NYC DDC 9/11

Within days of 9/11, the NYC Department of Design and Construction was tasked with clearing 1.8 million tons of debris from Ground Zero. Twenty years later, employees who still work for this relatively unknown agency tell their story. The sights, smells, and demands of the job still haunt them. Their success in getting it done and bringing back their city remains their greatest achievement.

AIRED: September 03, 2021 | 0:27:50

- [Announcer] This program was made possible

by the city of New York.

(soft ethereal music)

(soft melancholy piano music) (flames hiss)

- [Ronaldo] On 9/11 when the city needed help,

they called us.

DDC is the Navy SEALs of city agencies.

(sparks spray)

We do amazing high-profile things in invisible ways.

When the city needs us, we show up.

(soft dramatic music)

- Department of Design and Construction came about in 1996.

- Every agency had their own construction department,

and it was kinda mess.

- The fire department, the police department,

the health department wouldn't have

to have their own construction people.

There would just be one agency to do all that.

- We build a city.

We build buildings.

(tools bang)

We help with all the streets, infrastructure.

- At DDC, the operational mandate is construction,

morning, noon, and night.

(traffic hums) (train rattles)

- The morning of 9/11 started out like any other normal day.

We came to work.

(tense brooding music)

- I was traveling down to my office here

in Long Island City.

One of my coworkers comes out and is pointing and going,

"Look, look!"

(deep rumble echoes) (camera clicks)

The World Trade Center is on fire.

(camera clicks)

I went to the windows.

(camera clicks)

I started taking photographs.

- Our assistant commissioner, he had a TV at his office.

He saw that a plane hit the north tower.

- The second plane hit.

(deep boom echoes)

- I felt a concussion against the windows of this building,

(deep rumble echoes)

You knew they weren't gonna get out.

(muffled shouting)

You just knew it.

There was no miracle. There was no helicopter.

There was nothing that was

gonna help these people, nothing, so.

(loud rumble echoes)

(muffled shouting)

(muffled speaking) (vehicles and radios beep)

- I had these boat shoes on with no socks.

I was walking on top of steel beams and concrete

and a lot of water.

(water sprays) (muffled shouting)

We were near the Deutsche Bank building.

The fire department were asking to climb up

to the top and attach their hoses

because they were losing water pressure.

(hose sprays)

They said, "You guys are engineers. Is it safe?"

And it's like, we didn't even know what to say.

- We weren't sure how DDC was gonna be involved.

We tried to come up with lists

of contractors that could help.

- [Ken] I spent hours trying

to bring in portable light towers,

but the bridges were all closed.

- Somebody said, "Call Broadway. They have lights."

And we are calling the Belasco Theater.

"Do you guys have lights?"

Within the hour, (exhales sharply)

there were all these lights there.

(cries) It was amazing.

(machinery hums) (tense ethereal music)

- Worked till like three in the morning.

I said, "Come back at 5:30 or so,

and let's get a couple of hours of sleep,

and then we'll go back down," and that was day one.

(machines whir and whine) (soft dramatic music)

- [Luis] Can you load up some trucks

from this area with that machine?

- Yes, I can.

- I'm gonna move these two fire trucks for you.

We felt that DDC needed

to run the debris removal operation.

- The site was owned by the Port Authority,

but the Port Authority was in one

of the towers that collapsed,

so their agency was heavily impacted.

- The first couple of days, I thought FEMA was coming in.

They come in and they're just looking at buildings

and saying, "Wow."

They just kept on looking up.

(machinery rumbles)

- And you can see this was the Winter Garden,

which used to be a big atrium, and.

- I'm like, "We gotta get to moving here. What's going on?"

You know?

- I had a conversation with the boss of FEMA.

- Joe Allbaugh.

- I said, "We can do this better.

We know the city. This is our city."

- The way we do the operation matters.

All I care about is the future of the city

and that it be done right.

- Giuliani told the feds, "Stay out of this.

We'll handle it."

And DDC stepped up to actually take

over the debris removal at the World Trade Center.

(machinery hums)

(muffled shouting)

- For the first 30 days, it was a rescue operation,

(muffled shouting)

looking for people.

(muffled shouting) (muffled speaking over radio)

- There were long lines of firemen snaking up

through the pile with five-gallon buckets.

- DDC managed the crane operators.

The fire marshals would tell us,

"We need this area cleaned up,"

to see if they can find anything.

(muffled speaking) (debris clatters)

- For me, beginning was like nightmare.

- Sometime you find a body of firefighter.

(soft dramatic ethereal music)

Sometime the only thing you find

is his gear and the name on it.

(machinery hums) (debris clatters)

- It was horrible.

The thing that keeps coming back is the smell.

(machinery hums)

- The smell was so acrid and so foreign

that I put my mask on so tight

that it left an indentation around my face.

- The mix of all the debris burning

plus human flesh burning.

- You took that smell home.

(machinery hums) (debris clatters)

- I'm on a train heading back home.

People looking at me, I don't know,

in fear, in awe, in appreciation

'cause you got dust all over you.

