From Nine Months at Ground Zero
[ In 2006 I co-wrote and published Nine Months at Ground Zero with Charlie Vitchers and Bobby Gray, two of the hundreds of construction workers to respond after the 9/11 attacks. The book was built from nearly 100 hours of interviews.
Even today, most people believe the cleanup was accomplished by members of the police and fire departments; it was not. Most first responders rotated through the site in shifts of a few weeks while hundreds of construction workers put in 18 and 20 hour days for months, beginning to end, determined to find remains and provide closure for families.
Although the book was not a particular commercial success, a substantial portion of the proceeds were donated to charity. It remains the only book which documents the contribution of the workers on the ground and helped inspire legislation that provided medical coverage and other benefits to Ground Zero workers, many of whom still suffer the effects of their service today. Although not in print in hard copy today, it remains available as an e-book and used copies can be acquired from online booksellers.
Vitchers and many other 9/11 workers continue their work today through the New York Says Thank You Foundation. To thank them, see http://newyorksaysthankyou.org/ for more information. To skip the author’s note and got directly to Chapter One, scroll down.]
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, panels and joists 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 workers 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.
Chapter One: The Attacks
It is a story now heartbreakingly familiar. An invigorating September morning, crisp and blue and perfect. New Yorkers across the city were sitting down with the Daily News or the Post, making breakfast for their kids, returning from their jog, grabbing a cup of coffee, getting ready for the day ahead. Some were already on their way to the subway. And at least one particular group of New Yorkers was already at work.
Construction workers start their days early. On the morning of September 11, 2001, the building site at the corner of 59th Street and 6th Avenue was already in full swing. The old St. Moritz Hotel was getting a full makeover.
It was an interesting job, a meticulous job. The exterior of the St. Moritz — a landmark building — was made of carved terra-cotta and decorated with gargoyles and rams’ heads. All of the ornamental stone work was being taken down, piece by piece, and reset by stonemason subcontractors. The upper floors were completely enclosed by scaffolding. At the top of the building, the crew was putting up ornate brickwork on the exterior of the edifice that housed the cedar water tower. It was the last of the architectural façade work to be laid back onto the building. On the interior, renovation and rebuilding were under way on every floor.
One of the half-dozen supervisors on the site was Charlie Vitchers. A native New Yorker, Vitchers had worked construction for thirty years and was now a superintendent for Bovis Lend Lease, one of the world’s largest construction management firms.
At 8:45 A.M. on that peerless September morning, with a cup of coffee in his hand, Charlie Vitchers was a content man. Three of his kids were grown and out of the house. The other three were still in school, living with their mother on Long Island. It was a beautiful fall day, the kind that makes New Yorkers fall in love with their city all over again. And while he was looking forward to opening his own bait and tackle shop, the building in which he now stood was coming along nicely, and the stone work truly was exceptional.
One minute later, at 8:46 A.M., American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the World Trade Center Number One, the North Tower, and for Charlie Vitchers — and everyone else in the city, indeed, for all Americans — life changed forever.
I was working on a thirty-seven-story project. From the ground up to the twenty-second floor, the St. Moritz was going to remain a hotel, but from the twenty-third floor up it was going to be residential condominiums. The building had deteriorated over the years and we were taking the top off — the twenty-eighth floor up to the thirty-seventh floor had to be removed, demolished, and rebuilt. From the twenty-second floor down, we were doing a complete gut, taking out all the walls and rebuilding each floor.
Work starts at 7 A.M., so I’d normally take the E train from my apartment in Chelsea and get there between 6 and 7. I rolled in that morning at about 7 o’clock, grabbed coffee, and did my normal routine. It was a typical day.
I got into the Alimak, an exterior hoist on the building similar to an elevator, and had coffee with the hoist operator, a guy named Smitty. He brought me all the way up to the roof. I generally start each day on the job with a safety walk-through. It’s the superintendent’s responsibility to make a quick run-through of the building to make a safety assessment, to make sure that all the nets and other safety systems are in place, and if they’re not, to report by radio to whoever’s responsible for the safety of the job. You have to make sure that all the safety rules spelled out in Article 19 of the New York building code are followed.
