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D-Day: NY Sanitation Workers' Challenge of a Lifetime

Collecting the remains of a fire — charred stuffed animals, scorched family photos, melted household appliances left by the side of the road for pickup — is not a new experience for most waste haulers. But few, we hope, will experience what New York City Department of Sanitation (NYDS) employees encountered on the morning of Sept. 12th, when they were charged with cleaning up America''s worst domestic terrorist attack.

Considering that the two vertical subdivisions of New York''s World Trade Center (WTC) towers were squashed as if put through a compactor and continued to burn for approximately three months, you can guess what the 1,500 NYDS men and women faced. However, only the employees themselves truly understand their arduous cleanup task, which required everything from front-end loaders to hand brooms.

Here''s how it all began.

Tumbling Towers

Immediately following the disaster on Sept. 11 after the buildings collapsed, the situation was deemed a safety and rescue task led by the city''s Fire Department. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, however, wanted the area''s businesses to remain open, which meant that NYDS employees had to clean the side streets and surrounding “Ground Zero” areas, based on new traffic flow patterns designed by New York''s Police Department. NYDS also had to clear the streets so that emergency crews and private haulers contracted by the city''s Department of Design and Construction could reach the WTC area.

The NYDS was ready to tackle the task. From hurricane-force winds to 1996''s record-breaking blizzard, when crews removed 51 inches of snow from key city thoroughfares within 24 hours, New York City sanitation workers have triumphed over natural and manmade disasters. So to handle the WTC cleanup, the department revised its snow removal operational scheme and began implementing a plan based on many of its winter weather strategies.

NYDS managers mobilized a lot of manpower and equipment overnight and, by the next day, employees were on the scene “ready to face the unbelievable,” something NYDS specializes in, according to Sanitation Worker Eric Stephens.

Obviously, the city wanted to reach Ground Zero immediately, but businesses and residences continued to generate trash. So to deal with the daily disposal of municipal garbage, NYDS crafted, and continues to use, an interim plan that calls for waste to be exported to landfills outside New York City. Currently, food waste generated from the World Trade Center site is being exported by established vendors that are in the interim plan, says Kathy Dawkins, NYDS spokeswoman.

Because private trash haulers could not reach key areas Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had focused on for cleanup, such as the financial district, the Sanitation Department also made commercial stops in the emergency situation.

“Once the area was cleaned, normal commercial trash collections resumed by the haulers that are licensed and regulated by the Trade Waste Commissioner,” Dawkins says. But for about two and a half months after the attacks, in addition to its regular duties, NYDS played a major role in debris removal — everything from molten steel beams to human remains — running trucks back and forth between Ground Zero and Fresh Kills landfill, which was reopened to accommodate the debris.

“Management did a good job plotting routes, and the city provided us with special lanes marked with cones until we got out of the congestion,” Stephens says.

Waste Removal by Water

Shortly after the truck convoys began, however, the city accepted a proposal from Weeks Marine of New Jersey, which suggested a safer, more efficient strategy for moving the debris and demolished steel.

“The problem in the beginning was that the traffic and commuter situation was almost at a stand-still,” says Weeks spokesman George Wittich. “Some of the subway tubes were destroyed … a number of the bridges and tunnels leading into the city were either closed or very restricted. So the city needed a plan to keep the trucks off the road.”

Weeks accomplished this by setting up four barge ports to off-load trucks coming from Ground Zero. Two of the ports are located at Pier 25, formerly a sailboat marina. “We moved about 20 boats, the moorings and then, because of insufficient depth, we came in with a clam shell dredge and removed approximately 100,000 cubic yards of material so we could get barges in there,” Wittich says.

Next, the company turned to large stevedoring cranes mounted on barges. “They have spuds in them — huge metal pipes — that go through a hole in the deck, which allowed us to position them on location and not have to set up anchors or tie up to the pier,” Wittich explains. As trucks arrive from Ground Zero, they back onto, and unload in, a scale pan. This three-sided open container then is lifted and discharged into the barge by the crane.

During peak operations, Weeks employed 85 employees who worked around the clock loading up to 14 barges per day, and used a fleet of 40 transport barges, six tug boats, plus ancillary equipment. “As a result, our maintenance operation has been stepped-up dramatically,” Wittich says. “We''ve had a couple of significant crane machinery failures, but thanks to equipment redundancy, we were able to pull the entire crane out and get another one in there in a matter of hours.”

Finding Clues at Fresh Kills

To date, 1.2 million tons of debris have been removed from ground zero and taken to Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, where the twisted steel and broken concrete of the damaged buildings is sorted through, examined and eventually landfilled — an operation the city predicts will continue throughout spring or early summer, according to Deputy Commissioner of Sanitation Peter Montalbano.

