 316 stainless steel and some plastic parts for the internal materials.

The memorial is a blend of unique aspects and uniform components. “Even though every panel is different and the names are different, they’re all the same” in terms of the underlying structure, says Moretti. The backside of each panel is uniform except for the location of the letter counters, he says. Uniform elements helped streamline fabrication, and it will make it easier to replace components in the future.

After machining the underside of the panels, Service Metal formed them using a press brake, says Moretti. His company purchased a press brake with lifting arms on either side of it and special control software for the project. “There was a lot of pressure because some of these panels were basically invaluable at the point where we’re ready to bend them. You’ve put so much work into it, and you don’t have time to go back and start over,” he says.

Panels had to be bent exactly the same so they would match up perfectly when installed together at the site, says Moretti. Once workers established the bending process, they could repeat it because all the straight panels are bent in the same way and the corner panels have the same bends.

“It was by far the most-challenging job we have ever done, and we do a lot of challenging jobs here,” says Moretti. His company completed its fabricating work on the project in a little more than 11 months.

Assembly and finishing
After Service Metal completed the forming aspects, the company sent the pieces to KC Fabrications for the finishing work and assembly of components, such as the doors and stainless steel stiffeners.

The panels had tool-path marks on them, and the v-grooves were visible at the edges, says Kurt Wulfmeyer, a co-founder with Powers of KC. Workers hand-sanded the material and filled in the v-grooves. “It was good, old-fashioned hand work to replace what was missing,” he says.


The company also applied a patina to the metal. It was a critical element because “it’s what the families physically are going to touch. It has to be durable,” says Powers. “We would patina them, we would clear coat them and then we would wax them.” After which, workers prepared the panels for shipment.

To apply the patina, workers had to heat the metal surface and apply a chemical over the entire parapet, says Powers. It needed time to cure prior to application of the wax. Depending on the schedule, “our painter had to be prepared to come in at all hours to get everything sprayed,” he says.

When the elements of the memorial arrived on-site, KC workers had to assemble and weld the corners because they could not be delivered as a single unit. Every corner of the memorial is welded, sanded and finished as a single unit, says Powers. “I think we spent 18 hours a day for two days in a row just TIG welding those corners.”

The corners required special attention, “because the pools are so big, being off one arc degree out of 90 is not good enough because you just see the kink,” says Wulfmeyer. “When you look down 200 ft., you see that panel is not pointing in straight.”

The significance of the memorial nationally and also personally meant metalworkers were willing to work on the project late nights and early mornings, notes Powers. “It just became so personal and emotional that it didn’t really matter how bad the weather was, how cold we were. You had this lump in your throat because that’s what these people have been waiting for for 10 years,” he says. FFJ

The memorial by the numbers 
8,151 tons of structural steel used in the memorial and museum when complete.

2,983 names listed on the memorial. 1,000 lbs. weighs each of the 1⁄2-in.-thick bronze panels lining the memorial pools.

5 hours, approximately, to cut each bronze panel for the memorial.

8 hours, approximately, for two workers to hand-patina each bronze panel.

45 seconds, on average, to waterjet cut each letter on the memorial panels.

Source: The National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation Inc.


A new plan 
The original plan for the National September 11 Memorial included a lot more welding than what went into the actual memorial—so much welding, in fact, the time and cost required to complete the project would have been unachievable, says Christopher Powers, co-founder of KC Fabrications. He and his partner, Kurt Wulfmeyer, also co-founder of KC, pitched a different method that eliminated much of the welding.

The original plan “was presented with the methodology of panels being welded together and painstakingly sanded and filed and straightened,” says Wulfmeyer. “It was a pretty primitive way to make this thing,” and it would be difficult to replicate the process for all 152 panels. “They would all look slightly different,” he says.

Powers and Wulfmeyer developed a plan that involved folding the plate. “We knew we could bevel the back of the 1⁄2-in. plate and fold it, and we could still get that nice, tight radius and it would be structurally sound,” says Powers. Working with Service Metal Fabricating Inc., Rockaway, N.J., the KC team developed a sample for the memorial committee in less than two days.

Service Metal “really came through and delivered all the rough parts to us,” says Wulfmeyer. “We had to weld it together, sand it, patinate it, crate it and deliver it all by 10 o’clock the next morning. It didn’t seem possible, but we somehow did it.”

The committee liked what it saw and selected the new method—along with its fabricators—to create the national memorial.


Sacred Steel
In the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, communities and organizations across the country have created their own monuments to mark the events of that day and the lives lost. Some 1,100 pieces of 9/11 wreckage, typically steel girders, have been made available for memorials, according to CNBC.

The Carteret Fire Department in Carteret, N.J., did not have a plan in place for its piece of 9/11 steel prior to receiving it, says Captain Mark Hruska, president of Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association Local #67. Then he remembered a teacher named Joseph Gess from roughly 10 years earlier when his daughter attended the Piscataway Campus of the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical High Schools.

The fire department reached out to the school and asked officials if Gess and his students would be able to fabricate a memorial from the steel. Gess and eleven students took on the project, ultimately creating a lasting memorial the department installed in front of its headquarters and learning more about the national tragedy in the process.

Fabricating a project using 9/11 steel is different from working with a regular piece of metal. “That steel to us is a sacred piece,” says Hruska.

The department received a steel spandrel, which is a connecting piece between two beams for support. When Gess first looked at the piece, the way it was bent reminded him of a flag waving in the wind. In creating the design of the memorial, Gess was not allowed to cut the 9/11 steel, but he could drill holes in it.

The memorial’s design incorporates the uncut 9/11 steel as a flag, which waves behind an eagle’s head. “If you look at the eagle’s head, you will see that it has a tear coming out of its eye,” says Gess. The eagle “is a powerful symbol, a symbol of our country. The tear coming out of his eye is because a lot of people shed a lot of tears that day.”

The students worked on the project for roughly three months. As they fabricated the memorial, they learned about the different first responders who died on 9/11. “Talking about a victim or a hero, it became very personal for them,” says Gess. The project was very personal for the students, who volunteered not only their class time but also some of their free time to the memorial. When the students finished working on the project, the Carteret Fire Department put together a motorcade to transport the memorial and the students the roughly 21 miles from the school to the firehouse.

“The big message to take away from this from the worker standpoint is the fact of how much impact their work has on people’s lives,” says Hruska. “Oftentimes, at least I have found in the trades, especially the service industry, the contribution by the worker goes unnoticed.” The students using their metalworking skills to create this memorial, however, touched countless lives in a positive way, he says. To read more about the memorial in Carteret, N.J., visit

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