I started at the top and walked down. You hit every floor where guys are working. At about the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth floor, just before 9 A.M., Smitty came back up on the hoist and said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
I said, “What kind of plane?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We just heard it on the news.”
We went up to the roof but didn’t have a view of the World Trade Center from that building. We even climbed up on the ladder on the outside of the water tower to get another twenty feet higher. But we still couldn’t see the Trade Center. We were blocked by most of the tall buildings in and around Times Square. We couldn’t see anything downtown at first, no smoke, nothing.
Some of the guys had a radio and heard reports that a plane hit the building. A lot of guys, including myself, were thinking it must have been a student pilot that flew out of Teterboro. A freak thing.
Then we started to see smoke above the skyline. Now I’m thinking, “Holy shit. That must be a major fire.” Then I saw this flash, a bright orange fireball explode out to the east. It created a plume of smoke that shot straight out horizontally and then just disappeared. I figured the plane that had hit the building had blown up.
Then I got word from someone that a second plane had hit the second tower. At that point, I knew something was up. I got a call on the cell phone from Jon Kraft, the general super on the job. At Bovis, the general superintendent is a formal title for the super in charge of a project worth over $60 million or more than a million square feet, and this job was that big. I was a superintendent working under the general super.
He said, “Charlie, we’re evacuating the building. Something’s going on downtown.” I called my foremen and told them to tell everyone to leave, then I walked from the top down to make sure everyone was gone. I walked all the floors, went into all the mechanical rooms, went into all the machine rooms and checked, just in case there was a guy in there listening to headphones while he’s screwing a motor together or something. I found a couple of steamfitters having coffee and told them to get out.
I still didn’t really know what was going on. I walked down the stairs, went into the operator’s shanty. In there were about twenty-five guys all staring at a television watching the second plane go into the South Tower.
Just south of Charlie Vitchers’s work site, another man was watching the same scene. His name was Bobby Gray.
Gray is an operating engineer, a crane operator. So is his older brother. So is his younger brother. His father was an operating engineer, as well. It’s a tradition; it’s in the blood.
On September 11, 2001, Bobby Gray was perched in a crane fifty stories up, at a building site on the edge of Times Square. A member of Local 14 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Gray is certified to operate virtually all heavy machinery, though for the last twenty years he has worked almost exclusively on the behemoth machines known as climbing cranes. He is a second-generation New Yorker. His father was born in Hell’s Kitchen and raised his family in Yonkers.
Construction is a sophisticated business. The level of complexity involved in raising a seventy-story superstructure is staggering. One of the most important — and nerve-racking — jobs on a skyscraper build is that of crane operator. Gray will tell you it’s also the most fun. After all, Bobby Gray quit college because he felt more comfortable sitting on a piece of heavy machinery than sitting in anatomy class
Working with ironworkers, Bobby, as operating engineer, must ensure that each steel beam — and all other material too big or too heavy to go in the hoist — is raised safely to the top of the building and then set precisely into place. When the job is done well, no one notices — a building rises slowly on the horizon. When it is not, it becomes a headline. There is no margin for error; errors get people killed.
At 8:45 A.M. that morning, as he maneuvered a bucket full of 31/2 cubic yards of concrete 600 feet in the air, a streak across the sky broke Gray’s concentration.
On September 11, I was working just west of Times Square on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue, across the street from The New York Times building. The crane was at the top of the building, fifty stories, 500 or 600 feet, off the ground, what we call topped out, meaning we weren’t adding any more floors. The crane always sits higher than the building so the crane deck can swing around 360 degrees without obstruction. The boom of the crane reached up another couple of hundred feet.
The night before there was a Monday night football game. I remember having maybe one beer too many and waking up a little bit later than I should have. I was supposed to be in the crane for a 6 o’clock start and I was running late.
Going to work I remember thinking it was going to be a great sunrise — the sun came up at about 6:30 A.M. I usually wear boat shoes and shorts to work and then change, put my work shoes on, and climb up the crane. The morning of September 11, I didn’t have time to do that. I climbed the crane wearing a pair of deck shoes, a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and a sweat shirt. It was my favorite weather. It was cool, kind of crisp, not a cloud in the sky. My younger brother, Michael, was also on a climber crane, maybe fifteen, twenty blocks away. I could see his crane clear as a bell.
