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9/11 memories inspire LIers rebuilding Trade Center

Construction workers from Long Island who work on

Construction workers from Long Island who work on the WTC are, from left, Richie Schuler, George Fitzgerald, and Frank O'Leary. All have memories of the day the Twin Towers fell. (Jan. 27, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

From the street, it seems like a standard fenced-in, high-rise construction site in Manhattan. Tall cranes lift girders. Trucks wheel in and out. Men and women walk by in hard hats and boots.

But take an elevator up to the wide-open lower floors, look out past the red girders, and the significance of this place crystallizes. Below are the two vacant footprints of the Twin Towers, ghostly reminders of the worst attack ever on U.S. soil.

This is 1 World Trade Center, unofficially the Freedom Tower, the centerpiece of what will be a rebuilt hub of urban activity -- and symbol of American defiance against terrorism.

The pace of the wider World Trade Center project has been slowed by redesigns and funding disputes even as hundreds of people are at work on the 16-acre site building a memorial, a transit hub and the 1,776-foot-tall 1 World Trade Center, due to welcome new occupants in 2013. A tentative funding deal announced Thursday would enable work to begin in earnest on two of three more office buildings planned there.

Among those contributing to the project are many Long Islanders, people like engineer Alan Reiss of Oceanside, who survived both the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks and is now overseeing the rebuilding for the Port Authority, and veteran ironworker Richie Schuler of Lindenhurst, who supervises torch-bearing welders joining  massive girders. Many say memories of where they were on 9/11 and the significance of the project provide inspiration. Here are a few of their stories. 

Alan Reiss, 57, Oceanside
Port Authority deputy director of World Trade Center construction
"I have used up my nine lives," Alan Reiss says in a frank tone. When he was the World Trade Center's supervising engineer in 1993, Reiss was just entering a sub-basement office when, 150 feet down a hall, a terrorist truck bomb exploded in a parking garage and killed six people. He oversaw the reconstruction.

On Sept. 11, 2001 -- by then he was director of the Trade Center -- Reiss was at a meeting in a deli near ground level when an airliner struck Tower One at 8:46 a.m.

In the mayhem of the next two hours, Tower Two was hit and collapsed. Reiss evacuated for safety, but then returned to survey the situation. He and others looked up at Tower One. "We could see the TV antenna starting to wobble and rock and windows were popping out, and we said, 'It's not safe. Run!' "

He and a police captain wound up huddled together in the street a few blocks away as a cloud of debris enveloped them. Reiss lost 16 members of his staff.

After 9/11, Reiss was assigned to help run the Port Authority's airports. But when his supervisory and engineering skills were needed for rebuilding the World Trade Center, he returned in May 2007.

"In the beginning it was very hard to come down here without feeling very sad because this was my home for so many years and it was gone," he says. "So it was a very difficult place to visit."

Now, working under Steven Plate, director of World Trade Center construction, Reiss has the job of keeping the oft-delayed project moving.

"The project is under a microscope," Reiss says, "both by the public and the Port Authority and all the stakeholders, the mayor, the governor, everybody's watching us."

He says about 100 Port Authority employees report to him, "probably at least another 125 consulting staff, and that's not including construction workers."

Reiss sums up his assignment this way: "to deliver everything on schedule, on budget. Simple. Keep the job moving, find the solutions, whatever issue comes up. Most of the day is in meetings and finding solutions to problems. That's what engineers do. They solve problems."

In his office near Ground Zero, he keeps a pair of jeans, khaki work pants and two pairs of steel-toed boots, which are required on the construction site. Most Friday mornings, he walks the muddy grounds, "project by project, with the director, with the particular construction managers and contractors and designers."

On the site, he asks contractors questions like, "Well you're supposed to have so much concrete placed, or so much steel placed, or something, where are you?" His aim is to remove obstacles.

His detail-oriented approach comes from his education as an engineer at Northeastern University in Boston and was developed at the Long Island Lighting Co.'s Northport plant, where he worked until joining the Port Authority in 1984.

