Friday, September 9, 2011

Nine Months at Ground Zero

Note: Five years ago, with Charlie Vitchers and Bobby Gray, I wrote Nine Months at Ground Zero, an oral history of the response of the construction workers to the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. As this anniversary apporaches, their story remains one of honor and resiliance, a testimony to the strength that we draw from others. At a time when so many memories are so painful, their story remains an inspiration.

To Charlie Vitchers, Bobby Gray and other construction workers in New York, the attack on the World Trade Center and subsequent collapse of the Towers was a sucker punch to the gut.

They knew thousands of innocents had been killed, that their city and their country had been attacked. Their outrage did not stop there. Something they had built with their own hands had been taken down. Their work had been destroyed, their legacy ruined, the collective memory of their industry wiped off the map. Not only did almost everybody working in construction in New York know someone who worked at the Trade Center – a neighbor or a cousin, a co-worker or a friend – many had worked there themselves, either when the buildings were first built or later, as other buildings went up in the complex or floors of the Towers were retrofitted for tenants. They took the attacks personally.

The World Trade Center complex were not just two of the largest and best- known structures in the world, they were the signature buildings of the New York construction industry, the epitome of what it could create. Over the course of their construction, which began in 1966, thousands of union tradesmen had worked on the Towers, and their success sparked a new era in New York hi-rise construction. In a city which hadn’t seen its skyline change dramatically in years, after the Towers were built there were suddenly cranes everywhere. Over the next few decades New York’s skyline would take on an entirely new silhouette.

The Towers themselves were so enormous that their construction inspired logistical innovations never before used in New York construction. Each of the 200,000 steel columns, panel and joist was etched and stenciled with a code. None were fabricated on site. Each was a unique piece of an incredibly complicated puzzle. The steel itself was lifted in place by a method developed in Australia, what were known as “Kangaroo cranes,” or “tower cranes,” cranes attached to a tower fixed to the structure, that jacked itself up and rose with the building. Despite their novelty, New York tradesmen had easily adapted and both had since become more or less standard in high-rise construction in New York and elsewhere.

The construction workers who built the Towers carried the experience as a badge of honor – they had built the biggest and the best, succeeding spectacularly, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Since first breaching the New York skyline, the Trade Center was the touchstone against which all other jobs were compared in scale and complexity, still discussed during coffee breaks and over beers after work. As older worker passed away, it was not uncommon to find a line in a newspaper obituary that noted that the deceased had helped build the Towers.

But when the Towers were attacked and then fell, the sense of pride and accomplishment the construction workers felt was cut off at the ground. The buildings were down, and in some strange way, though through no fault of their own, they had failed because what was never meant to fall somehow had. In response, the had an instinctive reaction. Before anyone articulated the need for their skills, thousands of them knew that now another job was calling them out, one that only they knew they could do. The rough logic of their own experience as ironworkers, laborers, carpenters, electricians, crane operators and dozens of other trades told them that just as only they had once built the Towers, they were now the only people in the world equipped for the task ahead. They had the skills, and more importantly, they felt an obligation, a duty. Their response was simple and uncomplicated; anything they had built, they could take down, because before anything else could be built in its place – and they believed it would – they had to erase what had just taken place.

With that realization a new challenge began to take shape. From a pile of rubble so immense that it resisted description, they would restore order. That was the only job that mattered now.

To Read Chapter One, see:

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