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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: New York District’s Worst Day and Its Finest Hour

Responding to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center

When the Sept. 11 attacks took place, the Corps of Engineers worked tirelessly to assist with the many facets of the massive response and recovery effort to help the city. This involved teams from New York as well as several from around the region and the nation who dropped everything to lend a hand.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City 10-plus years ago amounted to one of the most tragic days in American history and altered the path of world events. The attacks claimed thousands of lives and reduced the towers to rubble. Fifteen million square feet of office and retail space were lost, and another 17 million square feet were lost in nearby damaged buildings.

It was a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) drew on the full resources of its eight divisions, dozens of districts, labs, and centers and performed crucial missions to help the citizens of New York City. USACE played key roles in using working boats to shuttle stranded personnel from Manhattan by working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the ground at the site of the disaster, managing the removal of debris and the landfill mission. Amid all of this, New York District eventually reconstituted itself in an alternate location to facilitate fiscal year-end awards and close outs.

For New York District, 9/11 was particularly harrowing because the district’s main offices are housed in the Javits Federal Building mere blocks from the World Trade Center complex. After the attacks, the Javits building became inaccessible and remained closed until late September. This prompted the commanding general of USACE’s North Atlantic Division to declare New York District a victim district. The initial emergency response and recovery assignment went to USACE’s  New England District, based just outside of Boston. The New England District commander was designated as the North Atlantic Division commander (forward) who acted as division leader on the ground and established an emergency office to accommodate any requirements by FEMA, the city of New York, and New York state.

Joseph Seebode, deputy district engineer, Program and Project Management, New York District, was the official USACE liaison to the city of New York in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy and assisted with the coordination with various city, state, and federal agencies on opportunities where USACE capabilities both locally and from around the country, were available to support response and recovery efforts.

“I remain extremely proud of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and my New York District colleagues, for the valiant engagement in the minutes and hours immediately following the tragedy. The Corps team responded as I knew they would, rescuing and evacuating people via Corps vessels, supporting many rescue and recovery operations, and deploying professionals and practitioners who hit the ground running and were instrumental in assisting with the logistics for debris management, inspection, and control,” Seebode said. “Within a few days of Sept. 11, 2001, we had well over a hundred Corps experts in New York working on rescue and recovery operations. Our people showed the true meaning of esprit de corps, and I am proud of our response and our efforts in a time when the nation needed us most.”

Seebode, who was on a PATH train heading into the World Trade Center Complex when the first plane struck, said that 10-plus years later he still remains personally affected by what he witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I still find it hard to comprehend the magnitude of this tragedy and I feel a deep sadness whenever I think back to that day. I watched people perish – innocent people who had reported to work on Sept. 11, 2001, like any other day. I will never forget what I saw and it still hurts.”

Deployable Tactical Operations System at ground zero, Sept. 18, 2001. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

Emergency Transport
Amid the chaos, USACE boat crews from its Caven Point marine facility in New Jersey shuttled thousands of stranded citizens on USACE vessels across the Hudson River out of Manhattan. On the return journeys, they transported emergency personnel into Manhattan supplying fireboat and fire truck crews with the necessary fuel, food, and water that enabled emergency responders to remain on station.

Within a few days, an Emergency Operations Center was up and running at Pier 90 on Manhattan’s West Side. In the days and weeks that followed, New York District reconstituted itself in order to be able to carry out its regular missions as well as assist with ongoing emergency operations, like organizing the removal of debris from ground zero to the Staten Island landfill, and overseeing the inspection of the debris. Other New York District personnel worked from satellite offices awarding and closing out critical year-end contracts.

Robert Goldfarb, chief, logistics management, New York District, and his staff were relentless in providing necessary supplies and computer equipment, thereby enabling USACE  personnel to function while working at the satellite offices.

“Arrangements were made to transport employees from transportation hubs to Fort Hamilton,” said Goldfarb. “Motor pool vehicles were prepositioned away from 26 Federal Plaza in order for employees to continue their missions. Additional cell phones were procured for employees, essential for communications and placed on the government property books, and Logistics Office staff transported personnel to and from the FEMA Emergency Operations Center.”

