T here is a construction site in New York City that is unlike any other this writer has visited. Here, it is relatively quiet. Only the hum of power tools, the banging of hammers and the swoosh of the express elevator punctuate the air. From the 77th floor, the New York street noises cannot be heard, and it is somewhat difficult to spot the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor. The workers on the site are keeping their voices low; there is no swearing. This is hallowed ground. This is One World Trade Center.
On an unusually warm day in late November, 10 years after that fateful day when terrorists hijacked two commercial airliners and intentionally crashed them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center causing them both to crumble to the ground within two hours of impact, we interviewed several union construction workers employed by Component Assembly Systems. CAS is an interior wall and ceiling contracting company headquartered near New York City that also has offices in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
What makes these guys so special? In most cases, not only are they helping to rebuild the World Trade Center site, they also assisted with the rescue and recovery efforts in 2001. Here are their stories.
"Murph” and "Tony D”
John "Murph” Murphy Jr. wears a lot of hard hats. He is CAS’s second general carpenter, lead man and journeyman mechanic. After the 9/11 attacks, he logged 998 hours in recovery efforts.
Anthony "Tony D” DiBlasi is a carpenter who has been with CAS since 1992. He put 497 hours into the recovery.
Today they are working on One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower. At this point, the core and shell are the focus; the interiors have not yet gone out for bid. CAS is building shaft walls for the stairways and rated corridors off the elevator lobbies along with other core buildout.
But on Sept. 11, 2001, Tony D and Murph were in Midtown working on a project for Bear Stearns. With no way to get back home to New Jersey, that evening they walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and stayed at Tony’s father’s house. The next morning they drove to the site (as close to it as they could get), and they say it was like a ghost town. The attacks took place on a Tuesday, and the next Monday is when CAS officially manned the job. Most other volunteers were on the site two days later, so Murph and Tony were among the first non-city officials to enter the site. John Rapaport, CAS general manager and legal counsel, arrived the following Saturday as a volunteer to hand out food to the recovery workers.
The city had not yet put out any calls for assistance; New Yorkers just came to the site to offer whatever help was needed. The area was devastated, John says. He lived on the Upper West side, and he took the subway as far as he could to the site. He then walked the rest of the way acting like he belonged there, and the next thing he knew, he was handing out food right by The Pile. (For those not familiar with the vernacular, 10 years ago New Yorkers referred "Ground Zero” as "The
Arriving on the site so soon after the event was overwhelming, says Murph. "I couldn’t believe the mass destruction that was here,” he says. "It was almost like a movie, you know? I don’t know how to explain it.”
Tony D concurs: "Like he said, you could look at the hole, and you see it and you can’t really put any life into it. You wondered, ‘Where did the building go?’ It was gone. And you look at the debris and you couldn’t recognize anything; you didn’t see a desk, a door. You’re like, ‘Where is all the furniture? Where is everything?’ It was just pulverized.”
Americans and others in the world who watched the horrible events of 9/11 unfold saw the devastation on their television screens, but responders like Murph and Tony D also had to endure the hardship of the smells associated with the destruction.
"There’s the sight of everything, and then you’ll never forget the smell of everything. You will never forget,” says Murph. "It’s definitely something that no one was ready for, but everybody pitched in. Everyone came together. It was really something else.”
"The chemicals burning, dead bodies after a while …,” says Tony. "There were toxic fumes. They were saying there was stuff like antifreeze, the cooling towers—just everything burning together, and they couldn’t do anything about it.”
The Red Cross distributed masks and other protective equipment that workers were instructed to wear, and most did. But that may not have been enough. To distract themselves from the horrific sights and smells, Murph and Tony D focused on the task at hand.
"We did everything,” Murph says. "We built protection, railings, gang ladders that went 40 feet into the hole for the firemen. We built the onsite police headquarters, the onsite fireman headquarters—right on site, right next to the hole, on the ground we started framing—we built two houses, basically. We were pretty much on the entire 16 acres of the site. We secured the site, basically.”
"Yeah,” affirms Tony D, "there’s pretty much nothing we didn’t do.” He added that they built ramps and decks, shelters and morgues, coffee huts, guard shacks and reviewing stands.
