Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Jenna Orkin

September 11, 2007 8:30 A.M.

At the corner of Fulton and Church, two dozen cops stand around, murmuring. Nearby huddles a smaller contingent of firefighters. More are undoubtedly on the A list of the actual ceremony in Zuccotti Park from which we hoi polloi are barricaded. The sky is fittingly bleak, spitting needles of rain.

Pedestrians pour out of the PATH station, a few talking loudly. A woman mimes, "Ssh."

A man with his arm around his twelve-year-old son is being interviewed for TV. He's flown in every year from San Diego, he says, to pay his respects.

Three hulks in black T-shirts reading "Investigate 911" with a picture of the towers billowing smoke, stride purposefully towards some meeting place.

In the plaza of Brown Brothers Harriman a sculpture of a giant red cube stands poised on one corner like a ballerina on pointe; a feat of engineering rather than art but these days no one cares about the difference. Across the street to the east is Chase Manhattan; to the south, HSBC; to the north, Bank of America. A block away stands the beleaguered former Deutsche Bank, - also site of a more recent tragedy - sixteen storeys shorter from its catastrophe-ridden deconstruction. We are in the heart of the beast.

The clock of Trinity Church which, for several months after September 11, 2001, was frozen at five to nine, inches towards 8:46.

At 8:43 a choir starts singing. At least that's when we in the plaza are able to catch a few high notes. Sounds like a harmonized version of the Star Spangled Banner. The distance adds to the removed, ghostly nature of this ceremony which seems designed to attenuate the memory of 9/11 and, as they are so fond of saying in booming downtown, to "move on."

South Korean TV wants to talk. I tell them they probably won't use what I have to say. They persist.

I tell them I'm here because 9/11 signalled the beginning of the end for much of America. Then I tell them, in brief, why I think so.

The reporter - who is the most respectful journalist I've ever come across, and in Lower Manhattan over the last six years, there have been many - says, "But some people want to move forward."

I am not giving him the poignant sort of soundbite he is looking for but he takes several minutes' worth of footage.

Next to a marble slab honoring that great New Yorker, Harry Helmsley, an African American guy blows a shofer, a beautiful ram's horn which, he explains, he laminated himself. It's a gesture of ecumenism since although he's Christian, he is playing a traditional Jewish instrument of mourning.

A reporter from WNYC who's been diligent about the environmental issue, also approaches for an interview in the course of which 9:03 comes and goes without apparent acknowledgment. This is what a moment of silence looks (and sounds) like from a block away.

As I leave I pass the podium where family members are reading the names of the victims ("...and my brother, firefighter....") including one whom I knew slightly from the playground when our children were small. The reading is slow and deliberate so as not to shortchange anybody. They are up to the letter D.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Zimbabwe: Main Baker Almost Out of Flour

The baker, Lobel's, has almost exhausted its 4000 ton reserve and has two days' worth of flour left.

Monday, September 03, 2007

"They're Back!" 130 Liberty Street Official's Record at Ground Zero

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Wisdom from Saturday night's fortune cookie: A bargain is something you don't need at a price you can't resist.

"They're Back!" 130 Liberty Street Official's Ground Zero Record

Jenna Orkin*

The fire at 130 Liberty Street on August 18 resulting in the deaths of two firefighters, Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, has shed light on a number of metaphorical cockroaches and other scurrilous characters who have been operating behind the scenes of the ill-fated 'deconstruction' of the toxic former Deutsche Bank building.

One such, brought to light by the New York Sun , is Michael Burton, project manager at the site for United Research Services, a company linked to the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge this summer.

Burton rose to prominence during the cleanup of Ground Zero when he was Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Design and Construction which he had helped create in 1997.

While one might have expected federal agencies such as FEMA and EPA to take charge of the cleanup, in a deposition for a lawsuit filed by Worby Grone Edelman and Napoli Bern against the city, Burton stated that FEMA's role in the disaster was simply to pay the State. while the abdication of EPA has been voluminously documented.

As far as speed goes, Burton’s m.o. worked. While initially projected to take 1½ years and cost $1.4 billion, in the end the cleanup took only 10 months and cost $800 million. But other priorities got lost in the process.

One was legal. The premium placed on "getting back to normalcy" [sic] led to the destruction of evidence from a crime scene of international importance. Burton and other DDC officials made the decision to transport much of the structural steel to scrap yards, to be shipped abroad and melted down for reuse.

Burton cleared the decision with Richard Tomasetti of Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers, the prime consultant on the cleanup job. However, referring to the subsequent WTC investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology... Tomasetti later admit[ted] that had he known the direction that investigations into the collapses would take, he would have taken a different stand.

The other cost was human health. By waiving environmental laws on the pretext of emergency, the cleanup exposed the surrounding community to record levels of contamination. The barge operation, for instance, took place largely at the doorstep of Stuyvesant High School, (where this writer’s son was a student) and within a few blocks of a college, several elementary schools, a middle school and a residence for 5000.

Nor was the exposure restricted to Lower Manhattan or even New York City. This writer also remembers receiving an email from South Korea around December 2001 saying they were getting WTC scrap - Was it contaminated?

According to the WGENB lawsuit, safety during the cleanup was also not a high priority with Burton although defenders of the operation point out that injuries were comparatively low.

Bechtel, one of the four main contractors involved, maintained that the safety discrepancies they reported to Burton were wholly ignored. And in an intra-agency memo to Burton, DDC Health and Safety Officer Bob Adams wrote, “There was minimal follow-through by project management on safety... Universal opinion at the WTC Site was that there was a lack of commitment by senior project management to address safety concerns in a timely manner; and hold the supervision accountable. The City, the DDC and the contractors appeared to only address safety issues when doing so was convenient for the schedule of the project."

As for health, despite the by now infamous assurances that post-9/11 conditions downtown were relatively harmless, Burton apparently knew better. Unlike some Ground Zero workers who went home in contaminated clothes, thereby exposing their families, when Burton got home, he stripped before going inside to avoid contaminating the house, his main worry at that moment being that the neighbors might be looking.

The demolition of the former Deutsche Bank is 9/11 Redux, the same cast of characters (not only Burton but also Bovis, one of the four main companies at Ground Zero which is also implicated in the WGENB lawsuit) performing the same activities with the same ASAP mindset. And once again, the scope of the scandal is only being fully recognized when it's too late.

*Jenna Orkin of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization is one of twelve original plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the EPA.