For the better part of a decade, Lenny Campanale kept a secret in his drawer, an artifact hidden from everyone except his wife and the nearly 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
No one else — not even his kids — knew about the history Campanale saved from the New York City sidewalks in 2001, a precious gift from the iron workers who were cutting fallen beams from the World Trade Center.
“It was just something I found on the floor,” said Campanale, who works as a custodian at Newtown Middle School, after spending 20 years with the NYPD. “I just saw it and picked it up. I took it home and I didn’t think about it for a long time.”
The sacred steel was the size of a candy bar, just small enough that Lenny Campanale, then serving with Transit District No. 12, could easily slip it into his pocket.
But this steel was never meant to be tucked away. Somehow, Campanale always knew it was meant to be shared.
A few days ago, Campanale and Reed Bryant, an eighth-grader at Newtown Middle School, unveiled a custom display case that Reed made to show the Sept. 11 steel in the school lobby. The presentation was the highlight of a ceremony organized by Don Ramsey, Reed’s technology education teacher.
Two models that Reed built were also shown here — one of the Twin Towers he made last year, and one he made this year of the Sept. 11 Memorial and 1 World Trade Center, the skyscraper formerly known as the Freedom Tower.
The healing of a city and its skyline — and the healing of America, for that matter — is important to us all, Reed explained.
“The passion of the people who are rebuilding the new World Trade Center is astounding,” Reed said. “It’s incredible to see how much their work means to them and everyone else.”
In some ways, however, it is no more incredible than the unlikely bond that grew between a retired New York City cop and an eighth-grade kid from Newtown.
“I spent many hours and many days down there (at Ground Zero). It was a very sad time in my life,” Campanale said at the ceremony, turning toward Reed as he looked as the display case. “I’m proud that you could make something so nice out of this.”
The stories of Sept. 11 are meant to be shared, you see, like the steel Lenny Campanale pulled out of his drawer.
For Reed Bryant, who was 3 years old when the terrorists attacked, creating models and display cases is another way to remember these victims and their families.
“It’s the sheer tragedy of that day, the intensity of so many emotions, that has really touched Reed,” said Colleen Bryant, Reed’s mother. “He just cares so deeply about what we lost that day. He knows those aren’t just buildings. They represent so much more than that.”
Ramsey described Reed’s two models as “museum-quality work.” Indeed, these elaborate models are as majestic and enduring as they are heartbreaking.
During the ceremony, another Newtown resident, Howard Lasher, gave Ramsey a framed photograph of the Sept. 11 memorial trees he commissioned with his wife, Jeanette; Southbury’s David Merrill painted the American flag across the cluster of trees, an image that has made its way all around the world, Lasher said.
“Thanksgiving is a day when we pause to give thanks for the things we have,” said Lasher, who watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center from his office at the American Stock Exchange. “Memorial Day is a day when we pause to give thanks to all the people who fought for the things we have in our great nation.”
Campanale appreciates those words.
On the day after the terrorist attacks, Campanale worked 14 hours at Ground Zero. Even then, Campanale realized it was only the beginning of a historic cleanup.
“My clothes were completely white. You couldn’t tell they were blue when I started the day,” said Campanale, who grew up in the Bronx, but moved to Newtown six years ago with his wife, Diane, and their family. “The dust was everywhere.”
And it didn’t care if you were wearing a mask.
Two years after his Ground Zero assignment, Campanale was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. To this day, he blames the dirty air in lower Manhattan for his illness.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” the 48-year-old Campanale said. “I also know I have a lot to be thankful for.”
Earlier this month, Campanale’s older two children, Richard and Christine, graduated from college. Within days, his younger son, James, had graduated from boot camp at Fort Benning in Georgia.
On Monday, James Campanale will leave for Germany before heading to Afghanistan to fight for his country, to make sure nobody ever picks up another piece of broken steel.
“Even if I didn’t look at that steel for a long time, I always knew it was there in the drawer,” Campanale said. “But it wasn’t until I gave it to Don Ramsey and Reed — so everyone could see it — that it really became special.”