They also helped to build first-aid stations, and all the different trades had trailers, so Murph and Tony D built ramps and staircases for them. They built water filtration locations where temporary workers could go to take care of hydration and flush their eyes of debris, and they built bathrooms. In addition, they shored up nearby buildings that were scorched by the fire.
"We were in some of the [nearby] buildings too, jacking up some beams that may leak,” Tony D adds. "There were some windows that had to be closed up because they didn’t want anything falling out of the building.
"And we were soaked some days. There were some days you’d show up and you’d be standing in 3 inches of water all day, and at lunch time they’d give you fresh cotton T-shirts or whatever it took. The church up the block on Broadway would give you hot soup, coffee if you needed it. You didn’t even want to leave the site. You were always right here. You wanted to be hands-on.”
Murph says, "If you first saw the site at the very beginning, you never would have thought they had it cleaned up [so soon]. They worked 24 hours a day, around the clock, for a year. They never let up. I mean, you had people who stopped their lives, came from California, and would come out here for the American Red Cross, to help us out, to hand us food and drinks. They left their jobs, their families. It really was about everyone helping one another. It really was.
"We have a lot of experiences with our work and our company and what we did here, but that was like an outside thing that happened that we will never experience again …”
"And we don’t want to,” John adds.
"We saw a lot of things that put memories in our heads forever—obviously things we never wanted to see, but then there were a lot of good things that we saw that came out of it also,” Murph says.
Ari Sapkowski, a carpenter who has been with CAS since 1997, was at 45th and Madison in Manhattan when the towers went down. He saw it happen and immediately went to offer help.
"You know it’s funny,” he says, "because usually everybody’s intention is you want to get paid for the work you’re going to do, but there was no hesitation. There was no hesitation. We ran. That’s one of the things I remember: We went, without hesitation. And it stunk in the beginning because they wouldn’t let us in. So we would have to meet at Pier 40, which is probably like a mile away. With the tools and everything else, we had to walk, every day, until a couple of days later you had verification.”
He put 988 hours into the cleanup and recovery constructing temporary housing for the workers who were on the site 24 hours a day, and he helped provide protection barricades and other devices that made it safe for the other trades to do their work. He says he worked 15-hour days for four months.
During his work, Ari saw some things his coworkers didn’t see, and he paid the price for it.
"I saw some crazy things—a couple of body parts,” he says quietly. "I was actually on the ground a lot of the time.”
Ari’s interview for this article took place in the CAS shanty inside the new building, and the location is meaningful to him.
"It’s weird because where we’re located is more or less where I was most of the time, where the parking lot was. So when I walk down the stairs, I remember seeing … you know, the old flashbacks,” he says.
"There were some complications that I went through,” he continues. "I guess I got depressed from seeing things. I started using alcohol, but I’m actually in recovery now—seven years sober. And actually, it’s an honor for me to be here and be sober now, especially thinking that this is one of the reasons that I got addicted to what I did.”
But there’s more. Ari also had to endure criticisms from people who had varying opinions about what should be done with the 16-acre site where the Twin Towers once stood.
"I feel honored to walk outside and be a part of this,” he says, "and then some people will spit in your face and say you shouldn’t be building this. There’s a lot of controversy.
"See, I take the bus; I live in New Jersey. And when we stand on the bus stop, and you talk to people, you get a lot of feedback about what the public thinks. The public out there is saying, ‘No, don’t build it. That’s wrong. You shouldn’t be building on sacred ground.’”
Because of the feedback he gets, is it hard for Ari to tell people what he does for a living?
"It is,” he says. "In the beginning I got very offended, because I felt honorable to be here, and then people are telling you you’re out of your mind, you shouldn’t be there, that’s sacred ground that should be open. But look how many people are working considering the economy, how many jobs are provided here.”
Today, however, the general public’s attitude seems to have softened.
"I notice that even the public is coming around a little bit because the building is going up,” Ari explains. "When I told some people this building alone was going to be 1,776 feet, they’re like, ‘No way! Really?’ That meant something to some people; it meant something to me. … I hope we get the finish job.”