Among his top priorities is to finish the 9/11 Memorial, with its flowing-water pools and underground museum, before the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

"We're already having meetings related to the 10th anniversary -- 9/11/11. How's the place going to operate? How're you going to get all these buses in?" Reiss says. "It's a little less than 600 days away, so we're already working on it -- it's 583," he says during a telephone interview this past winter.

The immensity of the entire project becomes clearer as he describes the details.

"What the public sees is what they can see from ground level. They don't realize that underneath that memorial plaza there's 600,000 square feet of museum space being built, and it's totally hidden. Or what's going in the basement of 1 World Trade Center, which is equivalent to an 800,000-square-foot office building below the street level. Or all the piping and plumbing and switch gear and stuff is being installed now.

"What the public sees is, oh, something is actually rising, there's steel going up. But there's a lot of other activity below street level that's taken all this time, and it's still going on."

His days are long: "A typical day is like 7:15 at my desk till 6 o'clock at night. Then I want to go home and have dinner with my wife. And then from about 9 o'clock to about 11:30 at night I'm back on e-mails, answering e-mails and giving direction. And then the day starts over again."

Reiss often thinks back on the victims of 9/11.

"I'm doing it for the 16 people who worked for me that day directly, Port Authority employees that I lost," he says. "There were 16 families. So this is personal . . .

"I'm very proud that I'm down here. It's something that I want to turn around and point to, to my children and others, and say, this is what we did and we did it to show the bastards they can't win." 

Richie Schuler, 44,Lindenhurst
DCM Erectors superintendent

The ironworker remembers the day he returned to Ground Zero more than two years ago to help rebuild the World Trade Center.

"The first morning I got off the subway I came up on Vesey Street and Church Street and I came by -- it put a lump in your throat," Schuler says. The site reminded him of the horror of 9/11.

On that day in 2001, he was uptown putting new cable on the Triborough Bridge when he saw the Twin Towers fall in the distance. He and other ironworkers rushed two cranes down to the smoky ruins to help with the rescue and recovery. He spent two straight days on the site. Then he continued to come on weekends to help with the recovery.

He knew people at financial services companies and a couple of firefighters who died. He also lost a close friend, New York Police  Sgt. Timothy Roy, a classmate growing up in Massapequa Park. "From kindergarten through 12th grade, I went to school with Timmy," he says. "It still has an impact on me."

Today Schuler is supervising a team of 50 welders joining the massive girders that form the skeleton of 1 World Trade Center. Amid the pounding, grinding noises of construction, he explains that ironworkers put the steel girders into place. "I have a bunch of welding gangs coming up underneath the guys setting the steel, welding the superstructure together, so that we can keep stacking steel on top of it so we can get to the roof."

He says the job has its routine, like other sites he's worked on for 23 years, but its greater significance is not forgotten.

"They took the buildings down; I want to build them right back up," Schuler says. "All the guys from Local 40 feel the same way, the ironworkers . . . This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a building this high in Manhattan. It's definitely a monument for Manhattan and for the people of New York to get this back up in the air."

Clarelle DeGraffe, 48, Laurelton
Port Authority engineer

Every part of the city-within-a-city that will be the new World Trade Center needs careful attention, and Clarelle DeGraffe's focus is on a 60-foot-wide underground walkway between a transit hub on the northwest corner of the new site to the World Financial Center in Battery Park City next door. It will replace a footbridge above West Street.

DeGraffe spends most her time in "an enormous amount of meetings" at offices nearby, reviewing details with property owners, construction companies and government agencies. She visits the construction site two or three times a week.

The 22-year Port Authority veteran has been working on the project since 2006.

Among challenges was the demolition of part of a thick granite and concrete wall built in the 1800s at the then-edge of the Hudson River. It had to be removed to enable the walkway to extend to newer land where the World Financial Center sits today.

