Thousands of people every day drive past the cluster of nondescript industrial buildings along Beltline Boulevard between Shop Road and Bluff Road in Columbia. But few realize history is being made — literally — inside those colossal sheds.
There, Owen Steel workers have labored day and night to fabricate the massive steel beams that will make up the 71-story Tower Three of the new World Trade Center after the original towers were destroyed in the most devastating terrorist attacks ever on the United States 11 years ago.
Over the past five years, workers at Owen also have provided the beams for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero, the new underground transit station and the foundation on which much of the complex sits.
“It’s one of the truly great rebuilding projects in American history,” Owen Steel president David Zalesne said last week after leading a tour through the steamy, sprawling fabrication plant east of USC’s Williams-Brice Stadium. “It’s a proud moment for us as a company.”
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Today marks the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
On that terrible Tuesday morning, terrorists hijacked four passenger jets, two of which struck Towers One and Two of the World Trade Center in New York, causing them to collapse. A third plane was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon in Washington.
A fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa., after its passengers tried to wrest control of it from the hijackers. It had been bound for the Capitol building.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks, including the 246 civilians and 19 hijackers aboard the four planes.
The collapse of the two towers – within hours after impact — was broadcast live to the world, and burned a horrific image into the American psyche. The attacks also launched the United States and its allies into two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have cost the lives of nearly 8,000 coalition service members, as well as countless tens of thousands of insurgents and civilians.
Cleanup of the World Trade Center site was completed in May 2002 and work began shortly after to rebuild the trade center, anchored by the new memorial museum. It will be crowned by the 104-story 1 World Trade Center Tower, which is a symbolic 1,776 feet tall.
While Owen fabricated the steel for the memorial, the steel for the crowning tower is being provided by another company.
Owen is cranking out beams at its 27-acre plant for Tower Three of the four towers that will make up the center. It is also fabricating steel for a hospital and an office building in Philadelphia as well as the new Moore School of Business in Columbia.
Workers there like T.J. Jordan take great pride in all of their work. But the World Trade Center job is special.
“When it’s finished, I’ll feel like I’m a part of it,” said Jordan, who has worked at 76-year-old company for 38 years. “All of Owen Steel and everyone I work with will be a part of it.”
Owen, also headquartered in Columbia, gets the big jobs because it can handle the big beams required to build them — some weighing as much as 80 tons.
“There are a handful of plants in the country that can lift that much,” said Lynn Dempsey, vice president of operations.
The company won the World Trade Center contract by competitive bid, but the firm won’t say how much the contract is worth.
Owen makes most of the huge support beams from scratch. Rolled steel is brought into the plant on rail cars, then cut to form the sides of the massive box girders. Up to 100 layers of welds are needed to hold the sides together.
The beams are then ground smooth, various braces and brackets are attached and holes are drilled — all according to complex blueprints that allow construction workers 600 miles away to put them together down to the quarter of an inch.
“It’s like a giant Erector set,” Dempsey said.
This round of work is winding down on the steel for Tower Three. The developers are building the tower higher only as they receive more tenants. They are up to floor seven of the planned 71-story skyscraper. More steel will be fabricated at Owen as it is needed.
And when that final topping out ceremony is held, Owen Steel workers will have a sense of achievement few can claim.
“It’s a pretty cool thing that I have something to do with this,” said Richard Cooper, 28, as he grinded away at a trade center beam last week. “I’m glad I’m a part of it. They can knock it down, but we’re gonna build it right back up.”