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 was where a lot of guys showed their bravery - by hopping in a machine that weighed 300,000 pounds and saying, 'I'll do it. I'll go over there and try to get that stick out.'
Charlie Vitchers

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Charlie Vitchers explains what kept him going.

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Charlie Vitchers

"If you're a good baker, you always dream of baking that biggest cake or being able to serve that dish to the to the President of the United States," says Vitchers. Every superintendent in his position would love to be the supervisor of the biggest job in the world, he says. "Somehow I got there, but it's not what I expected it to be. This was not the job I had in mind."

Vitchers, who lives in Shohola, Pennsylvania, took a studio apartment in Manhattan to eliminate his three-hour commute. He had a team of 30 to 40 superintendents working three eight-hour shifts. Each of the trades had a supervisor: iron workers, operating engineers, carpenters, dock builders, and electricians. Communication and continuity were key, says Vitchers, who held daily meetings in the Bovis "shanty" where all of the contractors, uniform personnel and civil service were welcome to attend and find out the plan for the day.

Whatever equipment they wanted they got, says Vitchers, "Nobody said no." At any one time there could be 30 to 35 cranes working the site, says Vitchers. "We needed all of them, especially for lifting. If the fire department wanted to get into a certain area, you couldn't walk them in there, you had to put them in a man basket and float them in."

The heat was intense in the beginning. Vitcher's crew picked up 40 to 60 foot-long pieces of steel impaled in the pile, where the bottom 20 feet would be glowing redhot, "Like a poker in a fireplace." Trucks loaded with steel would pass by and you could feel the back of your neck burning, standing 20 feet away. At times it was hard asking his people to do dangerous jobs, says Vitchers, but no one ever refused. "That was where a lot of guys showed their bravery — by hopping in a machine that weighed 300,000 pounds and saying, 'I'll do it. I'll go over there and try to get that stick out.'"

While recovery continued to be the end goal, the means and methods of getting there were dictated by the imperative that no more lives be lost in the process. The pile was volatile, ever-changing. Innumerable dangers lay concealed within. There was the possibility that the center's chiller plants were intact and contained vast quantities of freon. There were also fears that the perimeter wall of the "bathtub" could collapse along Liberty Street, resulting in potentially devastating flooding. "It changed the mode in which we were going to enter the debris pile on the southwest corner of the site," says Vitchers. Engineers from Meuser Rutledge (MRCE) established a 100-foot "no-fly" zone from the edge of slurry wall to the interior of the pit in order to maintain the stability of the wall until steel tiebacks were installed.

Vitchers — a man who likes to get things done fast — learned quickly to slow down. Before machinery was brought out onto the pile, engineers were called in to assess the conditions below. There was no guessing when steel was removed, he says. Engineers were available 24-hours, 7-days a week with as-built drawings. Contractors knew exactly how much each piece weighed and if their machines could accommodate it, or if it needed to be cut first.

At times, this meant delivering bad news to the recovery workers.

"Certain guys from the emergency services may have lost their buddy who they've been bunking with for the past 12 or 15 years," he says. "They know he was last seen here and come hell or high water they are going to be in there. You had to understand, but at the same time remain firm that nobody goes anywhere without first checking with the entire team and getting an engineer's blessing."

There were other tensions between hardhats and the uniform personnel. One sore spot with the construction industry was the removal of remains. Whereas firefighters and police officers were removed with flag and honor guard, civilians were carried out in a bag. With tempers rising, Vitchers spoke to the fire department. "Their attitude was 'Well what the hell took you so long to ask us?'" he says. "We started with the construction workers carrying the remains of civilians up out of the hole. It gave a good boost to the morale."

By August, Vitchers had moved on to tackle a new animal, working on the retail space in the new AOL-Time Warner towers on 59th Street. His thoughts on the future of the WTC site? He is opposed to rebuilding after working on the recovery effort and meeting many victims' families who visited during those months. It was an act of war, he says. "I think they ought to take six acres in the center of the tub, fill it up with dirt to the center of the earth and make it a park to memorialize the people that perished there."

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