Emergency Support Personnel to FEMA
More than 140 USACE personnel deployed to New York City from around the nation to support the mission including the initiation of an emergency support function cell to interface with FEMA. The cell was part of the federal response plan and involved developing mission assignments and execution strategies to help assist FEMA.

There was an enormous amount of smoldering debris in a relatively small geographic area in Lower Manhattan referred to as the ‘red zone,’ a restricted area from Canal Street to Battery Park consisting of 310 stories of buildings in a 12-square-block area.

More than 1,000 workers, 240 trucks, 70 barges, and 260 pieces of heavy equipment removed debris from ground zero around the clock. USACE emergency personnel worked together with personnel from various federal agencies in the days following the attacks.

Wayne Stroupe of the Army Corps’ Research and Development Center caught the first commercial flight out of Jackson, Miss., following the attack.

“The work was non-stop with long days; you finally just burned out after a couple of weeks. I met heroes every day from around the Corps and other agencies that were doing their jobs as part of the team effort in this response. I would bump into many of these same Corps professionals later in Iraq and on hurricane deployments. I am always amazed at the professionalism, wide range of expertise, and dedication that Corps personnel have to get the job done and the mission completed.”

Due to the fire department’s tactical and communication vehicles being destroyed when the towers collapsed, USACE also dispatched Deployable Tactical Operations Center (DTOC) team members along with two self-contained mobile command and control center Rapid Response Vehicles (RRVs) packed with communications and computer equipment. USACE  and FEMA used the DTOCs and RRVs to form a linked communications network throughout the area surrounding ground zero.

USACE also mobilized two DTOCs to provide the New York City Fire Department with command and control resources.

Supplying Electrical Power
USACE’s 249th Engineer Battalion was called on to assist with power restoration. The unit, which deploys following natural and man-made disasters to help provide electricity, deployed 31 Soldiers to help install 50 1,500-kilowatt generators supplied by the city. Five Prime Power Soldiers worked directly with electrical utility personnel from New York City’s power company, Con Edison, and installed two generators in Lower Manhattan and provided power for buildings in the city’s Civic Center and financial district on Wall Street. The generators were used to power medical triage facilities and transient housing.

Debris Removal Mission
One of the most challenging missions to surface was removing an estimated 1.2 million tons of debris from the building complex. Transporting such a large amount of debris through one of the busiest cities in the world was a unique task and ultimately, an impossible one. Dredging was necessary in the Hudson River to accommodate barges removing debris from Manhattan and in less than two days, dredging operations began. USACE personnel worked with federal response teams and debris removal experts to develop debris removal plans. FEMA officially assigned the debris removal mission Oct. 1, 2001, to USACE to operate the Staten Island landfill to dispose of World Trade Center debris.

USACE assembled a nationwide project-delivery team comprised of experts from the Baltimore, Norfolk, and New England Districts; various federal and city agencies and contractor Phillips & Jordan, Inc., (P&J) were responsible for transporting tons of debris from Manhattan to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. The mission partners included FEMA and the city of New York. Under the mission, P&J managed contractors working at the landfill.

Debris inspector at ground zero. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

The debris was mainly structural, not trees and residential debris from natural disasters normally faced by USACE. All structural steel debris went to two salvage yards for recycling. The rest was transported to the landfill site.

Managing the landfill operation presented unique challenges because it was considered the biggest crime scene in history due to the presence of human remains and potential evidence related to the attacks. Debris crews worked around the clock removing about 10,000 tons a day.

Tom Harnedy, now with North Atlantic Division, was the New York District’s chief of the Construction Management Section at the time and was involved in the ’round-the-clock operation.

“Working the World Trade Center debris recovery mission at the Fresh Kills Landfill was a challenging experience for me both professionally and personally,” said Harnedy. “As a Staten Islander, having witnessed the tragedy, as well as having family friends who lost their loved ones, I became very aware of the sensitivity of the work the Corps was accomplishing in support of the recovery and the importance of my role as the contract manager for the Corps in this effort.”

