WEST VILLAGE — As the Hurricane Irene forecast got increasingly grim last Saturday, a group of neighbors in the West Village worried about the thousands of 9/11 memorial tiles hung at a site along Seventh and Greenwich avenues.
An impromptu group of volunteers wanted to protect the ceramic tiles from being damaged during the storm, so they brought wire clippers and began to take them down.
Now, volunteers loosely organized under the name Village Angels will hang the tiles once again on Sunday as part of the 10th annual Father Mychal Judge Walk of Remembrance, according to Dusty Berke, a West Village resident who found herself helping coordinate the project.
"I don't think people realize how sacred that place is for so many people," Berke, 50, said on Friday. "After hearing that the tiles were taken down, people are coming out of the woodwork asking, 'What can I do to help?'"
The walk in memory of the FDNY chaplain who was killed on 9/11 is expected to reach the Tiles for America memorial Sunday between 11 a.m. and noon, Berke said. First responders and the families of victims are invited to help hang the tiles.
Jack Weingart, a 22-year-old Hell's Kitchen resident was house sitting in the West Village last Saturday when he happened to pass the tiles being removed.
"I was walking my dog and two or three people there [who were removing the tiles] asked me to help," he said. "We wanted to make sure the tiles were safe because they mean a lot to a lot of people in the Village and the country," he said.
Within about 15 minutes, more than 40 people had gathered at the corner of Seventh and Greenwich avenues to take down the tiles and wrap them in newspaper.
A nearby salon owner, Angelo Rizza of Rizza Salon, agreed to store the tiles for safekeeping.
"It was just the right thing to do," he said.
Plastic bins and an old metal grocery cart full of tiles line a long stretch of wall in his salon.
Gothamist posted video of volunteers removing the tiles and linked to posts about the tiles that Weingart made to Twitter. Before long, Weingart, a news associate at "60 Minutes," had more than 200 new Twitter followers.
Ceramist Lorrie Veasey made the first Tiles for America on Sept. 12, 2001, in her former 11th Street shop Our Name Is Mud, according to the project's website.
Village Angels came to be how people who remove trash and pull weeds near the memorial refer to themselves, Berke said.
The idea for people around the country to send in tiles for the memorial was born on an online message board of the Contemporary Ceramic Studios Association of America, which now collects new tiles and refurbishes crumbling tiles, the group's president said.
"These were a way for people to express how sorry they were for what happened — to show that they care, even if they weren't there," CCSA president Kami Hatley said.
After the tiles are replaced, they will soon be removed again.
The MTA, which owns the land at Seventh and Greenwich avenues, plans to build a ventilation plant at the site and will remove the tiles for safekeeping while construction is underway, a spokeswoman said.
The MTA hopes to award a contract for the project in early 2012.
The current design, which Community Board 2 and the Landmarks Commission have criticized, permanently embeds the tiles in rows on the exterior of the building.
Hatley said she would support the tiles being built into the structure.
"That would be great, because that would be permanent," she said.
Rizza said he thought that making the exhibit permanent would go against its do-it-yourself spirit.
"People decided to put up an unauthorized memorial, and it was more meaningful [than an official memorial]," he said. "It wasn't a city memorial, it was a people memorial."