Fresh Kills actually was closed in March 2001, but there was ample space to accommodate the WTC wreckage, so the city decided to reopen the site so that smaller metal pieces, concrete, and other debris could be disposed of. Additionally, an open space where debris could be examined was established. More than NYDS employees continue to assist with landfill operations.

Initially, when NYDS trucks were transporting debris to Fresh Kills, “we had to climb a mountain to unload, so we had to be very conscious of our weights, and the environment around us,” Sanitation Worker Stephens says.

But even before the waste was stabilized, law enforcement officials had descended on the landfill en masse to search for clues. Daily, NYPD Detectives, federal agents and the National Guard painstakingly comb the debris for any items that might help explain what occurred inside the planes prior to their impact with the towers. Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Secret Service and Customs, which had WTC offices, also are searching for valuable evidence lost when the towers disintegrated.

Evidence lost at the World Trade Center includes 35 handguns stored in an ATF evidence locker, as well as material pertinent to the cases of Matthew “Scar” Allen, whose dispute with rapper “Puffy” Combs sparked a nightclub shoot-out in 1999,” according to the New York Post.

To aid the search, Houston-based Waste Management Inc. has provided screening equipment. “They were [sifting through evidence] by hand at first,” says Sarah Voss, Waste Management''s communications manager.

And as the work goes on, New York sanitation workers and police must contend with an influx of media interested in taking pictures of the morbid work going on at Fresh Kills.

According to Detective Walter Burnes with the New York City Police Department, 80 journalists currently are on a waiting list to visit the site and talk to officials, where police have identified and catalogued more than 7,000 pieces of evidence, as well as recovered human remains.

Items separated from the rubble include at least 100 cars, vehicles from 10 fire ladder companies and five engine companies, guns, money and body parts, including a head.

Among the 300 to 400 people involved are about 100 city detectives, 35 to 40 FBI agents, and representatives of the Secret Service, National Transportation Safety Board, Immigration and Naturalization Service, ATF … all being assisted by NYDS.

At one part of the sprawling site, firefighters are pulling apart cars using the “jaws of life,” then examining parts and vehicle identification numbers.

“It''s nothing we can ever prepare for,” says Sergeant Ray Sheehan, one of nine members of the crime-scene unit. “Sometimes you find an arm, sometimes a toe,” he says. “But you''ve got to try to be professional, to not concentrate on the [victims].

Each piece of evidence is photographed, cataloged and sent to the FBI lab. Body parts are tagged and are shipped via a refrigerated truck to the medical examiner''s office. Personal property is set aside so that it can be returned to victims'' families.

Safety and Security

According to Rich Cahill, spokesman with the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., workers at the site are wearing Level C Divex suits, gloves, goggles and air purifying respirators designed to protect against dust particulates. The agency also has eight air monitors onsite to grab air samples twice a day.

Although he said it has not been a major issue to date, if materials containing more than 1 percent of asbestos are encountered, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines say the debris should be handled only after it has been wetted down, placed into marked bags and set aside until it can be transported to a landfill licensed to accept asbestos. “But I''m not hearing that''s what they are encountering,” Cahill says. “Everything was pulverized in the collapse, so we are talking about materials being mixed together.”

Nevertheless, to comply, numerous wet-down stations have been established, Wittich says. “When the trucks leave Ground Zero, they go through a wet-down process whereby the trucks pass through scaffolding where they are hosed down and tarped. Then, when they arrive at the apron to our barge port facility, they are de-tarped and, to minimize the dust, go through another wet-down during unloading that involves fire hoses with fog nozzles. Before heading back to Ground Zero, the trucks are power-washed so all the debris and contaminates remain at the pier and off city streets.”

In addition to safety, the Department of Design and Construction also was concerned about security, which led to the installation of global positioning satellite (GPS) technology on transport trucks. This helps track truck movement to manage traffic, as well as to ensure that valuable recyclables go where they are supposed to, according to the city.

Monitoring other debris going to the ports for shipment to the landfill is important as well. “It is an around-the-clock operation, which helps,” Wittich says, “and we use a manifesting system and field clerks, who monitor all the data from the trucks coming in. One of the things that can happen in this type of incident is illegal dumping. There are obviously other types of construction going on in New York, which creates the potential for someone to try and get rid of debris by using one of our facilities.”

While environmental officials watch for contaminates and municipal officials watch for abuse, those in the debris removal operation look for cost savings.

