September 12, 2001: After a 26-hour shift Brendan McCormack emerges exhausted out of the darkness and into another day. A Donegal man, who has lived in the U.S. for 17 years, McCormack is an ironworker.
Minutes after the collapse of the Twin Towers, he and other ironworkers from all over the city dropped their tools and leapt into action, crusading down to the effort at Ground Zero. “I hope I can make a difference,” he says. “I’m doing my job down there, I feel good that I can help.”
Hanging from buildings and bridges, ironworkers had a bird’s-eye view of the planes as they hit the Twin Towers, and they rushed to help. Assembling at the union hall on West 42nd Street, many grew frustrated as they tried to get to the site. Some, like McCormack, made it through. Once there they had to contend with a landscape of misshapen metal formerly known as the north tower. Billowing smoke clouded their vision and the smell of burning flesh and melted plastic weaved a cruel scent around them. “It was like I’d stepped into a horror movie,” said Denis Milton as he and the other ironworkers, brandishing their cutting torches and gas and air tanks, their gloves and goggles, began the task of cutting and lifting debris.
“We were in the office when we heard it,” said Jimmy Mahoney who at 39 is young in ironworking terms. “So me and Bobby Benesh and Denis Milton and Pete Creegan crammed into a car. Course we couldn’t get down so I jumped out and walked.”
Maloney had a job to do. He had to organize how the operation would go. “It was chaotic,” he says, remembering the loud crack, and the ghostly image of Tower 1 as it fell. “I was unlucky,” he says, “I saw both go down.” Dressed in a business suit, Mahoney was ill-fitted for work. So, he borrowed boots from the National Guard and a welding jacket. It was three days before he stopped to consider the pain the boots inflicted on his feet. “I was standing there trying to get something done with the EMS and the Mayor’s office and they were taking dinner orders,” he smiles sadly. “That’s not what ironworkers do.”
Meanwhile, Creegan, a business agent from Local 580, was back at the union hall calling his wife Claudine. That night he drove upstate to collect his gear. For the following days, Creegan and the ironworkers caught sleep when they could, often on the floor of the union hall. “The guys came back up that first night and they were covered with soot,” recalls Creegan. “We went down to the West Side Highway Bridge. We had to get it moved, there was a firetruck underneath. They thought they were still alive in there. When I wound up on that bridge, I saw things I never thought I’d see in my life. So many body parts…” His voice trails off and he is unable to continue for the images clouding his head. “I don’t like talking about it,” he says.
The workers returned day after day to cut away the twisted metal skeletons of the towers, even when the rain turned the powdered concrete into slippery chunks. Belief that there were many buried in the rubble just waiting for a hand to touch them, diluted the horror of torn flesh, a scalp, the hair matted with blood, and allowed them to continue. Sporadically, a search and rescue dog would smell something, sit by his trainer and bark. When that happened the workers stopped and stood clutching their tools with faint hope that someone was still alive. Within minutes they’d realize it was nothing, and return to work.
It was a dangerous task. “You never knew where the metal would fall,” said Creegan, whose father was also an ironworker. “You just hoped it would fall the way you wanted.”
“When you have that amount of steel and it is in danger, you have to remove the heavy stuff in case there is anybody underneath,” said McCormack, a twelve-year veteran ironworker out of Local 580. McCormack used to play football with one of the victims, Damien Meehan, a financial worker. Together they kicked the ball around the Good Shepherd field in the Bronx. As he toiled down on the rubble, he never once allowed himself to think of that. “It was hard down there. I cannot even fully describe it to you,” he said thoughtfully. “There have been bodies, body bags, but you gotta put that into perspective. It’s a sense of duty, a sense of pride that keeps us going.” And the hope of finding a survivor. “There’s slim chance that somebody underneath is still breathing but you gotta keep hoping,” he said at the time.
When the tragedy occurred he left his job to volunteer. “I’ll go back to that whenever I’m finished down below. I’ll stay as long as the effort lasts,” he said in September. He stayed a month and a half, until contractors approached all the volunteers, telling them that if they weren’t employed by one of the firms hired by the city to clear out the debris, they had to leave.
The Building Trades Employers’ Association (BTEA) and the Building &Construction Trades Council (BCTC) contracted people, equipment and whatever else was necessary to assist in the cleanup and rescue operation. Soon after the tragedy, they were asking the unions to regulate the effort so other jobs in the city could be done. The ironworkers went back to their jobs but some continued to go down to Ground Zero in the evenings. “It was tiring getting used to those hours, but I felt I had to be down there. It kind of stayed with you after you went from it. You didn’t forget what you saw. It was difficult to adjust,” said McCormack, who is married with a baby, Emmett age two. He and his wife are awaiting the birth of twins. He admits that the ironworkers still think every day about what they saw in those first weeks. For one month, the effort was a rescue operation. Cutting beams with torches and hooking chains onto iron so that small cranes could lift seventy-ton pieces away, the ironworkers moved with care.