Then about 8:45 A.M. a jet flew over. I was like, “WOW! Holy shit, this guy is low! What’s he doing so low?” I had never seen a plane that low in Manhattan.
I was lifting up a bucketful of concrete to pour a floor deck and turned back to pay attention to what I was doing. Then my girlfriend called me on the cell phone and told me a plane had hit the Towers. I had a regular AM/FM radio in the cab and I started listening. I put it on the PA system so everyone on the roof deck could hear. I looked out the window of the crane downtown. I could see about half of the North Tower and just a sliver of the South Tower behind it and could see the smoke pouring out. Because of my perspective, I wasn’t sure which building had been hit.
At first they were reporting it was a small plane and for a few minutes I didn’t even put it together that the plane that hit the North Tower was the plane that flew right over us. Then everyone on the roof looked at each other and went, “Holy shit — that had to be the same plane.”
We could all see the smoke pouring out and blowing to the east. That’s when the South Tower got hit. We could only see just a little bit of it, but we actually saw this fireball blowing out of the side of the South Tower. I thought that maybe something inside the North Tower had ignited and caused the fireball, maybe the plane hit the mechanical room and it caused some kind of explosion. We didn’t realize that another plane had come in from the south. And then of course that came in over the radio. And everybody was just stunned. Just absolutely stunned.
Gray’s assumption was correct. The plane that passed over his head was Flight 11. After taking off from Boston at 8:00 A.M., Flight 11 was hijacked en route to Los Angeles and turned south, roughly following the Hudson River toward New York, and entered air space above northern Manhattan, far uptown. Less than forty seconds later, tracking almost due south at nearly 500 miles per hour, the 767 passed over Times Square. Twenty seconds after Gray first saw the plane, it smashed into the façade of the North Tower. The nose of the plane entered the building at the ninety-fourth floor, more than 1,000 feet above the ground, and was swallowed up in a quarter of a second. Fourteen hundred people were working above the floor of impact. None would survive.
Seventeen minutes later, at 9:03, United Airlines Flight 175 similarly violated the South Tower, World Trade Center Two. Only forty-six minutes would pass between the moment of impact and that of collapse. Approximately 8,500 people were already at work in Tower Two. Of those who worked below the point of impact, the vast majority would survive. Above the point of impact, most would perish.
The world watched with growing horror as billows of black smoke spread over downtown Manhattan. Soon flames could be seen in the furious clouds of ash. Debris and worse began to rain onto the plaza. In those early minutes, shock, paralysis, and fear gripped the country; such an abomination could not happen here.
Stunned with incomprehension, New Yorkers struggled to react.
I stared at that TV in disbelief. At first everybody on the site was stunned; nobody knew what to do.
Port Authority was closing the bridges and tunnels. New York was shutting down. We sent home about 300 people — everybody who wasn’t on our Bovis payroll, all the subcontractors, electricians, steamfitters, carpenters, plumbers, and masons. The only people that stayed were a couple operating engineers we needed to run the hoists and our own staff of supervisors and laborers. Maybe a couple dozen people. The general super sent the whole project team into the main office on the third floor. Jim Abadie, a VP with Bovis, was going to get back to us at 1 o’clock to let us know who was staying and who could go home.
Every fire truck…every police car was blowing like thunder downtown. The streets were just loaded with people walking. Hundreds of thousands of people not saying hardly a word, all heading in the same direction, all just getting out of New York City. There was no panic. People were just walking away.
When I first saw the footage of the Towers on fire on TV, I didn’t know those buildings were going to come down. I thought the sprinkler system might extinguish the flames. But after seeing that fireball and knowing the construction of those buildings, there was no doubt in my mind that if the floors above started to collapse — they would be the first ones to go because of the heat — they would just drop down on top of each other. If every floor above the fire suddenly collapsed, there was no way that building was going to sustain the weight of all those floors collapsing from above.
