America Rebuilds: A Year at Ground Zero
Ground Zero Profiles
Engineering the Clean-Up
Video Stories
Imagining the Future
About the Program

Mike Burton
Richard Garlock
Monica Iken
Sam Melisi
Peter Rinaldi
George Tamaro
Charlie Vitchers
Madelyn Wils

'That building is 110 stories. If it falls, it could hit me.'
Mike Burton

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Mike Burton describes his life after 9/11.

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Mike Burton

A Lifetime Wrapped in a Marathon Inside a Year

By Christine McKenna

Long distance running teaches you something about pain management. In November 2001, two months after assuming leadership of the World Trade Center clean-up, Michael Burton, 40, took a day off to run the New York City Marathon. He finished with his brother, Scott, in 4 hours and 22 minutes. Fifty percent of finishing a race is psychological, says Burton. "If it's a 10-mile race, you know you are going to feel some pain at mile eight and you run through it. In a 20-mile race, you feel some pain at mile eight and later at mile 16, and you run through it."

For Burton, managing the clean-up at Ground Zero proved an endurance challenge like no other.

"I don't think bodies were meant to keep up the schedules and endure what we did at that site," he says. Adrenaline only took you so far. What kept everyone going beyond that was the challenge — "fighting, not just for New York City, but for the nation, to show the world that we're going to recover and we're not going to let terrorists beat us."

At the time of the attack, Burton, an engineer and construction manager, was the Executive Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). The city agency is responsible for design and construction of most New York City public buildings — firehouses, libraries, police precincts — along with roads, water mains and sewer projects.

On the morning of September 11th, Burton was on his way to a 9:15 meeting at City Hall. After the second plane hit the South Tower, Burton climbed in the command and control bus of the Office of Emergency Management's (OEM) that was heading for the WTC site. They were two blocks away when the South Tower collapsed. Burton realized he was in "a very, very precarious situation." But, when the bus headed north a few blocks, Burton got out and moved closer to the site. When Tower One started coming down, Burton's engineering, mathematical brain kicked in, "That tower is a 110 stories high. If it falls in my direction, it can hit me."

In fact, Tower One slammed straight down into its footprint. Burton learned there was a temporary command and control center at police headquarters, five minutes from the site and headed that way. By noon, he had begun to mobilize his assessment team, an "all-star" lineup of about 14 engineers and contractors that would accompany him on the first walk through site later that evening. He contacted Richard Tomasetti of LZA/Thorton-Thomasetti, a structural engineering firm that would, in turn, call up the resources of the engineering community.

Burton also called on three construction management companies — Bovis Lend Lease, AMEC, Turner — and an infrastructure contractor, Tully. Transportation was shut down in the city, so most construction workers, operating engineers, and ironworkers simply began walking to the site. "The ironworkers very, very quickly found out what happened and they actually just started showing up," Burton says. "They left whatever job they were on and they just started marching south. "

The DDC's mission did not include directing the response to a disaster of this sort. If fact, Burton notes, the agency is not even mentioned in the city's official emergency response plans. But the nature of the World Trade Center catastrophe, says Burton, made the agency's expertise a natural fit. "In other disasters, the rescue effort and the recovery effort are not so tied into the engineering and construction," he says. "Here they were intimately interwoven."

The DDC normally handles over a billion dollars worth of construction a year, and supervises anywhere between 800 to 900 projects at one time. The WTC recovery, stabilization and clean-up operation was like commencing them all simultaneously. And, Burton says, it was a "destruction" process — one fraught with innumerable environmental and structural hazards with "zero time" for planning. Decisions of all types — structural engineering, construction, logistical — had to be made very quickly and many could have life-threatening or long-term consequences. Though Burton had never worked on a collapse of this magnitude, a handful of past emergencies — among them structural damage at Yankee Stadium and a sinking emergency medical services station in Queens — had required roughly the same quick reflexes. This was just a million times the scale.

At Ground Zero, Burton and his DDC boss, Ken Holden, began working in the emergency command center in nearby Public School 89, setting up the DDC staff in the kindergarten room. There they held nonstop meetings attended by representatives from an A-to-Z list of city, state and federal agencies. "Mike Burton was here a long time those first days," says DDC manager Joe Deluca. "He was here around the clock, around the clock, around the clock." Within 72 hours, they had gone from chaos to managed chaos, with a more organized management structure, and a more sustainable schedule: a 24-hour, seven-day operation with three 11-hour shifts. Burton divided the 16-acre site into four quadrants and assigned them to the contractors. "No one ever asked us to do it, no one ever told us to do it, but in retrospect, when they saw things happening, they knew it was movement in the right direction," he says.

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Image credits: Peter Rinaldi