Archive: Nick Miroff
Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 09/10/2007
Helping 9/11 Healing, Illinois Workers Craft Pentagon Memorial Components
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
ELK GROVE VILLAGE, ILL. -- They arrived in late August on a flatbed truck from Missouri. The three long, arcing, silvery shapes were rough to the touch, their sheen buried under a mottled layer of crusted, cooled steel.
Abe Yousif and his men quickly unloaded the strange cargo and began grinding into the metal with huge, clattering machines and hand tools. There was no time to lose. Over the next year, Yousif's small company, Bucthel Metal Finishing Corp., must custom-polish 184 of the 1,100-pound stainless steel castings, transforming them into perfectly uniform, flawlessly smooth memorial benches -- one for each of the victims who died at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
One year from today, the first Sept. 11 memorial for the nation will open on the grounds of the Pentagon on the spot where American Airlines Flight 77 tore into the building's western side. Workers across the country -- at a foundry in Missouri, at the Pentagon and at Yousif's shop outside Chicago -- are preparing for the occasion by piecing together what will become one of the nation's most emotional, sacred sites.
The cantilevered benches arriving at Bucthel will be the memorial's central feature. Each requires nearly 100 hours of grinding, welding and polishing. Once the benches are complete, Yousif and his men will affix each with an etched nameplate corresponding to one of the lives lost that day -- the moment, Yousif says, when the metal "comes alive."
The weight of this responsibility could not be clearer to him. The Iraq-born Yousif and his 20-odd employees -- all immigrants as well -- are facing their own memories of tragedy and loss as they bring the memorial into being.
Yousif left Baghdad in 1979 at age 24, and he hasn't been back. But his 88-year-old mother is there, along with a brother and sister. A Christian family of Assyrian descent, they live now under threat of Shiite militias who have ordered them to convert to Islam or leave, Yousif said.
Since the war began, Yousif's brother's party-supply business has collapsed -- "no one is having parties anymore," Yousif explained. His sister has stopped going to work. The family rarely ventures outside.
"Every phone call you get, you hope it's not from Iraq," Yousif said. "And you always wonder what is going to happen next."
That one of the most solemn, significant tasks of completing the Pentagon Memorial would fall to an Iraqi American might seem too unlikely to be a coincidence. But the Pentagon Memorial project did not pick Yousif because he was born in Iraq. In fact, it did not pick him at all.
Yousif is a longtime subcontractor for Metaltek International, the company producing the memorial benches in Missouri. And he is not unfamiliar with high-profile jobs. He has made custom handrails for Michael Jordan, statues for the Country Music Awards, even bunny icons for the Playboy mansion. His handiwork is all over the United States.
But the Pentagon Memorial job is unlike any other, Yousif said. If he can make the benches perfect, he believes he will help others to heal. If he can make the metal shine brilliantly, they will feel hope. He wants people to run their fingers along the steel and find, in its clean, immaculate smoothness, something affirming, redeeming even, on a site now scarred by murder and death.
"Being an Arab American, you feel so sorry," Yousif said, sitting in his small office adjacent to the shop, a dim, cavernous warehouse next to a soap factory. Airplanes landing nearby at O'Hare International Airport roared overhead every few minutes, adding to the din of the grinding machines. "It's a feeling like you can contribute something good to this horrible thing if you can make [the benches] look beautiful."
For Yousif and his employees, the project is a chance to create something permanent in the heart of an adopted country. But it is also a reminder of how they got here, and of places and people left behind.
"They remind me of my country," said Vujadin "Joe" Obradovic, a 24-year-old Serbian immigrant hired by Yousif to custom-build the wooden shipping crates that will protect the memorial benches en route to the Pentagon.
The crates resemble pine-box coffins Obradovic saw as a teenager that were used for hasty burials during the 1999 NATO bombing of his country. "Anytime I see a box like this, I see the people who died years ago, friends of mine and cousins who were killed," he said.
Iraq is also on the minds of others at work on the shop floor, where metal dust swirls in the air and blackens workers' arms and faces. Edgar Caiceros's younger brother left for Iraq in July, a 21-year-old Marine fresh into his first tour.