I climbed down from the crane and walked up 43rd Street into Times Square. They had a shot of the Towers on the big Jumbotron television and I saw the South Tower fall. Even with all my experience in construction, I never, never ever, never ever imagined it was going to fall.
Some people were still going about their business — I don’t know if they didn’t know what had happened or what. I remember thinking of the casualties and almost not being able to breathe. Just to see it, the way it came down, knowing that place, having been there, having worked down there, I thought we had just lost 60,000 people.
I was like most New Yorkers; the Trade Center was a place you knew. I worked Seven World Trade Center when it was being built, and then I worked on it for months and months and months on a rehab, which is when you refit floors or portions of a building for a new client, or have to lift and install new mechanical systems. I knew the underground PATH station and the shopping malls underneath there. When I worked in Battery Park City we used to go to a bar after work on the forty-fourth floor of one of the Towers. It was great because you could look out the window and see the job you were working on.
That’s why I was thinking the number of casualties was going to be catastrophic, horrific. Core columns are denser and heavier and more robust than exterior columns because they carry the load of the building. I’ve worked with single columns that weighed more than 90 tons. There were massive, massive columns in the Towers and the destruction they would cause in a collapse would be horrible, which turned out to be true. They were rectangular, maybe four foot by a foot and a half, about two stories tall, and weighed 60 tons each. And there were hundreds of them.
I walked back from Times Square. By this time the job was pretty much shut down. I grabbed my partner, Hughie Manley, and another guy, Dutch, and another engineer named Jerry. We all laced up and said, “We’re going downtown.”
I wasn’t thinking about running cranes down there yet. I just knew they were going to need help, period. Especially once the North Tower collapsed.
Once we started to walk downtown, we passed a building that had a cherry picker out front — a small mobile crane. One of the guys said, “Let’s hot-wire it.” I went up to a cop and asked, “Do you mind if we steal it and take it downtown?”
He told us to go ahead, but then the contractor showed up and freaked out so we just kept walking. Down in Greenwich Village somewhere, I said, “Look, we better get something to eat because once we go in…There’s nothing there anymore.”
I’ve always been laid back. I never tell anybody what to do or anything like that. But while we were sitting at this pizza place I said to every guy with me, “You really better think about whether you want to go in or not. You’re going to see things you’re going to remember the rest of your life.”
I don’t know what compelled me to go, but I knew that I had to. I just wanted to help.
It was a time of such chaos and indecision. I was single and didn’t have a family to worry about. My girlfriend Jo-Ann was in South Jersey and I couldn’t get there anyway. All I knew was that I had to go there and damned if I wasn’t. The cops weren’t going to stop me; no one was going to stop me.
All of the people that I was with had already made up our minds: we were going downtown. But we were told to go back over to the St. Moritz and hang out and wait to hear from our boss at Bovis, Jim Abadie.
About 1 o’clock Abadie called. Bovis was already working on a hotel near the Trade Center in Battery Park City, doing the final fit outs and finish work, getting ready for the grand opening in just a couple of weeks. Abadie wanted to know who was willing to go down to the Trade Center and help out. He said there was a bus for Bovis leaving from the Javits Center over by the Lincoln Tunnel, and for us to get down there, look for the group of Bovis guys, and then just follow whatever directions.
I just grabbed my knapsack and said, “I’m ready, man. I’m out of here.”
I walked over to the Javits Center but there was no bus. Nothing was set up yet. But everybody there was like “one for all, all for one,” and started walking downtown, either individually or with whatever group of guys they came with.
I walked down West Street toward the Trade Center but the Military Police stopped me. They said, “You can’t go this way.”
I go, “I’m with Bovis, I have my hardhat.”
They said, “We don’t care who you’re with, you’re not going any farther.”
So I said, okay, and started heading east where I ran into more MPs. By about 5 o’clock, I was about a quarter mile away from the Trade Center. I had a clear view down Washington Street of Building Seven, which was on the north edge of the site. All forty-seven stories were on fire. It was wild. The MPs said the building was going to collapse. I said, “Nah, I don’t know.” And then all of a sudden I watched the building shake like an earthquake hit it, and the building came down.