In the first couple of weeks, there was no such thing as safety considerations. The effort was frantic and urgent. “We were just trying to get to survivors,” explained Creegan. “You took more risks, sure. But you knew there was someone looking out for you.”
They cut, they worked on the bucket brigade, passing debris back to the rear of the line, and they fell to their knees, digging through the debris and lumps of wet dust for any signs of life.
Business manager of the ironworkers union Local 580, Denis Lusardi (affectionately known as Denis O’Lusardi by the predominantly Irish guys in the union) said that what the ironworkers did was not any different from what they do on every other day. “They do their jobs the same, they just change the focus,” he said proudly of his men. “We did the face of those buildings, and the hoisting, the rigging, the welding and the staircases. We knew the physics of it.” The history of the World Trade Center and the history of the Ironworkers is intertwined.
Three decades ago, the New York Ironworkers erected the towers and after the collapse they dismantled them. Just before Christmas they pulled away the last façade of the World Trade Center. What had once been a symbol of American freedom and American might was removed with a tenderness for buildings only ironworkers possess.
When the towers were being built, many of those tough guys riding high on the beams were Irish. One guy is remembered as saying, “Fellas, on a clear day, I can see Carrauntuohill.” Seeing Ireland’s highest mountain may not have been all that impossible for these dreamers. Even if on the clearest day from the observation deck on Two World Trade Center it was possible to only see 45 miles in every direction.
Jack Doyle spent seven years on the north tower. Doyle from Local 40 is 57 and almost at retirement age. He was 26 in 1970 when he began the work. “There were days when we were up really high. You couldn’t see the ground below when it was foggy,” remembered Doyle. He described the sound of the 50-foot steel beams coming up to the workers from below. “You would only hear it at first moving up the outside and then you would see the load come out of the clouds. It was ghostly.” Doyle made foreman when the work reached the 28th floor. He was one of the first to pitch the American flag on what was then the world’s tallest building.
For three long years, Denis Milton, 56, a 35-year veteran of Local 580, like Doyle rode the scaffolding against the steel beams of the emerging World Trade Center. “It was a beautiful sight, seeing the sunrise and then the sunset from those beams,” he recalls. With 400 men Milton constructed the core of the towers and then the skin. Working on towers one, two, five and six as well as the Marriott hotel (then called the Vista), Milton was one of the lucky ones. “Everybody wanted to be on that job,” he says. “That morning it happened, I only thought about all the people, I never thought about all the years on it.”
Constructed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the early 1970s, the World Trade Center towers cost $400 million. They were the best known examples of tube buildings and were composed mainly of steel and aluminum. The closely spaced columns and beams inside each tower formed a steel tube that, together with an internal core, withstood the tremendous wind loads that affect such tall buildings. Each tower swayed approximately three feet from true center in strong wind. The towers were built on six acres of landfill and the foundation of each tower had to extend more than 70 feet below ground level to rest on solid bedrock.
On Friday, February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in the underground garage of One World Trade Center, creating a 22-foot-wide, five-story-deep crater. Six people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. Hundreds of ironworkers were put back on the job to repair the damage. The towers were cleaned, repaired, and reopened in less than one month.
Surprisingly, the Twin Towers were designed to withstand being struck by an airplane. But it was the fires from the crashes on September 11 that weakened the infrastructure of the building. The collapsed upper floors created too much weight for the lower floors to bear.
From the 2,000-degree Fahrenheit heat generated by the explosion of 10,000 gallons of jet fuel in each plane, the steel perimeter of each tower began to warp and the 110-story towers imploded. Describing the collapse as something akin to a peeling orange, Milton says the skin peeled out onto the ground and the core collapsed straight down. To bystanders on the streets of New York it looked like the towers just went up in smoke. “The heat of the fire damaged the floors. Once the floors collapsed they compacted down one by one on top of each other.” From his vantage-point in Brooklyn, Milton grew concerned. “I knew there wasn’t too much intermediate steel,” he says. “I called 911 to tell them that those buildings were coming down.”
By the next day, Milton joined hundreds of ironworkers at the site to help. He stayed three full days seeing thing he says he could scarcely believe. “It was so eerie,” he recalls. “We saw nobody but we saw the footprints left there in the dust.”
At Milton’s age and with his experience he could retire. “I guess I could but I won’t,” he says affably. “I’m too young.” Milton, who was born in the Bronx into a New York Irish family, takes so much pride in his job that the very idea of not being an ironworker scares him. For almost 200 years, the Milton clan has worked as ironworkers ever since they climbed from the boat. He says if he ever does get a chance, he might visit the land of his forefathers. Since September 11, many, like Milton, are planning to revisit their lives.
