"We're in the way"

New York firefighters win a battle to search the World Trade Center site for their colleagues' remains, but the victory is largely symbolic.

Published November 20, 2001 11:38PM (EST)

New York firefighters won a huge symbolic victory Friday, when they prevailed on Mayor Rudy Giuliani to let 75 of them, three times the number Giuliani wanted, continue to participate in cleaning up and identifying remains at the World Trade Center site. But the belated victory is probably little more than symbolic, and it's unlikely to change the nature of what the World Trade Center site has become: a massive construction job. It's probably hard for anyone who wasn't there in the early days to understand the intensity of the firefighters' fury at Giuliani's decision to limit their presence at the site, which led to fistfights and arrests Nov. 2, when firemen clashed with cops, sometimes violently. I went back to the World Trade Center site a week after that melee, for the first time in over a month, having been a search and rescue worker in the days after the attack. I saw a radically changed Ground Zero, and I could understand the firefighters' fury.

True, the work had progressed incredibly. Since New York City officials allowed cranes and excavators to replace bucket brigades and men with shovels, the massive mountain of wreckage where I once worked has disappeared entirely. In its place, there is a gaping, smoldering crater. Where rescue workers once scurried and crawled like so many work ants deftly delving for survivors, Caterpillar and Hitachi lifters with steel shears are plowing into the wreckage like a pack of hungry tyrannosaurs -- the mechanical jaws tearing indiscriminately into the remains of the WTC before lifting the rubble into dump trucks, along with whatever else is caught in their crushing embrace.

The violence with which these giant mechanical beasts plow through the wreckage is shocking to someone who did rescue and recovery work there. Like most firefighters, I still see Ground Zero as a massive killing field, and I cant help thinking that human remains in some form or another are being dumped unceremoniously into the trucks along with everything else.

"Its become a pick and dump operation," says an outraged Ron Werner, who was assigned to Ground Zero from FDNY headquarters in downtown Brooklyn. "There are torsos being found in Staten Island." Shaking his head when I start to ask more questions, the firefighter drove away in a six-wheel transporter. On Warren Street, near the AmeriCares tent that serves as on-site Transport Headquarters, I start a conversation with a firefighter who will identify himself only as Chuck about the changed nature of the operation. He has difficulty holding back a sneer: "Of course we dont have enough guys here." As for the site being a potential health hazard, he scoffs: "Thats bullshit, buddy. Theyre just blowing smoke so contractors can clear this up in a hurry and put up another building. Were in the way."

Although Giuliani and construction professionals at the site hail the progress, it is difficult for anyone who worked to find bodies at Ground Zero not to sympathize with the enraged firefighters, who believe that much of what's left of their dead brethren is being dumped by the excavators into rigs along with the mangled remains of the WTC -- only to be sifted through when the debris gets to the aptly named Fresh Kills landfill site in Staten Island. The FDNYs stubborn insistence on a return to the days of search and recovery is understandable. True, there is no one alive in the wreckage, but for firefighters that isnt the point. Initially, search and rescue workers might have been scouring every square foot of rubble to find survivors, but that illusion quickly wore off, and only the moral imperative of finding the dead remained.

At first, I had used adrenaline and a sense of urgency to burrow into the wreckage, to penetrate deep into the architecture of devastation, imagining that somewhere survivors were waiting desperately to hear a voice, to feel a hand, to be retrieved from their inconceivable nightmare. All I ever saw was pieces of what had once been human beings, and corpses battered and broken beyond recognition, their clothing shredded by the inconceivable violence of the fall.

Once I realized I wouldn't be working to liberate survivors, it was frankly hard for me to return. That wasnt true of the firemen I worked alongside of, who went back day after day for seven weeks, committed to finding the remains of the fallen and to bringing some dignity back to those who had suffered savage, unspeakable deaths.

I gained a unique perspective into that mindset Sept. 15, when I went below the impact zone, that burning mountain of wreckage where American Airlines Flight 11 hit, with a firefighter named Gus. Twisted girders provided a way down. Gus had to remove his protective jacket and helmet to squeeze through narrow gaps in the rebar. We descended about 30 feet through a series of jagged openings, then Gus went down a void another 40 feet, signaling with his light every so often to establish visual contact, while I provided more slack on his security line. Where I was, the temperature on my Casio G-Shock registered 132 degrees Fahrenheit. I couldnt touch anything with my bare hands. Where Gus was must have been unbearable.

Even after we were told to get out, Gus kept descending deeper into that burning inferno. He knew he wouldnt come across any survivors in such unearthly conditions. The only thing he could hope to find were charred remains. Remains that might be identifiable through DNA testing, providing some kind of closure to someone he had never met. That prospect was what prompted him to risk his life in such a blistering, unstable environment.

That same stubborn drive animates the FDNY to this day, which is why the decision to allow only a handful of firefighters at the site while human remains are still in the wreckage appalled them, and drove some to violence. But despite the settlement between the firefighters and Giuliani, which tripled their numbers at the site -- and dropped charges against 18 firefighters accused of assault and battery and criminal trespassing -- the nature of the operation is unlikely to change.

