You Just Kept Moving Forward
By Christine McKenna
It was the worst of sites; it was the best of sites. Working at the World Trade Center after September 11th was a construction job unlike any other, says Charlie Vitchers, a superintendent for Bovis Lend-Lease. It was a scene of unimaginable devastation; it was a scene of unprecedented collaboration. It was a period of enduring sadness, working among the dead. "No one could say that they didn't cry at some point in those early days." It was a period of single-minded focus, striving to make sure no more lives were lost during the recovery operation.
Rescue and then recovery drove everyone working at the site, including the contractors. There was none of the usual bickering, arguing, or client change orders that might require paperwork before proceeding, says Vitchers. "On this job, you just kept moving forward," he says. "Everybody who went down did so understanding that the nation was in trouble. Nobody knew what was coming next and people just gave 150 percent of whatever they had to give as far as manpower, equipment, and supplies."
By the end of July 2002, Vitchers had been assigned briefly to a job at the Natural History Museum, where Bovis was renovating the dioramas in The Hall of Oceans. Walking very quickly through the museum in his hardhat Vitchers seems almost apologetic as he explains he has just returned from a fishing trip in Australia. Vitchers arrived at the World Trade Center site on the 11th and worked straight through to July 19th, spending Christmas and most other holidays on the job. On the 19th, Vitchers hopped on a plane, and set his sights on relaxing. Everyone had told him that brown trout fly-fishing was top-notch in Tasmania.
Sent down from a renovation job at the Carlton Ritz Hotel on the 11th, Vitchers was initially shocked and disoriented by the destruction he witnessed at the site. "Full fire engines looked like Tonka trucks that someone had run over with a car." It took him a while to locate the temporary Bovis unit in the World Financial Center.
The Bovis General Superintendent on the Millennium Hotel, a new high-rise luxury hotel building in Battery Park City, asked him his name.
"Charlie, well what do you do?"
"I do just about anything, Nick. What do you want me to do?"
"Go out there and do whatever it is that you do best."
Vitchers, 44, has been in construction since age 15. "I always had my hands in the mud or I had a hammer in my hand." He began as a carpenter and worked in all areas of construction, from dynamite blasting to rehabilitation of heritage buildings. Growing up in Dingman's Ferry, a small town in Pennsylvania, Vitchers had also been a volunteer fireman and ambulance driver. "I was the only one who could drive the trucks," he explains.
The fire department was running the rescue. Vitchers sought out commanders, giving them contact information for construction teams ready to assist in their attempts to clear surrounding streets to get on to the pile proper. "The Special Operations Command (SOC), wanted to get into every nook and cranny of that job site whether it was smoldering or not and search for survivors," he says.
It was an all-out effort and many people didn't sleep. Phone lines were down and it was 72 hours before Vitchers would be able to contact his children in Long Island. Divorced, Vitchers has six children ranging from 13 to 25. "My young girls were very worried, they hadn't heard from me," he says. "They know daddy works in the Trade Center sometimes. I've done a lot of work in those towers as a carpenter foreman. It was always wonderful to be there, looking out the window. Wow. I'm on the 98th floor with a completely gutted floor and I'm going to rebuild it."
Soon the volunteers were removed from the site and the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) imposed order on the chaos, dividing the 16-acre area into quadrants, with four companies AMEC, Bovis, Tully, and Turner assigned to sections and World Trade Center 7. The DDC tasked Bovis with the southwest corner of the site.
From September to the end of December, the five companies worked collectively to support rescue efforts and to clear their respective areas. In January, the DDC transferred oversight of the entire sight to Bovis. AMEC stayed on board as a subconsultant to Bovis, with Vitchers as the General Superintendent.