Even while he was initiating large-scale engineering and construction projects at Ground Zero, Burton felt the engineers and contractors were there first and foremost to support the Fire Department in their search for survivors. There were thousands of rescue workers on the unstable pile, working with shovels and buckets. Massive excavators were needed to move the big steel columns and give rescue workers access to areas where people might still be alive.
As the rescue personnel combed the site for survivors, a team of engineers was conducting emergency damage assessments of the aboveground structures. Ultimately, of the 406 buildings the engineers inspected, 150 required work. Some had suffered severe damage to their facades; columns or beams were completely torn out of other buildings, while debris and airplane parts littered roofs. WTC buildings 4, 5 and 6 were so damaged they had to be torn down.
There was an incredible sense of urgency: "It defines what it means to say 'Time was of the essence' when it means saving lives," says Burton. After several weeks, the rescue effort transitioned to recovery operation. Acceptance of the shift happened at various times for different people, says Burton there was no official date. While finding remains was always a top priority, other concerns such as stabilization of the slurry wall and instability of the belowground structures often dictated the direction and chronology of the recovery effort.
As the months wore on, Burton continued to put in long hours. He had moved into a temporary apartment close by to reduce the commute to his Westchester home. "The site demanded that you put your personal life on hold," he says. "My wife knew it was something I had to do. Her perception was that my sacrifice was small compared to people who lost lives."
On May 28, 2002, the last steel column was cut down. It was a symbolic piece, wrapped in a flag, with photos of the missing. "It was a very emotional time for a lot of workers, over 1,000 of which had been there since the first week," says Burton. "It signified the end." Ultimately the work was done, $700 million under budget, nine months ahead of schedule, and most important for Burton, with no lives lost. "I think the engineers and construction professions ended up saving lives," he says. "As much as we worked so hard to make things safe, it defies logic that it happened."
Burton left the WTC site on June 19th, taking a month off to vacation in Disney World and Vermont. In August, he returned to a new office in the Viacom Building in Times Square, where he begins his new job as a senior vice president of URS Corporation. At URS he is responsible for construction projects in New York and New England and is also involved in the company's Security Services Group. In this role, he will be looking at ways to prevent a repeat of the WTC tragedy, he says. "Engineers have an obligation to step up or to mitigate effects of terrorist attacks," says Burton. They can do so, he explains, by looking at the nation's critical infrastructure, identifying threats, assessing potential impact terrorist attacks, and building in safeguards.
The lessons learned and friendships made at the WTC site will last a lifetime, says Burton. "You certainly saw some of the worst things, but also some of the best things. Probably the only time you will ever see teamwork like that again is in a time of war or disaster. So, in many ways, I hope I don't ever see it again."