He added, “I had served in difficult assignments before, but not in one that was essentially a fast-paced contingency operation with so much visibility and exposure among other agencies and the public. At the end of the physical operations in 2002, and although it was the result of dealing with tragic circumstances, I truly felt my contributions and those of my teammates were absolutely critical toward the operation running smoothly to include maintaining an atmosphere of dignity and respect.”

The 10-month effort at the Staten Island landfill ended July 15, 2002, as hundreds assembled at the closing ceremony.

Mapping Ground Zero Using GIS Data
Following 9/11, the city of New York and FEMA used USACE’s Geographic Information System (GIS) expertise in many ways. These ranged from computer-generated maps showing potential hazards and buried fires that could be dangerous to emergency personnel working in the rubble to assessing how much debris remained and the best routes to remove it.

Stephen McDevitt, a geographer with New York District’s Planning Division and coordinator for the Enterprise Geographic Information Systems (EGIS) now serves as an action officer for USACE’s National GIS cadre. “I received information in an email message that there was an immediate requirement for GIS data by the Corps’ first responders and FEMA. The system data was essential for mapping New York City and capturing data and displaying geographic information,” McDevitt said. After retrieving the GIS data from 26 Federal Plaza, McDevitt provided it to FEMA. Other USACE GIS specialists, such as Kevin Carlock of the Corps’ Rock Island District at the time and Eric Morrison of Omaha District, augmented FEMA along with McDevitt and also provided GIS support to the city of New York GIS teams at piers 92 and 93 in Manhattan.

“GIS was used by emergency responders to get critical information to incident responders and allowed personnel to effectively assist with emergency response, and determine mitigation priorities,” McDevitt said. “GIS allowed FEMA and all responders to understand and visualize data revealed in [the] form of maps. Getting the geography and maps created swiftly and accurately was extremely critical. The maps enabled the debris and recovery workers to rapidly access geospatial data that helped them.”

Structures Specialists
USACE structures specialists helped the urban search and rescue teams search for any survivors buried beneath the debris. While firemen and police sifted through the mountain of wreckage, USACE structures specialists from as far as San Francisco District monitored hazards and performed safety analyses to mitigate the hazards associated with the search and rescue operations.

Support from the structures specialists ranged from providing multi-level World Trade Center collapse pattern maps to firefighters daily to assist with their search efforts to assessing the structural damage to nearby buildings that were damaged and keeping a constant eye on them to look for signs that they could potentially collapse during recovery efforts.

USACE structural experts also worked closely with local partners to constantly keep tabs on the World Trade Center complex’s subterranean “slurry wall” foundation, which held back waters from the Hudson River. Structural specialists regularly inspected the wall and worked on ways to prevent it from collapsing. This was especially important as the debris removal mission ramped up and more heavy equipment was being used nearby.

Disaster preparedness is critical and USACE continues to accomplish its mission in this area by building additional bench strengths, for planning and by continuing to emphasize the need for response teams, subject-matter experts, team leaders, and other key assets to cover disasters. USACE is stronger in several areas since 9/11 and has developed and trained more volunteers to respond including various initiatives under way including contingencies relating to disasters.

New York District distinguished itself in many ways in the aftermath of 9/11. It reconstituted itself in the face of very difficult circumstances and despite inadequate office space and a lack of communication devices and computers, it successfully completed work on tens of millions of dollars worth of contracts before the end of the fiscal year and oversaw the extraordinary debris inspection and removal operation at the landfill, which safely and efficiently processed thousands and thousands of tons of rubble, inspecting the tiniest fragments for criminal evidence and human remains.

In every respect, in resuming its daily activities and pressing on with the projects and programs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, all USACE personnel contributed vitally to the recovery of Lower Manhattan and the recuperation of the nation.

This article first appeared in the 2011-2012 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong® publication.