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Building Trades Commemorate Ground Zero’s ‘Last Column’

June 2, 2017 
By Steven Wishnia

New York, NY - In what building-trades union head Gary LaBarbera called “a small, solemn service,” about 100 construction workers and union leaders gathered in Zuccotti Park May 30 to mark the 15th anniversary of the last column being removed from the rubble of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks.

“Fifteen years ago today, the union construction workers were finally recognized for their contributions,” Father Brian Jordan, the New York City Building and Construction Trades Council chaplain who became known as the “World Trade Center labor priest,” told the crowd. 

“One thing that is often lost is that while most New Yorkers were running away from Lower Manhattan, members of the building trades were running toward Lower Manhattan,” LaBarbera said. About 10,000 union construction workers volunteered to help clean up the Ground Zero site in the first few days after the attacks, and they eventually made up 80% of the workers there. They found “absolute mayhem” at first, he added, but finished the job on time and under budget.

Sixty-one building-trades members—60 men and one woman—died in the attacks, Jordan said, more than the number of police officers killed. “May their souls and all their fellow departed rest in peace,” he intoned.

There were no fatalities on the job during the cleanup, but an undetermined number of construction workers have died in the 15 years since from diseases caused by inhaling poisons and particulate matter from the rubble. “We don’t want to make up a number,” LaBarbera told LaborPress after the service, “but it’s hundreds that are sick.”

Willie Quinlan, 69, a retired member of Ironworkers Local 40, was one of the workers who helped pull out the last column in 2002. “You had all the Navy and Marines there as we loaded up the truck,” he told LaborPress. “As it went up the ramp, you had military on both sides.”

That truck came from Teamsters Local 282, which represents truckers who deliver building materials. 

“It was a sad time,” Quinlan says. He’d worked building the twin towers as a young journeyman, and was at the cleanup “from the beginning to the end.” There were two huge cranes there, he says, because some of the columns in the ruins weighed as much as 60 tons.

“We had to lift the iron so everybody could go to work,” he recalls. “All that heavy steel had to be picked up off the rubble.” Grapplers and bulldozers would then move in to pick up the smaller pieces and clean up the cleared area. The last column, he says, weighed 62 tons.

“Everyone worked together, and we got the job done,” he said. “It shows you how New Yorkers can come together when we have to.”

Father Jordan closed the service by leading the crowd in singing “God Bless America.”

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