Safety Professionals Recount Time Spent at Ground Zero

May 17, 2002
For three members of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), Sept. 11 started like any other workday.

However, within hours of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Safety, Health and Environmental (SH&E) professionals for the Bechtel Group found themselves at Ground Zero, working side-by-side with city, state and federal agencies as part of the massive emergency recovery effort.

Their experiences and the challenges they faced as occupational safety professionals are featured in the article titled "SH&E at Ground Zero" in the May issue of Professional Safety Journal available at The experience will also be presented June 11 at the ASSE Professional Development Conference in Nashville.

The three ASSE members sharing their account in this article of the challenges they faced immediately after the attack at Ground Zero are Jeffrey Vincoli, CSP, CHCM, environmental, safety and health manager for corporate assessments and audits with Bechtel Construction Operations Inc., Frederick, MD and a member of ASSE's Cape Canaveral Chapter; Norman Black, CSP, environmental, safety and health manager for special projects with Bechtel Systems and Infrastructure Inc., San Francisco and a member of ASSE's San Francisco and Puget Sound chapters; and Stewart Burkhammer, P.E., CSP, principal vice president with Bechtel Group Inc., Frederick, MD, a Fellow of ASSE and member of the National Capital Chapter, and a member of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) advisory committee on construction safety and health.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Black was at a project office in midtown Manhattan, and Vincoli had just landed at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia when the second plane hit the World Trade Center (WTC). Within hours of the attack, Black was attending a chaotic meeting of state and city officials near Ground Zero that led to the formation of a Ground Zero SH&E team. At the request of officials, more Bechtel SH&E professionals led by Burkhammer headed to New York City to join the team.

The group witnessed indescribable horror, massive devastation, chaos and extreme tragedy shown on the faces of families and friends of the victims and on rescue workers.

"Never in my safety career could I have anticipated that 20 years later - to the day - I would be witness to the massive devastation and horror of this tragic event," Vincoli says. "I am proud to say that during our time at Ground Zero, no one on the site suffered a fatality or serious injury. At least 30 rescue workers' lives were saved as a direct result of our team's involvement at Ground Zero. I find personal and professional satisfaction in the fact that we did what we, as SH&E professionals, are trained to do - save lives."

The group first viewed the destruction following a meeting with officials. According to Vincoli, no one in the group was, or could have been, adequately prepared for what came next.

First was the dust. Vincoli describes it as a fine gray dust, later it was determined to be pulverized concrete that covered everything at the 16-acre disaster site. They saw paper everywhere - notes, pages from desk calendars, photographs, unopened mail, legal documents and other types of paperwork - strewn on trees, fire escapes, buildings and window ledges.

The smoke was thick, acrid and penetrating, with an odor similar to burning electrical insulation or burning ballast, mixed with other indescribable substances. And, there were the shoes, Vincoli noted. Shoes of all types, styles, and sizes were scattered on the streets, on top of bushes, stuck in trees, and on sidewalks.

Of his experience at Ground Zero, Black says, "In many ways, I was proud because I was able to be at the site so quickly figuring out ways to stop more people from being hurt or killed as a result of this attack. I was proud to be a part of a valiant effort to make the site whole again, but ashamed of myself as I burst into tears at the site of a rescue dog with bloody paws as he struggled up a debris pile in the hope of finding survivors."

The article notes that in the early rescue operation days at Ground Zero, workers were focused on finding survivors, regardless of personal risks involved. Even though time would later prove that no more survivors were to be found, the hope and faith of the rescue teams did not waver.

"Two things will remain in my mind forever from my work at Ground Zero," Burkhammer remembers. "First, the strong resolve of America and the thousands of everyday people who would line up and cheer us as we left the site each day - many handing us flowers, water and ribbons of thanks. Second, the pain, the anguish and sorrow on the faces of the many friends we made while working in New York. They lost friends, co-workers, colleagues and family in the disaster, yet they continued to do their jobs in a very professional manner. This is real courage."

Some of the safety, health and environmental issues the SH&E team addressed quickly included the immense dust which included all types of particles from hair to glass fibers to quartz grains; managing the tremendous amount of heavy equipment being used at Ground Zero, which created opportunities for serious accidents; and, work zone control; from the beginning, many people with no credentials or work assignments were at the work site which could have resulted in even greater chaos if another emergency situation occurred in any area. The most serious concerns included:

Live ammunition: More than 1.2 million rounds of ammunition were stored near a third floor firing range, as was a vault used to store other explosives and weapons. A seizure vault that contained evidence (such as drugs, cash and evidence files) seized during Customs operations was also on the third floor. At great personal risk, Vincoli said, Customs and FBI officials and contractor representatives located and removed the criminal evidence from the WTC during the fourth week. The ammunition was found melted together into large "bullet balls" that were extremely dangerous to handle and dispose of properly. At one point, a discharge of a bullet caused shrapnel wound to the face of one worker.

The immense heat: Thermal measurements taken by helicopter each day showed underground temperatures ranging from 400 degrees F to more than 2,800 degrees F due to the ongoing underground fires. The heat melted the soles of workers' shoes and it became a safety concern for the search-and-rescue dogs. Many were not outfitted with protective booties. More than one dog suffered serious injuries and at least three died while working at Ground Zero. The underground fire was "extinguished" on Dec. 19.

Danger of Collapse: A bathtub-shaped cavern protecting the WTC from the Hudson River was cracked indicating a potential wall failure and possible flooding. Incredibly, while tons of debris and heavy equipment was on top of the WTC plaza the wall was braced and the entire structure was shored up before the wall could fail.

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