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Part Three: The Dance of the Dinosaurs (excerpts)

The tribalism that grew up on the pile had origins so primitive that they can only be understood as instinctual. At the core was an us-versus-them mentality brought on by the mere act of donning a uniform. Whether as firefighters or as the two sorts of police (city and Port Authority), the uniformed personnel at the site were generally drawn from the same white "ethnic" outer-borough neighborhoods and families, but as members of their respective organizations they had learned to distrust and resent the others. The hostility was historical, and because it was strongest on the lowest levels, among the rank and file, it had proved impossible to root out. People at the site referred to it alliteratively as the Battle of the Badges. Across the years it had led to frequent arguments over turf and occasional bouts of outright obstructionism at emergency scenes. At the Trade Center it had been a factor from the first moments after the attack, when the Police and Fire Departments had set up separate command posts several blocks apart, and without communication between them. There were consequences to this: after the South Tower fell, police helicopter pilots took a close-up look at the fire in the North Tower, and twenty-one minutes before the final collapse they urged their own command to evacuate the building. The warning was radioed to the policemen inside the North Tower, most of whom escaped, but it was not relayed to the fire commands, or to the firemen in the building, only some of whom were able to hear independently radioed orders to evacuate, and more than 120 of whom subsequently died. The lack of communication was certainly no more the fault of one side than of the other, but it aggravated the divisions between them. Even during the initial desperate search for survivors the police and firemen quarreled over turf, and asserted their differences. By the end of the first day the bucket brigades had separated according to uniform. Throughout the months that followed, individual friendships and family ties cut across the lines. Nonetheless, the tribalism festered and soon infected the construction crews, too, who did not quarrel much among themselves but generally distrusted the police as ordinary citizens do, and who probably hadn't given firemen much thought before but came now to resent their claims to special privilege on the pile.


And so the recovery proceeded, not as a united or a heroic exercise but as a set of accommodations worked out among self-centered groups sharing a pragmatic understanding that this was an important job, and that it was primarily a physical one. The only solution was to attack the ruins—to cut and drop the skeletal walls, lift the heavy steel, chew up the rubble mountains, pause to recover the dead, demolish the stump of the Marriott hotel, tear down the burned-through hulks of Buildings Four, Five, and Six, stabilize the neighboring high-rises, shore up the damaged subway, excavate the insanely packed foundation hole, reinforce and protect the slurry wall, and run a fleet of trucks and barges to haul the debris away. About halfway through Ken Holden said to me, "Excavation, remains, recovery, removal—repeat," because in essence that cycle constituted the work. But of course the complications were considerable.


The stars of the show were the machines themselves, and particularly the big diesel excavators, marvels of hydraulics and steel, which roamed through the smoke and debris on caterpillar tracks and in the hands of their operators became living things, the insatiable king dinosaurs in a world of ruin. They came in various sizes, from the "small" 320s (which could pull apart an ordinary house in minutes) to the oversized 1200s, monstrous mining machines rarely seen in New York, which proved to be too awkward for many uses on the pile. Most of the work was done by the 750s—sufficiently big, sufficiently lean, enormously persistent beasts that battled the debris without rest. Each 750 weighed in at 180,000 pounds (as compared with 140,000 pounds for the heaviest trucks fully loaded), and was equipped with an articulating arm and one of three hydraulically powered attachments—steel-cutting "shears" (often attached to an extra-long arm, for reaching high or wreaking havoc deep inside the standing ruins); conventional "buckets," useful at the lower levels of the pile in areas of pulverized debris; or, most often, "grapplers," gap-toothed claws that could open eight feet wide, but could also close into an overbite so tight that it could snap twigs. The grappler-equipped excavators (known simply as grapplers themselves) dominated the battle until it moved well below ground. Working fast and in tandem, the machines picked the ruins apart one piece at a time. The steel they took on included the heaviest ever used in a building—box columns weighing 3,100 pounds per foot, so that a merely man-size length would amount to almost 19,000 pounds, and a fifty-foot section would come in at nearly the weight of the grappler itself. Some of the loose steel could be "flown" out by the enormous cranes that ringed the pile—but the process was so tedious that it was reserved for special cases: for instance, for lifting beams during the search for survivors among ruins too rough to allow the grapplers access, or for the dismantling of the skeletal walls, most of which were torched apart one section at a time by ironworkers in suspended baskets, and then lowered gently to the ground. This left the bulk of the fight to the grapplers, which were just tough enough to take it on.