- I would remove my clothing in the hallway and walk

into my apartment in my underwear, you know?

And take a bath,

eat, to get up and do this again.

- There was no hiding from it.

You had to come the next day and see the tally.

How many remains were found?

- [Charlie] Was there a recovery of some parts earlier?

- There was a body part recovered on the northeast corner,

and they tried to find more, but they brought the dogs in.

That's why we had to stop the operation on six.

They didn't want the dogs to get burned by the sparks.

- Yeah, very early, very early in the shift,

there was a recovery of parts.

(tense ethereal music)

(wind blows)

(machinery hums) (dirt clatters)

- We were using these large grapplers, 750s, big machines.

A 750 swings around and hits you, you're dead.

- I was part of the team to ensure that everyone was safe.

I could feel that there was a lot of tension.

(machine clicks and clatters)

- The firemen trying to find their companions

would walk right behind construction equipment.

(debris clatters)

The driver could not see them.

(debris clatters)

- What's going on in front of there?

They've been there all morning.

- They uncover a stairway.

Next thing you know, we get invaded with about 25 firemen.

(muffled speaking) (slow dramatic music)

I said, "Look, I need your people to back out,"

- Right. - right?

And this is where we're at, so.

- Okay. Well, I want those guys outta there.

- Well, yeah. - It's too dangerous.

- We were all very, very cognizant

(muffled shouting)

that it was human remains there

and loved ones that needed to get them back.

That's what we were there for.

- "Look, KP, two firemen are walking over there.

Just tell 'em they can't be over there."

(machinery hums) (muffled speaking)

I just helped them to make sure they're safely located.

(debris clatters)

Found out that a father is looking

for his son's body over there.

(debris clatters) (machinery hums)

(water sprays)

- After 30 days,

(debris crashes to ground)

it was decided that there was no chance

that we would find survivors,

so they put DDC in charge of the removal operations.

(tense pounding music)

- If we knock down this facade or part of it,

we can just continue.

Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, okay?

- Nobody believed that we could get it done.

It was gonna be five years for sure.

- [Luis] DDC was opening up an emergency field office.

- Our office was actually in my daughter's classroom,

just blocks from Ground Zero.

- We all sitting down in these little chairs

that belong to these kids.

- Knees hitting against the top of the tables.

We wanted to engage with construction companies,

construction management firms.

- If we start removing debris off the top,

then we're gonna have a problem.

- And find out what's the safest way of doing the work.

How do we remove the debris?

- [Ken] The site was over such a large space

that it was apparent that it was better cut up into pieces.

- DDC organized this.

16 acres of land divided into four sectors.

A contractor in each sector,

hundreds of workers working for these contractors.

(machinery hums)

(saw buzzes) (sparks hiss)

- We met with the contractors twice a day.

- Everybody knows from this point on, nobody stops the job.

Not in the morning, not in the afternoon, not at night.

- Yeah. - This is what DDC wants.

- Yeah, and also- - They want you

to start there.

They want you to start there.

They want you to go 24/7 and don't stop.

- Don't stop the job, no matter what. Do not stop the job.

(debris clatters) (slow dramatic music)

- The grappling machines, just picking up the raw steel

and rebar, and dumping it in the trucks one after the other.

- Those trucks need to be inspected

before they left Ground Zero.

(truck hums)

- [Paul] There were people with acetylene torches,

cutting all the steel and debris hanging off the trucks.

(sparks hiss)

- [Todd] And then we hosed them down for dust.

(truck hums)

- Moving very slowly. It wouldn't even wait.

Trucks left the site to the landfill barges.

(truck whines)

The barges floated over to the Fresh Kills landfill

in Staten Island.

(debris clatters)

There was no stopping. There was no time wasted.

(machinery hums)

Everything was in motion all at the same time.

(wrecking ball crashes)

(rubble crumbles)

- The biggest challenge was unsafe conditions.

There were voids in the ground you could've fallen in.

We figured out where these voids were. We marked them up.

- People were concerned about the smoke, the chemicals.

The world's largest chiller plant

was in the sublevels of the Trade Center.

(excavator hums)

- The chiller rooms chilled

and heated the World Trade Center one and two.

That hatch goes 39 feet to the chiller rooms

where the Freon is.

Chillers filled with Freon. Freon ignited is mustard gas.

So it was a real big concern in case the Freon ignited.

(soft dramatic music)

- [Rebecca] We have to send a group down under building five

(water splashes) (muffled speaking)

to find the chiller plant.

- You keep track of this column line.

- [Man] All right.

- Where this turns - All right.

- 'cause I'm not sure where it hits that line over there.

- [Man] Okay.

(muffled speaking)

- Cars were covered with dust.

One would be perfect, and the one next

to it would be a charred mess.

(radio beeps)

- [Peter] All these lines used to come in

that fed the Trade Center in here.

- [Man] Hey, right here.

(muffled speaking)

- [Michael] We got down by the chiller plant.

(footsteps shuffle) (muffled speaking)

(cinder blocks crash) (tense brooding music)

- The chillers is right underneath the fire truck.