“There are actually two aspects of the project,” Wittich explains. “There is the debris and steel removal. In addition, to the 1.2 million tons of debris, we''ve moved about 160,000 tons of structural steel to area recyclers, who we solicited bids from and have waterborne capacity … That has generated in excess of $3 million in revenue back to the city.”

Had the city chosen to continue to move debris and recyclables by land, it would have taken approximately 90,000 truckloads, Wittich says. “We''ve done it with 1,800 barge loads.”

Could a similar operation be conducted in other parts of the country? “It would be a little trickier along the rivers because the equipment tends to differ significantly from what is used in coastal environments. Our equipment is much larger and more capable.”

Other Outside Contractors

For the same reason, demolition at Ground Zero has been turned over to the city''s largest construction companies — Bovis Lend Lease, Amec Construction Management, Turner Construction Co. and Tully Construction Co. — all under the strict command of the city''s Office of Emergency Management, which is responsible for choreographing a ballet of latice booms, earth-moving buckets and dump trucks moving gracefully around debris piles, as 20 overhead cranes carefully pick through the mangled WTC mess.

After Dec. 1, the work at Ground Zero was turned over to upwards of 1,000 private construction workers, who were assigned to four quadrants, with more than 150 pieces of heavy equipment available, such as the Caterpillar 345 Ultra High excavator onsite to slice through steel beams and load them onto flatbed trucks which go to the barges.

Dan Hahn, senior associate with Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers in New York, which was asked by the fire department to consult on stabilization and equipment placement issues, says, “The cranes and grabs are the things that are working the best there. They do everything from moving slabs of concrete to pulling down what remained of the buildings. They literally put cables around some of the structures that they wanted to pull down and then used the cranes to pull the cable. Some of it took quite a bit to pull down because this stuff was holding up a 110-story building.”

Private haulers also have assisted with recovery. According to Ed Apuzzi of IESI, Haltom City, Texas, his company has had little to do with the Ground Zero cleanup but has been instrumental in the recovery of many downtown clients. “We service One Liberty Plaza, which is a building that was affected, and we worked with them on the garbage side to get some of their debris cleaned up.”

For such a major cleanup, private haulers and contractors had to work with a plethora of city departments and bureaucrats in a concerted effort. “When we do a major project,” Wittich says, “there usually are one or two government agencies, such as the Coast Guard and the State Department of Environmental Protection. But in this incident, there had to be 40 or 50 government entities involved.”

Certainly no one could have prepared for a disaster of this magnitude, and operations are running smoothly now. But a little more pre-planning could have helped New York, and can help other cities, Wittich adds.

“When thinking about emergency response, what always seemed to happen in the past was Marine folks would get together under the auspices of the Coast Guard and plan for Marine events. And city Offices of Emergency Management would consider how they would do things from a land-based aspect. [In hindsight,] merging the various transportation entities during planning sessions would have been very beneficial.”

Nevertheless, nearly everyone, especially the New York Sanitation Department, has deemed the cleanup efforts a success. As proof, “Nothing has stopped because of this,” says NYDS spokeswoman Dawkins. “We are an emergency services organization,” she says. “We have proven that we can cleanup following a disaster and still maintain our daily collection services. We''ve had our regular garbage and recyclables pickups … we''ve even done snow removal.”


  • 1,500 sanitation workers dispatched within the first 24 hours after the attack.
  • $1.2 million tons removed from ground zero to date.
  • Equipment used: 23 Bobcats, 1,500 collection trucks, 3,900 cut-downs, 44 front-end loaders, 240 fuel trucks, 1,500 flushers, 978 mechanical brooms … used from Sept. 12 to Dec. 1.
  • As of Feb. 9, 20,888 sanitation worker days have been used in the cleanup, which includes debris movement, as well as removal of food that went bad in restaurants, and removal of garbage from volunteer food dispensing areas for Ground Zero workers.
  • 100 sanitation workers still working around the clock at Fresh Kills flushing the streets and unloading barges.
  • Equipment lost in the disaster: 2 Sanitation police cars.
  • 7,000 pieces of evidence have been identified and catalogued at Fresh Kills.
  • At the height of the investigation, 100 police officers were assigned to Fresh Kills to search for clues; now the number has dropped to 50.
  • Currently, 80 journalists are on a waiting list to visit Fresh Kills and talk to officials.
    Compiled by Tom R. Arterburn

    Their caps weren''t donned by pro baseball and football players during the World Series and the Super Bowl. Nobody from their ranks made it on Letterman or Leno. And none of their likenesses will be memorialized in bronze. Yet members of the New York City Department of Sanitation (NYDS) literally were on the front lines of the World Trade Center disaster recovery.

