Ten Years Later: The September 11 Attacks
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Cleanup Operations at Ground Zero

Title: Firefighters and emergency personnel remove debris
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Almost immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center, cleanup operations started at Ground Zero. The collapse of the Twin Towers meant that there was little chance of survivors, but the effort had to be made. Fire Department City of New York (FDNY) firefighters, New York City police, Port Authority police, and others from federal agencies began looking for survivors. Only a handful of survivors were found the first day and none thereafter. For the first few days there was chaos as the bucket brigades were ineffectual and barely scratched the surface of the debris. The problem was that the debris from the buildings had fallen into four different sectors that were almost cut off from each other. At first, heavy equipment could not get into the site because of the fallen pedestrian bridge on West Street, so the only debris that was recovered on the first couple of days was by hand.

There was also a cloud of accumulated dust and fumes hanging over the scene of destruction. This air was toxic because, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Ground Zero inhalation tests of ambient air showed WTC dust consisted predominantly (95 percent) of coarse particles and pulverized cement, with glass fibers, asbestos, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), and polychlorinated furans and dioxins." Thousands of police, firefighters, paramedics, and construction workers worked at the site for several months and breathed this air. Many of them began the hacking cough that soon earned the name "the World Trade Center cough."

Search and rescue teams started clearing the site and recovering as many body parts as possible. Four temporary tent morgues were set up on the site at the World Trade Center complex. Later, body parts were taken to a centralized morgue. It was a slow, grueling job recovering bodies and body parts, and it sometimes turned out to be dangerous. Fortunately, there were few major injuries at the site.

Complicating the early days of the rescue and recovery work were calls from family members stating that their loved ones were still alive. Firefighters and police followed up on these calls in the first days after September 11, 2001. Then they realized that the calls had been triggered by the backed up communication system. So many cell phone calls had been made on September 11 that the overloaded communication system could not transmit them all. These messages were stored and sent later, when the communication system went back on line. Families then received messages that their loved ones had made before they died on September 11, confusing them and everyone else.

Within days, more than 1,000 construction workers began clearing debris alongside the emergency workers. Four companies participated in the cleanup: Bovis Company, Turner Construction Company, Tully Construction Company, and Amec Construction Management. They used more than 150 pieces of heavy equipment, including 20 cranes and the Caterpillar 345 Ultra High Excavator for difficult jobs. Work was slow because of frequent interruptions to recover bodies and body parts of victims.

The construction workers received instructions not to be involved in body removal. After ascertaining that there were no bodies or body parts in a particular area, they loaded debris onto semis and dump trucks and took it to a wash and inspection station for inspection by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Secret Service agents and then washed it down. The debris was then hauled down to a pier for loading onto a barge. This barge carried it to the Fishkill Landfill on Staten Island. There the debris was searched again before being added to the landfill.

As the debris removal picked up steam, another serious problem surfaced. In the construction of the World Trade Center complex, a wall had been built to keep out water from the Hudson River. This wall had been built because half of the 16-acre site had extended Manhattan Island 700 feet into the river. The problem was that this wall had been weakened in the collapse of the buildings. This wall had to be reinforced, or Hudson River water would have flooded much of lower Manhattan, causing a catastrophe greater than the World Trade Center attack. So a delicate balance had to be maintained between debris removal and bringing in material to reinforce the wall. This balancing act was successful, so no flooding took place.

Soon after the arrival of the construction workers, a controversy developed over the number of firefighters who were to remain working at Ground Zero. This issue had great importance to the firefighters because they were interested in finding bodies and body parts. The construction workers were more concerned about cleaning up the debris. What made the firefighters particularly assertive about finding any remains was that many of the missing victims were Catholic. Unless there was a body part, the Catholic Church refused to perform a funeral mass. Ultimately a compromise was worked out, with a significant number of firefighters staying at the World Trade Center site until the last part of the debris was removed in May 2002.

Another significant problem was that decision making for the World Trade Center site was by committee. Representatives from 26 federal, state, regional, and city agencies made the major decisions. New York City's Department of Design and Construction had been given overall control of the site, but it had only one representative on the committee. A representative from each agency had an equal vote on decisions, but decisions were not made by majority rule. Some agencies had more clout than others, and this clash of interests and opinions made for chaotic decision making.

Throughout the cleanup the presence of fire made work difficult. These fires were entirely under the pile and the workers rarely saw them. Only when the piles were penetrated did the fires' cherry red glow become visible. The fires received their oxygen from tunnels and underground areas, and they burned at a temperature from 1,000 to 1,800 degrees. At times the workers stood in areas where their boots began to melt. Attempts to attack the fires by pouring water on them were ineffective because of the densely packed debris. Water hit the fires and produced steam and smoke, making for two more hazards.

Another hazard of the cleanup was unexploded ammunition. Evidently there had been 1,700 live rounds scattered around World Trade Center Building Six. This ammunition had belonged to the U.S. Customs Service. Although there were no fatalities caused by this loose ammunition, there was one slight injury when a workman set off a round accidentally.

