Heroes at Ground Zero

The scene at Ground Zero at 2 a.m., 10 days after the attack, is surreal. One hundred ten stories of two buildings lie crushed by gravity into a pile of metal no more than four stories high. A two-story chunk of one building is still lodged in the side of an adjacent building. Mist from a water cannon perched atop another neighboring building is falling through bright lights onto gas-masked workers. Smoke still rises from countless fires under the rubble. A crane is trying to climb the mountain of wreckage, but keeps slipping back. Small avalanches of debris periodically thunder down.

And a flatbed trailer waits for another crane to deposit a beam from the World Trade Center.

Truckers have been on the front lines since the attacks that shook America Sept. 11. Norman Ortiz, a driver for Document Express of New York, says he came to help because just watching television coverage became frustrating. “I feel helpless at home just watching TV,” he says. “I wanted to get in there and do something.” He volunteered for whatever work was needed. “It’s incredible in there. I saw dead bodies, body parts – total chaos. There’s the smell of dead bodies.”

Despite the horror of the scene, Ortiz is glad he came. “People are working hard. Everybody’s alive – their hearts are into it. I worked on the bucket brigade, cutting metal, doing heavy lifting, giving out food and water, using a pickaxe to break concrete and dirt. I’m going to come back as much as I can to help out.”

Truckers have brought in generators to power the lights that keep workers clearing out debris around the clock. They bring in food and water for the workers, many of whom are volunteers. So many truckers were loading up their trailers with contributions that New York City became inundated with food and supplies.

Truckers also provide the only way to remove the debris from Ground Zero. Drivers of dump trailers and flatbeds cart away tons of wreckage every day, hauling their loads to barges and over bridges on the way to the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island.

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Drivers risk their lives making runs into Ground Zero. At least two large buildings were threatening to collapse in the days after the attack. When engineers detected 1/4-inch of movement in a building, they sounded an alarm that told workers to drop everything and run, according to Raymond Acevedo, a structural engineer with Canron Steel.

Drivers also jumped onto the pile of wreckage to join in the bucket brigade that cleared out small debris so fire-and-rescue workers could search for survivors.

If there ever was a time Americans appreciated truck drivers, this is it. New Yorkers and others from around the world line the West Side Highway to wave U.S. flags and cheer everyone involved in the cleanup operation, including truck drivers pulling out wreckage. Volunteers reach up to drivers’ windows with offers of Gatorade, cookies and sandwiches.

Many truckers, like other Americans, will always remember where they were when they heard or saw the news that the Twin Towers had been hit. For those truckers who work around New York City, the images often were unfiltered by television. Some of them actually saw it happen.

Frank Burlington, who pulls flatbeds for Highpoint Garage of Richfield Park, N.J., was there. “It’s devastating,” he says. “I was one block away when the buildings got hit. Walking through the falling debris was like going through Beirut in a missile storm. The whole thing is an eerie, eerie feeling.”

Burlington’s job in the aftermath of the attack was to move generators to various points in lower Manhattan. “If it weren’t for those generators, Wall Street would not have been able to open,” he says. “Ninety percent of those buildings were powered by generators.”

Charlie Shafer

Another driver who was too close for comfort was Charlie Shafer, who drives for Traffic Safety Service Corp., South Plainfield, N.J. “I was near the Trade Centers when they got hit,” he says. “It was like snowing cement and sheetrock Tuesday at Ground Zero. You name it, we saw it there – shoes, papers, everything. It was ugly.”

Shafer was one of the first truckers to enter Ground Zero. He hauled in diesel-powered light towers, so that the search-and-rescue workers could see through the night. A couple of days later he was hauling pieces of A-frame barricades to Canal Street, where police use them to keep out looters and tourists.

Joey Macaluso

Joey Macaluso, who drives for M.J. Paquet, Inc., Palisades Park, N.J., also witnessed the catastrophe. “I saw the buildings drop,” he says. “I was driving. Everyone just pulled over and stopped. They couldn’t drive. I’m getting choked up thinking about it. It’s horrible.” Like Shafer, Macaluso was hauling wood for the 1,000 barricades the city is using to keep people away from Ground Zero.