Actually, of course, it was the operators who accepted the fight. They were said to be the best in the business, and this was easy to believe. At the start of a shift they didn't just climb aboard and sit down but seemed, rather, to strap on the equipment much as good pilots strap on their wings. Like those pilots, too, they were artists of motion—fluid, expressive, and intuitively at one with their machines. The cabs that they sat in were enclosed in wire mesh and sound-dampening, shatterproof glass; they had single comfortable seats, filtered and cooled or heated air, automotive stereos, and a combination of pedals and tightly coupled, variable-rate joysticks that allowed the operators nearly bionic control. It was that control especially that gave the grapplers their beauty. The operators might drive to work like ordinary commuters, frustrated by traffic, by parking regulations, by lines at Starbucks for insipid coffee; but after they settled into their machines, they could put all that aside, and go rumbling off into the faraway land of ruin; and if they came to terrain too wild to cross, often they could build their way through; and when they came to the field of battle, typically among other grapplers straining there, they could reach their own arms out twenty feet, clamp their own steel claws around multi-ton splinters, and with fire and smoke erupting, while shuddering and rocking forward onto the toes of their tracks, they could wrestle those splinters clear. They could also then stretch their claws wide and angle them up to use just the bottom fingers to gently stir loosened debris for the firemen to see. The operators had all that power and grace at their command, and they possessed more imagination than ordinary construction jobs had let them exercise before. Now they had been given a high purpose, and been told roughly what Sam Melisi had been told: just go and see what you can do. It was a liberation, because they knew they could do a lot. They were resourceful. They were like pioneers.


In the end, 1.5 million tons of ruins were extracted from the seventeen acres of the Trade Center site. The vast bulk of the material was barged twenty-six miles to the Fresh Kills landfill for sorting, final inspection, and burial.... The Trade Center debris was arriving by the thousands of tons daily, and production-line procedures for handling it were proving up to the task. Those procedures remained remarkably stable over the course of the operation, because though the conditions at the Trade Center site frequently changed (resulting in production spikes), once the heavy steel had been redirected to New Jersey, the nature of the output destined for Fresh Kills remained largely the same: bargeloads of rubble consisting of broken and crushed concrete, asbestos, asphalt millings, rebar and other forms of light steel—all stirred through with a homogenized mixture of details from 50,000 working lives, nearly 3,000 of which had just ended violently. Fresh Kills' job was to separate the human mixture from the rest, and to de-homogenize it.

The process started intuitively on the barges themselves, where some of the tugboat crews believed they could judge the organic content of the loads from the seagulls overhead, scavengers who were drawn by odor but had little chance to feed, and whose flocks diminished over time. Throughout the fall and into the winter some of the debris was so hot that, fanned by harbor breezes, it smoked and burst into flame. When it arrived at Fresh Kills, it was lifted by giant excavators into specialized dump trucks, which drove it up a curving dirt road to the top of the hill and released it into little mounds, where the sorting began. The hilltop was a wild-looking place, with American flags whipping in cold winds, like the outpost of a government expedition to a toxic planet. It was scattered about with heavy equipment, truck trailers, and prefabricated structures of various kinds, and roamed by hundreds of workers (typically police officers or FBI agents) who were garbed in white protective suits, respirators, gloves, and high rubber boots. For visitors first arriving from the Trade Center site, where people worked largely unprotected, the clothing in particular seemed odd, as if something must have happened to the debris to make it more dangerous on the way over. Otherwise there was plenty of evidence that workers in both places were handling the same materials: all around stood huge piles of Trade Center debris—much of it now sorted, inspected, and awaiting burial—that elicited unexpected feelings of familiarity and later even of fondness, like old acquaintances encountered in a foreign land. The hilltop was of course a part of America, and by geographic measures it was not far removed from the city: on a clear day from there you could even count the monuments of the Manhattan skyline, minus two. But it was isolated and exotic nonetheless.