Five weeks before the attack, a crew of five ironworkers were laid off from the World Trade Center. On the crew had been Denis’s nephew Tommy Milton who had worked on the towers for 17 years; his friend Liam Footy who had worked there almost 14 years on and off; Richie Flaherty who was there nine years and Jimmy Holly and Paddy Blaine who were relative newcomers.
Milton would call Footy whenever they needed an extra worker on the crew. “There was always two guys but some jobs required more,” said Irishman Footy, 44, a Woodlawn native, from his home in Fort Montgomery, New York. Against the skyline on any day the small crew of friends who rode carpool to work, could be seen working on the looming towers. Footy got laid off on June 5. In late July, the other guys got laid off. “The contract for the maintenance crew was held by Turner Construction. In July, the contract came up for renegotiation. The guys were told they would be back on September 1.
“I guess paperwork held it up, thank God,” says Footy knowing that had they still had the contract, he and his friends would have been somewhere on the outside of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. on September 11.
Thirty-nine-year-old father of three, Tommy Milton, who had been on top of the World Trade Center and all around it as part of the maintenance crew for 17 years, had his own near miss on September 11. He said that had the crew been brought back, there was only one job they would have been working at on September 11 — the roof of tower one. “I don’t think about that,” he said. “I remember when I saw it up on 43rd Street on the Times Square screen my first thought was for my friend who worked in Cantor Fitzgerald. I knew he was in trouble.”
While working 16 hours every day with the rest of the ironworker crew cutting steel, lowering rescuers into holes, and removing personal mementos for the following gruesome week, Milton only ever thought about his friend Tommy Dowd, who never made it.
Milton believes rebuilding New York is the only way forward. “They try to knock us down but we will stand up,” he says.
Before the attacks the crew looked after any work needed at the towers. When new tenants came in and required demolition, they demolished. They ensured that areas were secured from civilians and they cleared the way for the window washer machines. “It took 40 minutes to do a run and every day there would be countless runs,” says Footy. “One man, Rocco Camage, was thirty years on the job and passed away just before the attack.”
All Footy hopes now is that he will be there if they decide to rebuild the World Trade Center, and that his father lives long enough to go back to Ireland with his grandchildren. As he leaves the conversation, Footy is mumbling. “Funny that no matter how well you knew that building you could always get lost.”
The night after the towers collapsed a group of special agents traveled to Ground Zero. Detailed to direct traffic in Lower Manhattan, Hinda Perdreaux, Special Agent in Charge at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the U.S. Department of State, and her agents were mesmerized by what they witnessed.
“What I saw was the ironworkers reporting for work in the worst of circumstances ready to support firefighters and police in their rescue efforts,” described Perdreaux.
“Day after day they came and were always kind and compassionate and gave the sense that they embodied the true American spirit.” Amazed by their commitment, Perdreaux, whose grandmother married an Irishman, says the ironworkers, who often had to walk miles to get to Ground Zero because of the debris, and pass through countless checkpoints, never once complained.
“Burdened with equipment, they worked until dawn to untangle the melted steel and burn through the massive rubble to find any survivors,” she says. They seldom found any. But there was one. Bobby Benesh, a 22-year veteran of the ironworkers, found the last survivor of the World Trade Center attacks.
Genelle Guzman, a 31-year-old Port Authority worker, had been at her job on the 64th floor of Tower 1 when the airliner came crashing through. She and her co-workers evacuated and reached the 13th floor stairs. The second plane hit and Guzman fell 13 floors to lay sandwiched between concrete pillars and a staircase for 27 hours. Guzman was ready to die when she heard noises. She yelled out. Someone answered back. She grabbed a piece of concrete not far from her hand and in desperation knocked the stair. Benesh atop the rubble heard the knocking. Guzman pushed her hand through a small crack and Benesh kneeled down to hold it. He said, “I got you.” She said, “Thank God.”
Guzman was the last of just five people to be found still breathing in the rubble. But it was days before the ironworkers acknowledged that hope of further rescue was fading.
By late September, 115,755 tons of debris had been removed. The final count for those killed in the incident rounded off somewhere near 3,000. By December almost 900 sanitation workers and 250 pieces of equipment hauled away two billion pounds of steel and concrete and 14 acres of glass. By October, it had moved to cleanup. The cranes came in and the ironworkers were reduced in number. As a New Year dawned, the ironworkers were optimistic. “If they are going to rebuild it then the ironworkers will be there to rebuild it,” said McCormack. “It’s the ironworkers’ mentality that it would be a sign of weakness not to rebuild the towers bigger and better to show that the American spirit cannot be defeated,” said Lusardi proudly. “We cannot let them think they have won,” said Creegan, and the ironworkers cheered. ♦