One issue that was unknown by anyone at the site was the gold and silver bullion stored at the World Trade Center complex and owned by Scotiabank. There was $110,000,000 worth of gold bars and $120,000,000 of silver bars in a vault under World Trade Center Building Four. A Port Authority police officer located the vault on October 17, 2001. Scotiabank officials were then notified of the finding of the vault. During a four-day period, all of the gold and silver bars were moved under the authority of the Port Authority police. It took 133 trucks to complete the transfer.

By mid-November a new threat to the site appeared in the form of Freon gas. Underneath the former North Tower was the main chiller plant, which had refrigeration units capable of holding 24,000 pounds of Freon gas. If the units had leaked, the gas would have filled voids in the underground before rising to the surface to kill as many as hundreds of workers. Another danger was that the Freon gas might come into contact with open flames, producing poison gas resembling the mustard gas used in World War I. In this case the casualties could be in the thousands. There was also an increasing danger that one of the large construction machines might puncture the Freon gas storage unit. A special team went underground to explore the condition of the chiller plant. This team discovered that the Freon gas had already vented, and the danger had passed without casualties.

One ongoing problem on the cleanup site was the failure of the firefighters, police, and workers to wear their personal protective equipment. This failure was particularly noticeable in the failure to use respirators, despite safety officials' attempts to persuade those working in the debris to wear them. The most stubborn were the firefighters. Their reasoning was that they needed to be able to smell to find the dead bodies. This safety deficiency was reported to the New York City's Department of Design and Construction and to the committee of 26 representatives of the agencies time and again, but nothing was done. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other safety officials had no authority to enforce safety rules.

The cleanup at Ground Zero officially ended on May 30, 2002, with a ceremony. The "Last Piece of Steel" was to be ceremoniously carried by truck escorted by an honor guard and signaled by the beat of a single drum. In a meeting it was determined that the Port Authority police would guard and be in charge of the "Last Piece of Steel." Plans came from the mayor's office that the honor guard would be composed of 15 members of each group that had worked at Ground Zero. Those groups interested in the proceedings, however, decided to ignore this limit, and the honor guard consisted of all personnel still working at the site in May 2002. Family members of the victims of September 11 were also invited to participate. The ceremony went off without any difficulty, and crowds lined the way, clapping in rhythm to the drum beat.

Since the end of the cleanup at Ground Zero, numerous workers at the site have been experiencing health problems. Of the approximately 30,000 people who worked at Ground Zero, more than 14,000 have instituted health claims. A study of 5,000 cleanup workers and first responders conducted by the FDNY's Office of Medical Affairs in April 2010 found that all had suffered impaired lung function. Other studies have demonstrated that respiratory illness rates among these groups have risen more than 200 percent, while the incidence of cancer has also increased. Although it is difficult to definitively attribute deaths to 9/11-related health issues, recent reports suggest that the deaths of more than 50 first responders and cleanup workers can be linked to exposure to toxins at Ground Zero. The most famous case was the death in January 2006 of New York Police Department Detective James Zadroga, at age 34, from a lung disease directly related to his more than 450 hours working at Ground Zero.

Many of the sufferers of the Ground Zero cleanup have resorted to lawsuits. A total of 10,563 individuals involved in rescue, recovery, and cleanup operations sued the city of New York for failing to provide adequate health protections, such as respirators. In November 2010, more than 10,000 of them agreed to a $625 million settlement. Numerous others, potentially intimidated by the legal process, may be suffering in silence. The issue has been complicated by the fact that a number of cleanup personnel were undocumented immigrants. In March 2010, more than 200 such workers pushed for continued health care and legal immigrant status. The death toll is rising for those who helped in the cleanup; tumors and lung-scarring diseases have been known to emerge between 5 and 20 years after a toxic exposure.

Stephen E. Atkins


Further Reading
Ausmus, David W. In the Midst of Chaos: My 30 Days at Ground Zero. Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford, 2004; Keegan, William, Jr., with Bart Davis. Closure: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Recovery Mission. New York: Touchstone Books, 2006; Smith, Dennis. Report from Ground Zero. New York: Viking, 2002; Von Essen, Thomas, with Matt Murray. Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York City. New York: ReganBooks, 2002; Butler, Gregory A. Lost Towers: Inside the World Trade Center Cleanup. New York: iUniverse, 2006; Harris, John, and Snodin, Michael, eds. Sir William Chambers, Architect to George III. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 1996; Summerson, John. Architecture in Britain, 1530–1830. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1993; Daily News Staff. "The Making of a Health Disaster; Officials Failed to Act on Ground Zero Perils." Daily News [New York], July 25, 2006, 24; DiManno, Rosie. "Toll from 9/11 Climbs, Albeit Too Quietly." Toronto Star, January 13, 2006, A2; Moore, Robert F., Thomas Zambito, and Corky Siemaszko. "Stricken 9/11 Heroes in Fight of Their Lives." Daily News [New York], April 16, 2006, 16; Schapiro, Rich. "WTC Air Doomed Ex-Cop." Daily News [New York], April 12, 2006, 7.
 

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