Caiceros, 23, had wanted to join the military, too, but he never finished high school, so he went to work for Yousif instead. "It's hard to have a brother over there and be doing this," he said, wiping flecks of metal from his face during a break. Caiceros and his uncle, Hector Mora, will be grinding the memorial benches for eight, 10, 12 hours a day for the next 10 months. Both were born in Mexico.
"I start thinking how if something happens to my brother, would I do one of these pieces in his name?" Caiceros said.
Each of the memorial benches is poured from $6,000 worth of premium-grade industrial stainless steel. The benches will be arranged at the Pentagon site according to victims' ages -- from 3-year-old Dana Falkenberg to 71-year-old John D. Yamnicky. There are 125 memorials for those who died in the building and 59 for those on Flight 77.
Every 14-foot-long bench will be attached to a one-ton cement base with its own shallow, circulating pool of water flowing underneath. The seat will be covered with a natural surface, and at night, the benches' stainless steel undersides will glow from light projected upward from inside the pools. The $23 million project is being funded by private donations to the Pentagon Memorial Fund, a group formed by victims' families, and it has raised $15 million so far.
But the work must go on. And with less than a year to complete the memorial, Yousif, like others involved in the project, is watching the calendar closely.
"He thinks about this Pentagon project day and night," said his wife, Angel Yousif, also an Iraqi-born Christian. Although the company is filling other orders, "we don't talk about anything else."
Tall and thin, Abe Yousif, 54, is perpetually in a hurry. His cellphone rings every few minutes, and he punctuates each sentence with "sir," as in "We'll finish them today, sir" or "I will fax you the invoice right away, sir."
The Iraq of car bombings and sectarian violence that Yousif sees on al-Jazeera and CNN each night is unrecognizable to him, he says. In the Iraq he remembers, "you didn't know if your neighbor was Sunni or Shiite -- we all lived together."
Born in northern Iraq, Yousif grew up not far from the Kurdish city of Dahuk. His father grew apples -- "Washington apples, from America," he proudly recalls -- on a five-acre plot.
Yousif studied economics at Baghdad University, and twice Saddam Hussein came to lecture the students. They were needed in the army, Saddam told Yousif and his classmates. Yousif served for 18 months after graduation, but he no longer imagined his future in Iraq. A few months before war broke out with Iran, Yousif and his first wife left for Jordan. Relatives living in Chicago helped them secure U.S. visas.
He arrived in Chicago and worked two jobs, making school supplies in a factory and parking cars as a valet downtown. He struggled with English and froze in the winters. He saved and saved.
In 1985, Yousif founded Bucthel, choosing the name because it sounded like "Bechtel," the huge American engineering and construction firm. "It sounded serious," Yousif said.
Over two decades, Yousif expanded the business by always saying yes, always aiming to please -- "The Iraqi way," he says. Customers began calling him "Mr. No Problem" because he responded to their requests and orders, no matter how difficult, with that eager assurance.
The company had more than 40 employees when the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a "deeply sorrowful" day for Yousif, but he did not expect it would lead to the invasion of Iraq. "When you look at September 11th, none of the people involved were Iraqi, so I thought, 'We're not part of this at all.' "
Still, when President Bush sent U.S. forces into Iraq in 2003, Yousif believed it would change his country for the better. He imagined Iraq transformed into Dubai, or Qatar, a place with skyscrapers and grand boulevards. "We thought they would get rid of Saddam, and everything would be easier for Iraqis," he said.
Yousif did not foresee the rise of the insurgency and the downward spiral of violence that followed.
The killing and the chaos have scattered his family even farther since the war began. Two sisters now live in the Kurdish-controlled north. Another is a refugee in Syria. The family survives mostly on money sent by Yousif and a brother who lives in Germany.
As for his mother and two remaining siblings in Baghdad, life has withdrawn indoors, where more often than not, there is no electricity or running water. "Everyone is afraid to go to school or to work," Yousif said. "When I see the destruction of Iraq, it hurts so bad."
Still, Yousif believes the persistent violence in Iraq will give way to an equally dogged determination to rebuild. "The Iraqis don't give up," he said.
And once the memorial is complete and the benches are in place, Yousif thinks it will finally be a good time to visit Iraq. He could meet his family in the north. Maybe it will even be safe enough to go to Baghdad by then.
"Right now," he said, "I'm busy with my life over here."