At 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, in a super-efficient industrial furnace, it takes about three hours for four tractor trailer loads of materials to be reduced to one three-foot -square box of ashes — or “sacred soil,” as the cremated remains of the hundreds of thousands of items sent to the Town of Newtown after 12/14 are known.
Newtown resident Yolie Moreno accompanied Fred Hurley, director of public works, and the four truckloads of items to the waste-to-energy facility, Wheelabrator, in Bridgeport, Saturday night, October 26, bearing witness for the community to the respectful incineration of the items.
Peering through tiny rectangular windows into the giant furnace, Ms Moreno and Mr Hurley watched as words of comfort, memorials, and banners were consumed in fire. Among those countless items, though, were not the 37,000 letters, cards, banners, and artwork that Ms Moreno had spent the past nine months documenting. Those items were boxed and stored for future access, a small representation of the outpouring of sympathy the families of the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School and the town received in just the first two months following the tragedy.
“From start to finish,” said Ms Moreno, Thursday, December 12, two days after launching her project at www.embracingnewtown.com, “The reverence and integrity was exactly what they said it would be.” She praised town workers who had respectfully gathered the memorials from street corners, storing it in a section of the highway department garage until a date for the incineration was set. The transfer to the trucks, and the solemnity of the employees at Wheelabrator were exemplary, said Ms Moreno. “It really has been treated as sacred from the beginning,” she said.
Wheelabrator had designated one meticulously cleaned furnace especially for the creation of “sacred soil” from Newtown, and cordoned off the area into which the trucks tipped the loads. A giant bulldozer readied the pile for the giant claw that clutched at it, moving it into the hopper. From there, said Ms Moreno, all of the messages of support poured down into the furnace, words tumbling over weather-ruined stuffed toys, banners melting together, cards crushed together in one final hug.
Items and letters unclaimed by the affected families melted together with artwork and poetry in an inferno of emotions.
“There was so much stuff that just couldn’t be documented,” said Ms Moreno, noting that it was not just the Newtown Municipal Center that had received condolences. “The churches and organizations and clubs in town also had items that they could not keep and had not been able to disperse,” she said.
Watching the collection burn was a more poignant moment than she had expected, said Ms Moreno. “It seemed, ‘This is really the end.’ It was a transfer of energy. It was super-condensed love,” she said.
Ms Moreno had worked closely with the Town of Newtown since January 26, documenting the boxes of letters there, first with a few volunteers in the hallway of the municipal center, and later, working out of the HealingNewtown Arts Center on Queen Street, and eventually, from her home. She admits that her initial foray into the project was driven by the same kind of undeniable compulsion that had led people worldwide to send the various forms of healing, not knowing as she snapped photographs exactly what the final project would look like.
“Humans need to reach out and help. [That need] is so intense and powerful. People are just compelled to say, ‘Please know we care,’” Ms Moreno said. The idea that these messages might be lost forever, that family members, first responders, and townspeople unable to take in the sympathy right now, but might want to one day as they processed the events of 12/14, was unbearable to Ms Moreno. That was the energy that moved her forward through hours and weeks of reading and photographing as many items as she could, she said.
“I was fortunate to live here and to be able to do something directly,” Ms Moreno said.
Once the town dismantled the memorial inside the municipal center in February and granted Ms Moreno permission to continue documenting on Queen Street, she realized that more organization was needed. She and the numerous volunteers began sorting and organizing by letters, cards, artwork, banners, and by the states from which the well wishes had come. They also ended up with boxes of “I don’t know what to do with this!” and “Inappropriate.” The 8,000 photographs that they had accumulated by then were being transferred to Ms Moreno’s home computer, a tedious project.
“Then one of our volunteers was wondering how to better manage the documents. He had worked for Xerox, so he reached out to them,” Ms Moreno said. Not only did Xerox respond, the company gave them scanners, set up a network and drop box to receive the scanned items, and built the website that would ultimately provide the means of sharing the documentation project. The assistance from Xerox was a blessing, said Ms Moreno.
“It was super fast, now. There is no way to have done the project without the help from Xerox, in a way that would have been viewable by so many others,” she said.
As volunteers and Ms Moreno continued to read and sort and document through the spring and summer, it was an envelope of letters from Advanced Placement seniors at a high school in Mesa, Ariz., that elicited the idea for volunteers to set aside favorite selections.
“Reading those letters was the first time I really cried during this project,” Ms Moreno said. “The eloquence that came from these 17- and 18-year-olds was unbelievable.”
Those letters, as well as cards and letters and artwork that the volunteers found particularly moving, can be found in separate galleries at the website.
As they worked to document in an organized manner, Ms Moreno and volunteers began to create “art out of art,” she said. For each of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada, they created a collage of art and letters. The nearly 10-foot-square collages were photographed, and used as the icon for each state on the website.
Many of the items deemed “special” by volunteers were passed on to Andrea Zimmermann, then the reference librarian at C.H. Booth Library in charge of the archiving project there, in conjunction with Iron Mountain information management system. When Ms Zimmermann left the employ of the library this past summer, Ms Moreno retrieved those items, not knowing how the items might be handled. Since then, she said, she has maintained contact with Ms Zimmermann, who continues to organize and feed the items to those now in charge of the library archival project.
The difference between the two projects, Ms Moreno said, is that the library views the archiving as a means of historical preservation. It allows for a searchable form of access online, and the actual items processed will be appropriately preserved by Iron Mountain.
Because the library project is a historic process, she said, letters and items that Ms Moreno and volunteers felt were inappropriate for the documentation project are included in the archiving.
“Our project is about love. So we did not document the things we thought were not nice or were inappropriate. This is about helping people to heal,” she said. “With our documentation project, is was just about sharing these messages of love. My main goals was so that one day, when the families ever want to see it, there it will be. It’s there now for anyone in the world to access,” she said. “It’s really just a small representation of everything that came this way.” The town and families continued to receive tributes after she began her project, she said, and every day, more is received. It is likely, said Ms Moreno, that a second date for incineration will be made in the future.
The events of 12/14 will be with Newtown always, in ways unseen. But now, she said, so will documentation of the world’s empathy and support. She sees www.embracingnewtown.com as one of many tools for healing.
“In this age of technology and e-mails, there’s nothing more touching than a handwritten note or letter. It is,” said Ms Moreno, “love pouring in.”