Looking out at the entire span of Ground Zero from a blown-out window in the Merrill Lynch Office on the second floor of the World Financial Center, I could count at least 20 excavators on the site digging furiously, seven cranes, and no "spotters" from the police or fire department examining the wreckage being extricated. The equation is brutally simple: If heavy machinery is everywhere, people can't be anywhere.

I went back to the site Friday, the day the city announced its new deal with the firefighters in an emotional press conference. The operation didn't look any different from what I'd seen 10 days earlier. Whether the number of firefighters is 25 or 75, they wont be able to look for remains until the excavators give them an opportunity to do so, and the frantic pace of the machines is unlikely to be significantly reduced just because more firefighters are going to be milling around command centers at the periphery of Ground Zero.

Fire Commissioner Thomas von Essen did say the city would reduce the number of cranes and earth movers, as well as give firefighters new orange safety vests, to make it possible for them to get closer to the action. But I saw no evidence of that Friday, and the firefighters I met scoffed at the idea that the new agreement was going to make a difference.

They want this cleared up fast," said Mike, of the 25th Ladder Company. What theyre doing now is a good PR move, but I doubt its gonna change things. Theyre still tearing through that rubble.

Despite Giuliani's assertions that "the effort here by the City of New York is to recover human remains," nothing about Ground Zero these days resembles a recovery operation. In the aftermath of the attack, we were finding crushed bits of bone and shredded pieces of flesh all over that killing field -- enough to get the bodies identified if survivors provided DNA samples. Now, although bodies are still being found, including the remains of a police officer a week ago last Friday, its hard to imagine that the smaller parts will be spotted as long as people arent physically in the rubble doing the digging.

Giuliani insists site safety was the sole reason he cut back the police and fire department involvement in the recovery effort. "When they say that we have a time commitment to getting this done, [it's] totally wrong," he insisted. "That were worried about overtime, [it's] totally wrong." And yet according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Ground Zero has never been safer. The vast majority of injuries sustained by search and rescue personnel occurred in the three weeks following the attack, when the perceived urgency of the situation persuaded everyone to throw caution to the wind. An Environmental Protection Agency study released two weeks ago concluded that the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe.

But it's hard not to conclude Giuliani made his decision in order to speed up clearing the site. Jay Vecchione, a 32-year-old "shop steward" from Local 45 in Queens, has worked there since Sept. 11. I ask Vecchione what, if anything, he sees as a health hazard at Ground Zero. Ive heard rumors about everything from toxic chemicals to vermin infestation.

"The rats arent what I'd call a problem, for now. I haven't seen any in the rubble. Vibrations and the smoke keep 'em awaythey've got good survival instincts. But they're everywhere else in Battery Park City."

Vecchione says air-quality tests found the fumes contain microscopic bits of fiberglass insulation (which lodges in the lungs and can cause cancer in much the same way as asbestos), silica from the pulverized cement, dioxins, and some asbestos, which was used for fireproofing in the lower floors of the WTC. But the smoke has thinned considerably in the last few weeks, and the advancing excavators are removing materials that might otherwise fuel more fires.

The shop steward admits he used to break down in tears over the death he saw everywhere at the site, but now he sees the WTC site as a construction job. "I'm being pragmatic. If we kept doing everything by hand, it would take forever. Years, maybe."

Instead, the work proceeds furiously. The city's largest contractors -- Turner Construction, Amec, Tully Construction, and Bovis Lend Lease (which helped build the the tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur) -- have divided the site into sections, and their excavators are working night and day to remove all the remains of the WTC. And the biggest general contractor in the world, the Bechtel Group, has been in negotiations with the Giuliani administration over a multi-million-dollar management contract. To the chagrin of local contractors, the San Francisco-based company, which is well connected in Washington, could eventually take over the job. The total value of the contracts, including the four already signed for the excavation for $100 million, is expected to reach upward of a billion dollars, making it the most expensive construction project ever.

Still, some firefighters' survivors are heartened by Friday's compromise over the cleanup, and that can only be a good thing. Giuliani and Von Essen have credited retired firefighter Lee Ielpi for helping craft the compromise; his son Jonathan, also a firefighter, died Sept. 11. Ielpi told the New York Times he wished the dead firefighters' survivors had been able to organize more quickly to deal with the city.

"If the families would have started this group two weeks after the disaster, all this could have been avoided," Ielpi said. "It was a subject that was so monstrous. We didn't know how to deal with it."

The fact that Ielpis role was considered so fundamental by Giuliani and Von Essen shows that there was something wrong with their approach to the situation in the first place. Public entreaties by grieving family members shouldnt have been a prerequisite before the city started to show proper deference for the remains the victims, be they firefighters or ordinary joes. Not when the pain and suffering was so obvious from day one. I can only hope the latest compromise is more than a PR measure, and that victims and survivors alike get the respect they always deserved.

By Noah Sudarsky

Noah Sudarsky is a correspondent for the French newspaper Ouest-France.

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