Joe Gansas, who drives for the New York DOT, watched the buildings come down. “We were all screaming when it happened,” he says. “It was total shock.”

Like other New Yorkers who witnessed the attack, driver Mark Horn had no idea what was going on at first. “I was looking at the buildings when it happened,” says Horn, who drives for Dakota of Floral Park, N.Y. “I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t have the radio on. I saw the smoke coming out of the first building. Then I saw the plane come into the second one. It was unreal.”

Charlie Sferrazza, who drives for the New York DOT, says television gives little sense of the extent of the destruction. “It’s totally different from what you see on TV. You don’t see the half of it.”

It is hard for television to convey a sense of two collapsed buildings that contained more than 200,000 tons of steel, 425,000 cubic yards of concrete and 600,000 square feet of glass in 43,000 windows. Each floor, a reinforced concrete pad on a metal deck supported by steel crossbeams, was about an acre in area and weighed about 4.8 million pounds.

Entering the second week, as hopes for finding survivors faded, the psychological hardships of the work began to take their toll on workers.

“You couldn’t believe you were seeing what you were seeing,” Burlington says. “It was spooky. Then there’s the stink of the dead people. When it’s really hot you get the smell. It started to get to me. That’s why I had to take a day off. Knowing that there are thousands of people dead in there – it’s a horrible feeling. Sometimes I wish I was there, and I’m thinking it’s better than staying home and watching on TV. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t there.”

Danny Casaceli, a driver for Bishop Sanzari of New York, also has a hard time with what he is seeing. “The hardest part is watching the news, seeing the faces, then coming in here to work. There are people whose loved ones are buried in there. It’s very hard. I really don’t want to talk about it.”

Some drivers are angry about what they saw. “I’m here because this is a tragedy,” says Paul Bordenca, who drives for the New York DOT. “Anybody who’s an American would want to do whatever they can to help. If I was a little younger I’d volunteer for the Army. It is disgusting. They turned us into Beirut is what they did. It feels like that movie ‘Under Siege.’ It’s hell inside there. I was there Tuesday night. I saw them pulling out legs.”

In an effort to wrap their minds around what they are seeing, some workers take pictures and video of the destruction. “I have a picture of a fire truck I saw in there,” Bordenca says. “It was crushed by the first building. There wasn’t a piece of straight metal on it. It was like a toy that a kid had crumpled up.”

Fellow N.Y. DOT driver Michael Mosch, who a few days earlier was standing with Bordenca along the West Side Highway as they waited for President Bush to finish his appearance at Ground Zero, says, “It’s very sad. It’s very scary. It’s like our innocence is totally gone.”

“What do you mean ‘innocence‘?” interrupts Bordenca. “We’re the most decadent society in the history of the world!”

“What I mean by that,” continues Mosch, “is that this is the first real tragedy we have ever experienced. We weren’t around for World War II. We were too young for Vietnam. I don’t know if we can feel the same now that we have felt tragedy.”

Two weeks into the cleanup the priority shifted from search-and-rescue to clearing out large debris. Officials did not want to bring large equipment into the area while there was still a chance of survivors. After that hope faded, they summoned the big cranes. Some truckers are hauling in loads of recycled concrete that they say will be used to build a road from a barge – which was bringing in a giant crane – to Ground Zero.

Another big crane waits on the West Side Highway a mile away from Ground Zero. It is disassembled into pieces lying on the backs of 42 drop-deck trailers. “We want to get in there and do our part,” says Tim Shipe, one of the drivers in the convoy. Shipe and his fellow drivers hauled the 1,400,000-pound, 300-foot-tall crane from the Cleveland headquarters of All Erection and Crane Rental. “But we’ve been sitting here waiting for days while they fight over where to put it. They also have to test the ground to see if it’s strong enough to support it.”

Truckers will remain at the front lines of the cleanup as it continues through the winter and into the spring. They will continue to bring in the equipment needed for different phases of the operation, and they will keep hauling debris out of Ground Zero for months.

For many of those who are helping out, taking part in the cleanup operation boosts their mood a little. “I was nervous the past couple days to come down here,” Sferrazza says. “But you’ve got to help out and do what you can. Finally you get your chance to help, and you feel better.”