    The truth is that if Sanitation Worker Eric Stephens, an 18-year NYDS veteran, didn''t do his job out ahead of the firemen and police, “nobody moved.” Not only did he and his co-workers report to Ground Zero hours after the attacks, but they were part of the point agency charged with keeping streets clear of debris so emergency services personnel and vehicles could navigate the chaotic city streets.

    “If we don''t clean the streets, the police, ambulances, doctors who need to get to the hospitals … do not get to where they need to be. We, with the department of transportation, play a major role in maintaining the main arteries so people can get into and around the city,” Stephens says.

    Like a gray ghost, moving slow and deliberately through the ash- and debris-covered streets — just as he has through blizzards and hurricanes — Stephens was there 12 to 15 hours per day dealing with the unbearable environmental conditions, the psychological strain and the fear.

    His role began within 24 hours. “I was involved in a special operation with the Department of Health, about 4 miles away, and I saw the smoke and started listening to guys talking about it on the radio,” Stephens recalls. “Then I started hearing profanity on the radio when the second plane hit. I took notice because you just don''t hear that. At that point, I knew we were going to swing into operation.”

    Stephens rolled into action on Sept. 12 behind the wheel of a collection truck, which began moving smoldering steel beams and other debris directly to Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island for inspection. Later he rotated to three transfer stations, where trucks unloaded the debris to barges, which then moved the debris to the landfill.

    For more than two months, Stephens, who is pursuing a law degree, worked 12 hours per day, seven days a week, which he admits physically took a toll on him. Sanitation workers had access to food, healthcare and counseling services funded by the American Red Cross.

    “Many times, I would work from 10 [a.m.] to 4 [p.m.], run in, get a quick back rub, and run back out,” Stephens says. And the department provides an employee assistance unit with a cadre of counselors. “The director of that program came down and spoke to us.” Stephens also started seeing a chiropractor, “just to stay in shape, because when you''re riding like that, you can get a lot of stress in your lower back,” he says.

    While the work was so furious and the cargo so dangerous that it eventually was turned over to four construction companies, sanitation employees still were called in to assist. “The barges were actually being damaged by smoldering, razor-sharp metal being dumped into them, so another strategy was developed. They had us back up to this pan, unload onto it, and then a crane would lift it, and slide into the barge,” he says.

    Recognizing their service, the Commissioner presented Stephens, a life-long New York resident, two superintendents, two supervisors and another sanitation worker, with special commendations. “The fact that he took time out from his busy transition to recognize us was very motivational.”
    Tom R. Arterburn

    D-Day: A Personal Challenge

    New York City''s First Deputy Commissioner of Sanitation, Peter Montalbano, describes the attack recovery.

    PETER MONTALBANO, a 31-year veteran of the Department of Sanitation, was appointed First Deputy Commissioner of Sanitation on April 16, 2000. Prior to his appointment, he was a four-star chief in charge of the Bureau of Cleaning and Collection, the Department''s largest bureau. Commissioner Montalbano held key posts in the Bureau of Waste Disposal, the Bureau of Cleaning and Collection and the Operations Management Division. He directed many waste disposal initiatives and is largely responsible for the success of many of the department''s technological advancements and plans, including the closing of Staten Island''s Fresh Kills Landfill.

    Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Montalbano joined the department in 1967 as a sanitation worker in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He holds a bachelor''s degree in economics from City University of New York.

    Recently, Waste Age sat down with Montalbano to find out more about New York''s cleanup efforts.

    Q. For those who marvel at how quickly the city recovered from the attacks, can you describe the New York City Department of Sanitation (NYDS)?

    A. We have about 10,000 sanitation employees, of which about 6,700 are uniform, and 2,300 are civilian. We serve all five boroughs of the city, which includes about 7.5 million residential and institutional customers.

    Q. What was your first thought when you heard about the attacks?

    A. My first thought was that the plane was coming into the Federal Building, and might veer-off and hit my building … I''m on the seventh floor over here. But once we saw what happened, my thought was to evacuate the building, and re-establish headquarters at the central repair shop (CRS) building on 58th street, where we perform major repairs to our collection trucks.

    Q. What were initial conditions like?

    A. They have offices at CRS, but they had to make room for us. And we didn''t have any telephone service, but we got some 800 megahertz radios from the police department, and we also had some cellular phones with walkie talkie capability (Nextels), which we purchased for Y2K. These helped us greatly.

