AUBURN — For a few minutes, it seemed that everyone in the city was either lining the route to the Minot Avenue Central Fire Station, taking part in the procession ending there or crowding the parking lot in anticipation.
Hundreds showed up to get a glimpse of the twisted, rusted and torn piece of steel, an 11-foot-long chunk of the fallen World Trade Center.
Salvaged from the wreckage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, it was donated to the Fire Department and the local International Association of Firefighters Local 797 by the New York/New Jersey Port Authority.
The piece, retrieved by Auburn firefighters Julian Beale and Matt Brochu in New York City on Thursday morning, attracted firefighters from across Maine and motorcyclists who rode in the procession to honor the fallen heroes, firefighters and police officers the beam represented.
"We were not expecting anything like this, this response," Acting Fire Chief Geoff Low said.
Hundreds stood and cheered as Beale and Brochu passed under an American flag draped over Minot Avenue by two ladder trucks and turned into the station's lot, surrounded by motorcycles.
It was quite a spectacle, and it began in Falmouth.
Beale and Brochu kept up with their friends and organizers via the Internet, posting their progress on the union's Facebook page. Beale said the trip to Maine was mostly uneventful. They carried two pieces salvaged from ground zero in a flatbed trailer, with only a sign to tell the observant what they were doing. They reached Kennebunk after 2 p.m. and stopped there, waiting for their escorts to arrive.
"We had some people stop and talk to us there, while we were waiting," Beale said. "We had about a dozen or so come by to talk or take pictures."
They picked up their motorcycle escorts and a few area firefighters and continued up the turnpike to Falmouth at about 4:30 p.m. They hopped off the turnpike there, taking back roads into Auburn.
Chief Mike Arsenault of the Turner Fire Department was in the local contingent waiting at the Auburn-New Gloucester border. He and other members of Fire and Iron, a local motorcycle club made of firefighters, were looking forward to leading Beale and Brochu into town.
"We love to support each other," Arsenault said. "Plus, it's a good reason to get out and ride."
The procession crossed into Auburn just after 6 p.m., snarling traffic on Washington Street and Minot Avenue along the way.
After a brief ceremony and blessing of the steel by Fire Chaplain Peter Inchcombe of Hallowell, firefighters hoisted Auburn's piece and carried into the fire station. It will find a permanent home around the corner at the front of the station. Fire and union officials plan to dedicate a permanent marker there, visible from both directions of Minot Avenue.
"We're hoping get a pedestal and some lights and a plaque," said Union President Craig Bouchard. "We're hoping to really do something that's going to be visible."
Bouchard said the memorial will be dedicated this coming Sept. 11, the 10-year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center.
A 4-foot-long piece will continue on up to Farmingdale, where it will be put on display in the town hall and fire station. Beale lives in Farmingdale and is a volunteer firefighter there. He continued on with that piece later Thursday evening, preceded by more motorcycles and greeted by fire companies all along the way.