Long Dormant Plans for 9/11 Memorial in Whitefish Gaining Momentum

In 2010, the Whitefish Fire Department worked with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to acquire steel from the destroyed World Trade Center

By Mike Kordenbrock
A rendering by White Cloud Design of a planned 9/11 memorial outside of the emergency services center in Whitefish.

The nonprofit Whitefish Firefighter’s Association has revived long-dormant plans to build a memorial monument dedicated to first responders and other victims of 9/11, and the Whitefish City Council recently approved a request to use a small piece of land for the project.

Concept designs for the memorial and corresponding park space in Whitefish show as its centerpiece three large pieces of steel from the destroyed World Trade Center that were acquired in 2010 from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by former Whitefish Fire Department Chief Thomas Kennelly, with the intention of building a memorial in Whitefish. Receiving the steel made the Whitefish Fire Department one of around 1,500 organizations in the United States to be selected through the Port Authority program to disburse the artifacts.

But Kennelly retired in 2017 without ground having been broken on the memorial and plans didn’t materialize in the intervening years. For Whitefish Fire Department paramedic and firefighter Sal Baccaro, the daily sight of the steel pieces resting inside the fire station started to nag at him.

Baccaro is a 2011 graduate of Columbia Falls High School who has been a full-time firefighter for about eight years. He said that the World Trade Center steel pieces sit on casters and are too heavy for one person to lift alone. On a typical day they’re tucked away towards the back of the station house, but are still visible enough that members of the department see the pieces on each shift.

“We would bring it out for open houses, but it really doesn’t give it the tribute it deserves,” Baccaro said of the steel. “To have it on display out in the open for the community and the public to see, I think that will mean a lot to the community.”

Progress on the memorial took its first major step forward in years on Dec. 4, when Baccaro asked the Whitefish City Council to allow the Whitefish Firefighter’s Association to turn a small piece of mostly undeveloped land in front of the city’s emergency services center into a memorial park. Councilor Andy Feury had an excused absence from the meeting. The remaining councilors, as well as Mayor John Muhlfeld, voted in favor of the use of the land, which will be maintained by the Whitefish Firefighter’s Association.

“I just wanted to thank Sal personally for bringing this forward,” Muhlfeld said, before the council voted. Calling the memorial progress “long overdue,” Muhlfeld shared some of his own memories related to what is considered the single-largest loss of life on American soil (2,977 people killed) due to a foreign attack, and the single-greatest loss of emergency responders (441 people killed) on a single day in American history.

“I personally lost quite a few friends in 9/11,” the mayor said. “I grew up on the Connecticut coast, and recall traveling home, from Whitefish, after the towers went down. I could stand on the beach where I grew up, and it was obviously still smoking.”         

How the Whitefish memorial will look in its final form is something that could change but the idea is to incorporate the steel as the focal point, and to build a small park around it. That steel will provide the memorial a relatively unique feature in Montana.

A rendering by White Cloud Design of a planned 9/11 memorial outside of the emergency services center in Whitefish.

Baccaro told the council he believes there’s just one other memorial in the state — located on the City College campus at Montana State University Billings — that incorporates steel from the World Trade Center. The Whitefish memorial could incorporate QR codes to help provide educational opportunities, particularly for people who may not have been alive when the terrorist attacks happened. Baccaro showed some initial design renderings from White Cloud Design to the council, and said the goal is to be ready to open the memorial by Sept. 11, 2026, which would be the 25th anniversary of 9/11.  

The project will be paid for by the Whitefish Firefighter’s Association. The fundraising goal for the project could fall between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, but that could change depending on how fundraising progresses, and how labor and construction costs change.

The Whitefish Firefighter’s Association has formed an all-volunteer 9/11 memorial committee to help steward the project, and Baccaro said he recently opened up a bank account to hold donations. The plan is to have a website up and running soon, and to then begin reaching out to potential donors.

With two jobs and two kids, Baccaro said he doesn’t really have time to take on the project, but is nevertheless making time because of the value he thinks it will have for community members, as well as local first responders. He explained that the brotherhood that comes with being a firefighter is a big reason why he pursued firefighting as a career, and that 9/11 showed the strength of that brotherhood.

“As tragic of an event as it was,” Baccaro said, “it also showed a lot of strength in the nation.”

For Kennelly, the fire chief who acquired the steel, it’s brought him some relief to see the plans revived. Kennelly said that the project was something that kept being pushed to the back burner amid the daily work of the fire department at a time when they were trying to adapt to some of the increased growth the area was seeing and some of the changes the department had to make to keep up. On top of that, Kennelly noted that “firefighters are not known for fundraising.” He’s considered the memorial one of the things that he felt was left on the table unfinished by the time he decided to call it a career after 38 years as a firefighter.

Kennelly comes from a firefighting family with deep connections to the Chicago area, and he was working as a firefighter in Illinois and going on shift as the attacks on 9/11 started to happen.

At the time, one of his daughters was working as a history teacher at a school in Manhattan, on the 13th or 14th floor, and Kennelly said that she and her students saw the second plane hit the twin towers. One of his lasting memories is trying to get hold of her all day to make sure she was okay.

“It was kind of a traumatic day at the fire station watching this all happen, and having the rest of the family be firefighters, it’s always been something that has been personal to me,” Kennelly said. “But when it comes down to it, everybody in the country has a story.”  

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