    Q. What role did the sanitation department have in the cleanup, and how was this different from typical operations?

    A. As soon as we saw the debris coming, we knew that we needed cut-downs, mechanical brooms, flushers, utility haulers with rubber-tip plows, small bulldozers … everything that would be used in the removal of construction waste in lower Manhattan. Then, we just waited for fire and police [departments] to give us the okay to go in, which was the next day.

    Q. How much of the fleet did you have to dedicate?

    A. We had 23 small front-end loaders for small, tight places (Bobcats), 1,500 collection trucks, 3,900 cut-downs, 44 front-end loaders, 240 fuel trucks, 1,500 flushers, 978 mechanical brooms. This is what we used from Sept. 12 to Dec. 1.

    Q. Any idea how much time the department has expended?

    A. As of Feb. 9, we''ve used 20,888 sanitation worker days on the cleanup, which included removing food that went bad from restaurants. We also take care of food dispensing areas for workers at Ground Zero.

    Q. Did you receive any assistance?

    A. We were augmented by private companies, but we were the first ones in there. The federal government also purchased 45 dual-purpose, open-body dump trucks for us to use, as well as some equipment at Fresh Kills because we were in a closing mode and, all of a sudden, had to open back up again.

    Q. How did your department keep operations going and collection on schedule?

    A. One of our main objectives was to make sure that we were able to maintain all of the services in all of the boroughs, so we moved in people on overtime to help get this area cleaned out. We also split our lower Manhattan workforce into 12-hour shifts: 7-to-7; similar to what we have planned for snow.

    Q. How quickly did your department develop a plan to handle the situation?

    A. Basically, we used our snow plan, but with different types of equipment: brooms, rakes, shovels, short hoses to hose everything down … we had to do this with the buildings and the streets continuously to keep the dust down.

    Q. There has been talk of a dredging operation. Where did this emanate?

    A. Weeks Marine, a private barge company, offered its services to the Department of Design and Construction with a proposal to come up to the west side highway, which was fairly close to the site. But they had to dredge the area to get a large barge in, which was loaded with a crane. This reduced truck traffic, and the dust that they kick up.

    Q. Why did you reopen Fresh Kills?

    A. We were mandated by law to close it by Dec. 31, 2001, but we actually made our last run in mid-March. This gave us the option to use it as a secure place where law enforcement could sift through the debris for money, guns, body parts, etc.

    Q. How many sanitation workers are assisting at Fresh Kills?

    A. We probably have about 100 sanitation workers working around the clock there flushing the streets, helping move the tarpaulin from the barges. But that doesn''t include civilian tractor operators, crane engineers, and other people.

    Q. What changes to your operations did you have to make following 9/11?

    A. To be honest, very little. We''re just sweeping and wetting down the streets, and continue to pick up trash around the food distribution areas.

    Q. What were you initially concerned about, and what are your concerns now?

    A. When something of this magnitude happens, you just go out and do what you have to do, and worry about paying for it later. Luckily, the federal government came through with $20 million for the city, and FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] has been working with us to cover all of our overtime costs and equipment damage. We keep records, and we are supposed to get reimbursed by them.

    Q. Were any sanitation workers injured or lost during the cleanup?

    A. We had two sanitation cops who were slightly injured after the planes hit, and we lost two cars, but nothing like what the police and fire lost.

    Q. What is the role of the NYDS police?

    A. Normally, they issue citations for failure to maintain cleanliness, investigate illegal dumping, issue recycling summons, and respond to complaints from the public. On Sept. 11, they assisted city police with traffic control.

    Q. What factors developed during the cleanup that you didn''t originally anticipate when you formed your plans?

    A. With the phone company and other utilities making repairs, we''ve had to hold back with our mechanical equipment and do a lot of hand-sweeping in an effort to open up streets. Luckily, the weather has been great for us. Without that many freezing days, we''ve been able to use the water to keep the dust down. The biggest complaint now is the air quality down here.

    Q. What advice would you give other cities in planning for a disaster?

    A. You have to have some type of basic plan to respond to an emergency, which lays out how to divert manpower and equipment. It''s also important to have something like our Office of Emergency Management, which gets everybody working together: police, fire, sanitation, Coast Guard.

    Q. How will 9/11 affect your future disaster planning?

    A. We''re always planning … looking for ways to do things better. Right now, we''re working on a 100-year flood plan.

    Q. What''s been the most rewarding experience, professionally and personally?

    A. The first couple of days down there were horrendous, so I''d have to say the fact that we were able to get 1,500 guys in there within 24 hours and get [the rest of the city] cleaned up.

    Tom R. Arterburn is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis, Mo.