And I just said, “Holy shit.”
The MPs that had been there were no longer there. The demarcation line that was set up was gone. So I kept walking.
I saw a guy with a Bovis hat that I didn’t know and he told me, “We’re supposed to meet here, we’re waiting for Jim Abadie.” By now, it’s around 7 o’clock. It was starting to get dark. I had spent six hours just walking the streets.
Finally someone came down with Bovis letterhead stationery and cut out the letterhead, put it in a little plastic I.D. tag, passed them out and told us the Bovis trailer was set up at One World Financial Center, on the southwest corner of the site.
“Try and get down there,” was what they told us.
All morning, all through the afternoon and into the evening, virtually the entire population of lower Manhattan streamed silently away from the Trade Center. Thousands of New Yorkers trudged northward, glancing back nervously to stare in disbelief at the growing cloud of smoke hanging over the city, wondering if there were still more attacks to come. The rest of the nation — indeed much of the world — huddled before their televisions, as coverage of the carnage looped again and again and again.
Thousands, however, made their way in the opposite direction, pushing against the tide, dodging the hastily assembled security cordon. They were firemen and policemen, emergency services personnel, construction workers. And there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of average citizens, driven by an innate need to do something, anything. To respond.
What they found was devastation beyond comprehension. It was bedlam.
Up around Greenwich Street, north of Chambers it was a mess. There were probably thousands of people there. You could hardly see. There was paper and dust on the streets, all the fallout from the collapse of the Towers.
At the corner of Chambers and West Street, about a quarter mile north of the North Tower, the FDNY had set up a temporary command station under the pedestrian bridges — just a couple of fire trucks and some FDNY commanders. They were wearing white shirts and were surrounded by firefighters, so I knew they were in a position of authority. Down by the Trade Center, I could even see some columns from the Towers impaled in the ground.
There was more chaos than control. People were frantic, but except for the fire radios, I remember it being pretty quiet. Firefighters were walking into the area from the Trade Center, covered with dust.
I spotted Mike Marrone from Bovis Lend Lease. He had been the general super when I had worked on the Trump Tower, the tallest residential building in the world. He saw me and said, “Stick around. I’m going to need you.”
Suddenly we saw firemen running and yelling, “Seven’s going to go, seven’s going to go!” Seconds later, Building Seven is gone.
I watched the southeast corner of the roof kind of buckle and then the building came straight down. Clouds of dust rolled and blew down the side streets like a hurricane going horizontally. A lot of people ran. I couldn’t. I was standing on the street about two blocks away, frozen.
When I finally got to the Trade Center my initial reaction was to see if I could find anybody alive. But instead I did my own walk-around assessment and went completely around the whole site. I couldn’t find Albany Street, where the Bovis trailer was. Nothing looked the same. I didn’t recognize anything south of Vesey Street. The bridge over West Street that connected the World Financial Center to the Trade Center was down. Steel columns — what we call “sticks” — from Tower One were impaled right in the middle of West Street, sticking 60 feet up out of the ground. Nothing was recognizable. Everything was just one big pile of debris and there was almost no ambient light, just a little from some emergency lights in buildings around the site and from police and fire vehicles on the perimeter. You couldn’t even tell where the open plaza was that had been between the two Towers. It just didn’t really seem real. I just walked around and said, “Where the hell am I?”
Firemen were already up on the pile. There were thousands of people there, bucket brigades with a couple hundred people in them snaking all over the place.
I tried to find Albany Street because I knew where the 1010 Firehouse was from working down there. But I couldn’t find it. I mean it was there, but I couldn’t find it. On Liberty Street I saw a taxi cab completely covered with debris, impaled with stone and steel from the Tower. Half of the front was crushed into the debris pile. The rear end of the taxi was sticking up in the air and the left tail light was blinking.
And the smoke. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. The wind would blow and all of a sudden you’d be in a cloud of dust and smoke, you’d have to stop and crouch down low to figure out where the hell you were walking.
When night fell, it was totally disorienting, eerie. It was like looking at downtown Manhattan in a blackout.
There were no streetlights.
There was nothing.
Copyright © 2006 by Glenn Stout