We have to take all the debris pile

out of the top of the chillers.

(debris clatters)

- This is the chiller that we've just exposed.

(machinery clicks and whirs)

- [Luis] Then we have to cut the chillers,

truck 'em out of there.

We have to be very, very careful when working there.

(machines hum in distance)

- We were overlooking the site.

I was negotiating with contractors.

All of a sudden,

(siren honks in distance)

you would hear a siren.

They were pulling a body out.

(soft poignant piano music)

- The fire department, every time they found a brother

or sister that has fallen, they will stop everything.

- Everybody stopped what they were doing, and they saluted.

- [Eric] You realize how this is absurd

what we are doing here, this debris removal.

And yet, you had to continue.

You had to proceed.

- I was thinking about, "Is the city gonna come back?

Are we gonna be okay?"

(soft tense music)

New York is resilient.

We have endured problems, but we came back.

- A hundred and one days

- to get to this point.

Last 1,000 square feet of World Trade Center coming down.

(machinery hums)

- [David] Keep her rockin', it'll go.

(rubble crumbles and creaks)

There it goes. There it goes! - There it goes!

(rubble crashes to ground)

- [Man] Woo!

(machinery hums)

- I was working Christmas Eve. My job was to man the radios.

I start singing.

♪ Chestnuts roasting on an open fire ♪

♪ Yuletide carols being sung by a choir ♪

♪ Kids just ("The Christmas Song")

I'm messing up the lyrics,

but people were laughing and clapping.

It was one of those moments where there

is a light at the end of the tunnel.

- [Woman] Merry Christmas! Happy holidays!

(group cheers whistles and applauds)

(truck hums)

- [Mario] As the pile started getting lower,

(debris clatters)

the DDC survey units were on the scene.

We were tasked with monitoring the slurry wall.

- [Rebecca] When they constructed the building originally,

(high-pitched soft tense piano music)

the water table was very high.

So they create a slurry wall down in the ground

and then pump out the water from inside that wall.

- [Ken] Without the foundation of the World Trade Center,

the weight of the Hudson River could cause a collapse.

- These walls are coming in.

They moved in about six inches since the accident,

and these walls hold back the river.

So if these walls cave in,

this place is gonna get flooded out by the river.

(machinery hums)

- There's the slurry wall.

Now those things you see them putting in,

those are called tiebacks.

Anchors the slurry wall to the bedrock.

It doesn't allow it to move around.

(water pours) (truck beeps in distance)

That slurry wall woulda let go,

everybody would've been swimming.

(water pours)

- As surveyors, we had targets on the slurry wall,

and we'd monitor these targets

to make sure it's not moving because everyone figured

that the slurry wall might just explode.

Fortunately, that didn't happen.

- 9/11, pictures, videos. You never see surveyors. (laughs)

And as one of the surveyors, wow. They just left us out.

But I went down there to help bring my city back,

and that's what I did.

(truck whines) (machinery hums in distance)

(muffled chatter) (soft piano music)

- As we got into February, March, for the 9/11 memorial,

we needed to start saving large pieces of debris.

(machinery hums)

- This is from the north facade of building one.

This was the last piece that was cut down last Saturday.

We marked pieces that we thought

would be of historical value.

(truck rumbles) (muffled shouting)

- [Percy] This is the artist. This is Fritz Koenig.

- How are you doing, Mr. Koenig?

- Fritz Koenig with his sculpture of the sphere

at the entrance to the World Trade Center.

It's a memorial to those who died.

(truck hums)

- [Michael] We had made arrangements so that they

could be stored at a unused hangar at JFK.

- One of the cars may go to a museum.

(machinery hums)

I see a steel column.

I said, "Listen, I think it would be a good idea

if we just leave that column for the end,

and then we'll do some sort of event."

A last column exiting as like the end of the job.

We were kinda sad that we were leaving, you know?

It was a magical job, and it was tough, but it was magical.

We did it.

I'm extremely proud of being associated

with every single one of you because you have proven

that nobody does it better than New York.

(soft piano music) (trucks hum and beep)

- I thought I'd take the opportunity

to introduce Ken Holden, the commissioner

of the Department of Design and Construction,

which oversees all of the work.

- That legacy of can-doism is the most profound legacy

that DDC brings to 9/11.

(muffled chatter) (footsteps shuffle)

- DDC providing a steady and dedicated workforce

gave the city a new start.

- Department of Design and Construction, this is me.

It just made me proud to be there.

I felt I was privileged to be there.

(machinery hums)

(truck beeps in distance)

- Everybody at DDC felt tied into this place.

After the first couple of weeks,

it started to become like a home.

(slow melancholy music)

- It was heavy.

I says, "One day, we won't even be able to be down here."

(sparks hiss)

- When we had the ceremony, we took down the last column.

Glad I was there.

It was something that I really needed to do.

- I saw horror at the Ground Zero,

and I saw great beauty and kindness.

That's part of me.

That experience at DDC just made us brothers forever.

(soft dramatic string music)

- [Announcer] This program was made possible

by the city of New York.

(soft ethereal music)


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