So progress is being made, but when the Discovery Channel, PBS and other networks air 9/11 documentaries, Ari lives it all over again. He noted that he had recently seen a Discovery special and says, "It’s funny after all these years, all of a sudden the emotions just come right back. My 14-year-old daughter is big on history and current events, and this is one of the things she is proud of, that dad is there. She’s proud. She’s very proud.”
The National September 11 Memorial Museum will serve as the country’s primary institution surrounding of the events of 9/11 and the aftermath. The museum’s collection includes artifacts, photographs, audio recordings and videotapes, personal effects and memorabilia, expressions of tribute and remembrance, recorded testimonies and digital files and websites related to the history of the World Trade Center, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and Feb. 26, 1993, and the repercussions of these seismic attacks. CAS is currently performing framing, drywall and rough carpentry operations, acoustic spray and metal ceiling installation. The museum is on schedule to open on Sept. 11 of this year, but financing problems may prevent that from happening.
Today he is working on the museum, but Tommy Dougherty, CAS’s foreman, put 1,038 hours into the recovery in 2001.
"I came Thursday, and on Friday CAS took over as far as it being like a job,” Tommy says. "And then I was there until Sept. 10 of the following year.”
Like his coworkers, he also helped clean and prep the site, building overhead protection, ramps and whatever was deemed necessary at the time. "At the beginning,” he says, "we were doing protection of fire hoses. They would run the hoses out and we would build ramps over them to protect them, and then they would put blacktop over them.
"We would build ladders. Within two weeks they would dig so much out that we would have to go back to do more ladders. We were there probably 12 hours making ladders. Then we built a giant platform—we used to call it ‘the deck.’ John Murphy and I built it. And that platform was a span that went under the West Side Highway—it was like a cavern. So we built a platform—gigantic. Then we built a ladder that came through it. The fire department kept using our ladders rather than the stair towers because they had so much gear on, and with the scaffolding, they couldn’t make the turns.
"We also did overhead protection. We cantilevered wood up, around and over. Whatever they determined we needed to do, that’s what we did. For the most part we never had any issues that I ever heard of. Everything had to be perfect.”
The safety of those on the site, of course, was a big concern.
Tommy elaborates: "Eventually they were giving us pages—four or five pages—of site safety issues. You’ve got the city, OSHA, every GC had their own safety issues, so they would always be handing us different sheets, and no matter what, we had to do it.”
With all those instructions, what was the most difficult to accomplish? Barricades.
"We would make barricades and every single day,” Tommy says, "and every single day they were gone, or knocked over or destroyed because the job never stopped.
"The hardest thing was getting material. You could hand me a sheet of instruction, and I had to get the material there. But you could never leave it here and then expect it to be there later because everybody would use it—and it was entitled to everybody, kind of, you know?”
Safety also includes the mental health of the workers who helped clean the site. Workers from Mount Sinai Hospital and the Red Cross checked the workers on a regular basis. Even to this day, those who helped with the recovery can go to Mount Sinai for assistance.
Tommy says, "They were constantly coming up to you, asking, ‘Do you need help?’ They would always come up to you, and they were always looking to see how you were doing and be like, ‘How are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m OK.’ And they’re like, ‘Really, how you doing?’”
Another challenge that’s being met today is dealing with the tourists who come to visit the 9/11 memorial, the twin fountains where 52,000 gallons of water cascade every minute and drop 30 feet into the center of each pool. The names of the 2,982 victims of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and Feb. 26, 1993, are etched in the borders of each fountain.
When the memorial opened on Sept. 11, 2011, work on the adjacent museum was still in full swing. But not only did the opening of the memorial bring tourists, it also brought the media and New York City officials.
"At the beginning, it was pretty bad,” Tommy says. "Whenever someone was here like paparazzi, or when [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg would come through, they would shut down the elevator.” That made getting materials to the site incredibly difficult, and it happened often, especially prior to the 10-year anniversary.
"And the [Occupy Wall Street] protestors are right around the corner,” adds John Rapaport. "That’s juxtaposition. It is, because people were mad and angry. In some ways you can see the birth of that movement from 9/11 in that we’re still fighting wars, and we’re trying to get the economy going.”