Lately, she is deep into the details of creating a temporary bridge to keep cars and trucks moving south on West Street, on the west side of the site, while construction continues below. That means coordinating the project between the Port Authority, the state Department of Transportation and others.

The nitty-gritty includes accounting for the details like "who will buy the guardrails, who's going to buy the bolts," and mediating conflicts between contractors who need to move heavy equipment in tight spaces.

More than eight years ago, on 9/11, DeGraffe was a project manager on a monorail at Newark Airport. Seven months pregnant, she watched TV in disbelief as the towers fell. "Watching those buildings come down was like looking at the impossible," she says.

She lost 13 direct Port Authority co-workers and attended many funerals. Her husband, Wilton, watched her with concern as she stayed on the job. Time with co-workers was her refuge. "It was really the best thing for me rather than stay home," she says. "I needed to be together with everyone." Two months after the tragedy she gave birth to a son, Joshua.

DeGraffe says memories of that time drive her now.

"The passion of making this happen, it exceeds anything that we've come against," she says of the new Trade Center. "We just keep going and going and just look to find any way to face any challenge that we have, whatever it takes."

Frank O'Leary, 46, Coram
Collavino Construction field superintendent

As 1 World Trade Center rises, Frank O'Leary rides an elevator up and down the side of the structure several times a day.

He is one of four field superintendents for Collavino Construction, directing 300 workers in pouring concrete for floors and walls after ironworkers have placed girders and other supports.

In a trailer below ground level, he and other supervisors, including George Fitzgerald of Northport, review blueprints, look for obstacles and try to stay on schedule.

"We basically go through the drawings, prepare for what our next plan of attack is going to be on a day-to-day basis . . . which is what we submit to the Port Authority and the general contractor."

O'Leary explains that they "make sure everything is accurate and we have the correct information so that when we send the men out into the field, they're installing it properly and we don't have to redo what was previously done."

His job also requires long days.

"We're trying to keep up with a schedule right now, so it's basically 7 to 5:30 during the week, and Saturdays . . . " he says. "With overtime and everything it's 60 to 70 hours and as high as 80 hours a week."

On 9/11, he was working at a job on 42nd Street. "We saw smoke coming out of the building," he says. "We witnessed the second plane hit, and that's when we knew something wasn't right.''

Memories of that day recur to him.

"It does go across everybody's mind what happened that day here . . . ," he says. "We're all proud of being part of rebuilding this tower and grateful in this day and age to be working." 

George Fitzgerald, 52, Northport
Collavino Construction field superintendent

The loss of life on 9/11 gave George Fitzgerald pause when he thought about returning to work on 1 World Trade Center.

On 9/11, Fitzgerald was working with concrete crews on a new building uptown at Columbus Circle. He saw people running in the street and heard about a plane hitting the first tower.

"By the time the second tower got hit, we were closing up our job, and a bunch of us had banded together to see if we could come down this way to help with the recovery," he says. Until 2 or 3 in the morning, he worked with ironworkers, firefighters and others to push cars and debris off West Street.

The smoldering ruins of Ground Zero left a haunting memory.

"I remember looking at a different world," he says. It "resembled something that was breathing, and it looked like it had that night taken a breath and kind of twisted into the ground."

Last year he learned about the opportunity to work on 1 World Trade Center.

"Prior to that I really did not think of coming back down to Ground Zero," he says. "It kind of like played on me, the day and what had happened. It was kind of difficult to think back to it and remembering exactly what this area had looked like when everything was down, crumbled to the ground."

Today, Fitzgerald, a field superintendent for Collavino Construction along with Frank O'Leary of Coram, helps supervise the pouring of concrete for walls and floors.

"Day to day I help give organization to the men," he says. "Bring the materials in, get organized with the work coming up underneath the structure as it goes up."

He says the time has helped blot out some painful memories at the site and bring healing to the city.

"For the families that lost their loved ones, that's going to always be something that's with them," he says. "To help rebuild this, yes, I wanted to be here."

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