A Place the Authority Built
By Christine McKenna
Some who spent nine intense, urgent months on the recovery and clean-up of the
World Trade Center are finding it difficult to transition back to their former lives.
"To be part of it the work ethic, the cooperation, the camaraderie was exhilarating," says Peter Rinaldi.
Rinaldi, 53, is one of the few who has not had to make that break quite yet. He went to work as an engineer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the World Trade Center not long after it opened in 1973. As of August 2002, he hasn't left. The demolition and excavation now complete, the Port Authority has appointed Rinaldi as General Manager of the site. Where once he had an office on the northwest corner of the 72nd floor in the North Tower, Rinaldi now views the 16-acre excavation hole from his office on the fifth floor of the Trinity Building on Broadway.
A few days before September 11, Rinaldi left for vacation on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Watching the events unfold on television, he calculated the time from the plane's impact to the collapse of the North Tower about an hour and a half thinking that his colleagues on the 72nd floor could have made it down in 40 to 45 minutes, had they evacuated immediately.
The Port Authority had its engineering department and corporate headquarters in the complex. Rinaldi spent initial days after the attack trying to account for his colleagues. Ultimately, 75 Port Authority staff died: 37 police officers, 38 other employees. "When I came back up from North Carolina, the first thing I did was attend wakes and funerals for some of my friends," says Rinaldi. "It was kind of disheartening."
After 28 years with the Port Authority, Rinaldi was now Engineering Program Manager, responsible for planning, design and construction of the Authority's tunnels and bridges: the George Washington Bridge (His personal favorite. "Something about its elegant structure and it was built by the Authority."), the Bayonne Outer Bridge Crossing, Goethal's Bridge, the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
On September 25th, the Port Authority sent Rinaldi on special assignment to the WTC site, answering to the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), the city agency managing the emergency response and clean-up. Rinaldi arrived on a Tuesday for an 11 a.m. meeting and didn't make it back to the Port Authority office in New Jersey until Friday evening. "From that point on, it was just intense effort," he says. "Everything that was going on back in September, you just got absorbed."
It was the first time Rinaldi had met Mike Burton, the Executive Deputy Commissioner of the DDC who announced at the meeting, "This is Peter Rinaldi from the Port Authority. He's going to be heading up this whole effort on the slurry wall, the stabilization and the whole below-grade effort."
Like many of the team involved in the clean-up, Rinaldi graduated from Manhattan College. He got his graduate degree from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he specialized in geotechnical engineering: foundations, soil mechanics, and earthworks. His background in the underground would prove critical as he supervised a team of engineers as they climbed, crawled, waded and rafted through the subterranean structures beneath the complex.
With the exception of a small crew of Port Authority staff with an intimate knowledge of the site like Ed McGinley, Tom O'Connor and Tom Amoia, the majority of Rinaldi's team consisted of outside consultants. Engineers included staff from Leslie E. Robertson Associates (LERA), whose founder was the structural engineer for the complex, LZA/Thorton-Thomasetti, the firm hired by the city to oversee the engineering on the site and Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers (MRCE), specialists in foundations. Safety personnel from the fire and police departments also accompanied them on "incursions" below. Their mission: to assess the condition of the underground spaces in the shallow (30-40 foot) and deep (70 foot) basements beneath the 16-acre site. The stability of the structures and density of debris were extremely variable and random, a direct result of the configuration of the collapse.
Rinaldi's first major incursion underground occurred in late September when his team floated down a PATH tunnel on rafts. "We had to map the conditions below because they were going to drive the recovery operation above," says Rinaldi. "George Tamaro's people from MRCE Pablo Lopez and Andrew Pontecorvo and LERA's Rich Garlock were instrumental in that."