"These guys are real,” he continues, nodding toward his men. "This stuff that we do is real. We get paid, and, yes, there are times we have issues, but we’re not what people are protesting about. We’re the opposite. We’re the type of people we should be encouraging because our company does the right thing. These guys are great union workers and we want to support the best benefits and wages within what the economy will allow. It’s amazing that with all the instability in our industry that our company has been stable, both in New York and the other markets. It’s because of guys like Vinny and Tom …”
Vinny is Vincent Gangemi, CAS’s head foreman for the museum project. Although he was not involved with the 9/11 cleanup, he has been with CAS since 1996.
The museum itself presents many construction challenges, and the biggest one facing Vinny and his team at the moment is financing. Vinny says the museum is scheduled to open Sept. 11, 2012, and that means all the mementos are hung on the walls, everything is in place—in other words, construction has to be finished well before the opening date.
"If it’s going to get done, I can’t answer that,” Vinny says. "It’s all out of our hands. It’s internal. It’s more of a situation with the Port Authority and the 9/11 Foundation.”
Vinny explains that a recent newspaper article caused a bit of an uproar when it made known the fact that the 9/11 Foundation was $156 million over budget, and "they don’t know where it’s going to come from.”
In fact, Vinny says some of the major areas of the museum were
just recently designed. "It’s all extra to us,” he says. "That’s where the financial crisis is caused—it’s all change orders and stuff like that. It’s because of all that extra, which to me doesn’t make a lot of sense because we’ve been working on it for 10 years.
"Everything is laid out, everything would have been built if the money was here. It’s out of our hands completely. But we’re definitely ahead of schedule.”
It’s easy to see how that can be, as it seems that only CAS employees are working on the site on this November day. Because of the financing woes, all the trades at the museum are "planning on the phone call to leave,” Vinny says. "All the trades have been pulling everything out. We are lucky we work for Component because they have other work.”
"Eventually it will get done,” he adds. "You know, we’re hoping to have it done sooner. We’d love to see the place finished.”
The museum is built so that the original footprints of the Twin Towers are in the building in their original locations. A gallery section has a slab of the original concrete flooring (rebar included) of one of the towers. It will be covered with glass to protect it, and benches will be placed around it so that visitors can reflect in this somber area.
A scorched ambulance, a crushed fire truck, the Survivor Stairway, part of the original bathtub wall (an exposed slurry wall that keeps the Hudson River from entering the complex) and some of the steel beams from the original buildings are already in place in the museum—even as the museum is being constructed around them. The fire truck was from the New York City Fire Department’s Ladder Company 3, which helped civilians escape from the trade center’s north tower on Sept. 11, 2001. The 11 firefighters aboard all died when the towers collapsed.
These large items are in place, covered and preserved in one of the largest areas of the museum. The steel beams, which endured so much heat from the fires that they bent, play a role in the design of the room they will occupy.
"We have round walls,” Vinny says. "The steel that they’re going to be putting back there is actually bent around, so we made the walls round. There has to be, in this area alone, maybe 30 pieces of steel going in, but the pieces are 20 to 30 feet long.”
The exposed duct work in the open ceiling is going to be sprayed black, and the walls in the room, some of which will be 15 feet high, are "all stepping up and down, all depending on which artifact goes where,” Vinny explains.
The museum walls will, of course, be finished to a Level 5, but that’s not going to be a problem for CAS because good, temporary lighting is in place. In fact, the temporary power that feeds the temporary lighting in the museum, feeds the entire site. Vinny explains that One World Trade Center is about 40 feet away from the museum, and the power feed from the museum takes care of the electricity needs for Towers 1, 2, 3 and 4. "It’s phenomenal,” he says.
The main open area in the museum will feature a beautiful ceiling that Component Assembly Systems spent a year helping the GC to design, but unfortunately, CAS did not get that job.
"It’s a metal pan ceiling that has all of these different shapes and octagons,” Vinny explains. Because they did not get the job, "our ceiling division is not very happy with [the GC].”
Vinny thinks it’s fantastic that their design is being used, "but you still want to build it,” he says. "This is phenomenal.”
So when the contractor who won the ceiling job messes it up, maybe CAS will get the job back to do it right.
"Exactly!,” Vinny responds. "I would love to build that ceiling.”