It’s usually the crowded, compact cities of the world like Cairo or New York that shelter secrets, but even a place wide open to the sun like Palm Springs has a few. And there’s a compelling one that’s practically under your nose: the 9/11 Memorial at the Palm Springs Airport Fire Station.
It’s on El Cielo Road, the main approach to the airport, but it’s set a bit north of the famous entrance fountain where the street ends in a cul-de-sac. Fittingly it’s very quiet, except for the intermittent low rumbles from the planes overhead.
You might not expect to see a metal chunk remnant from the World Trade Center almost in the shadow of the air traffic control tower. But there it is. Part of a vivid, multifaceted memorial that includes a metal sculpture and bas-relief by Palm Springs artist Joe Wertheimer, a pictorial display created by Desert Grafics in Palm Springs about the attacks of September 11, 2001 as well as a remembrance of the fallen firefighters.
That the memorial came to be is largely due to the efforts and artistic vision of Wertheimer, a longtime desert resident who in January 2013 got a phone call from a Palm Springs fireman friend who said his station had received a piece of I-beam from Ground Zero.
“He wondered what could be done with it,” Wertheimer recalls, and as the idea for a memorial coalesced, he said, “they wanted this memorial to reflect in particular the firemen that were lost that day.” A staggering 343 firefighters died on 9/11.
“The hard part,” Wertheimer says, “was having to go through all that and re-live it doing the research: in terms of delving back into that day, it was not fun.”
At night, the memorial takes on an even more somber, reflective tone.
He recounts how the Palm Springs City Council approved funding for the project in September 2015 – after that he and his team had barely a month and half to put it all together from the grading and concrete work to all the graphics and artwork. The results, though, are stirring: beyond the emotional impact of the fragment from one of the towers, there is the artist’s bas-relief sculpture depicting a poignant scene in a shattered lower Manhattan.
At the center is a search dog, left paw half-raised in action, the ghostly wreckage of one of the World Trade towers behind him. The dog, Bautz, belonged to Palm Springs firefighter Roland Cook. As Wertheimer explains it, “Cook and Bautz, who was one of the best search and rescue dogs in the country, were on a plane literally the day after 9/11 heading to New York – they went from Palm Springs right into the pile at Ground Zero.”
So the sculpture is really “a tribute to Bautz, who passed away a number of years ago, and the connection with Palm Springs,” he says. “They were right in the middle of it.”
VIDEO: Palm Springs artist Joe Wertheimer explains the work that went into creating the 9/11 Memorial.
No less remarkable component of the memorial is Wertheimer’s oversized steel cutout sculpture that portrays six firefighters carrying an elongated American flag, as if in a funeral procession. For those who remember 9/11, it serves as a reminder of the sacrifice of the firemen and other first responders.
But there’s more: “The whole point of this really is for an educational purpose, for people who did not live through 9/11, especially schoolchildren who can come here and go through the whole day, starting with the three educational panels.”
The lighting for the memorial creates an even more reflective atmosphere at night. Somber but necessarily so, the site sheds new light on one of America’s darkest days.
A metal chunk reminant from the World Trade Center anchors the display.
Palm Springs 9/11 Memorial, 300 N. El Cielo Road, Palm Springs.