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Building Freedom Tower

August 2006 Installment of the Monthly Journal 

[Read the sidebar, Building Freedom Tower -- The Journal for introduction]

By Dick Sheppard

Two Weeks Ending 8/25/06

Ever closer to the Fifth Year anniversary of that dreadful, unforgettable day.
A Construction Site Like No Other

Had a rare treat this week when someone was able to bring us down to the very foundation of Freedom Tower, being shaped and deepened noticeably each week. To be up so close after seeing it from 30-stories up in my offices, or through the obstructed fence-line, is an unforgettable experience itself. 

Everyone has been around/passed-by/stood and watched construction sites. Outside of Manhattan, they are comparatively small-scale, residential. Perhaps a residential tower or two, in Jersey City; well, there’s office towers going up there too. But for the most part, any construction site is like any other: Heavy equipment, machinery, the ever-present dirt/mud, and rough-hewn hard-hats muscling stuff around. Pretty conventional activity, building structures. But not on this site, nearly 70 feet below grade, yet open to the bright sunshine. The men work in isolation from the many hundreds of thousands around them, and many thousands who mark their progress from the hundreds upon hundreds of surrounding windows.

The Freedom Tower site feels different, inspiring. You are in a corner of the vast, walled “bathtub.” The site is active, yet sparse and not as large as you might imagine, only a portion of the sixteen-total acres of the entire WTC site. With the gray bathtub walls and brown dirt and mud underfoot, it’s as a desertscape. Our group of three had to be alert to the moving heavy equipment roving the vicinity, in comparatively tight spaces. But your eyes remind you that you are not in a desertscape. All around above you, tall neighboring towers rise: To the west, the World Financial Center, to the north, dizzyingly right above you so you crane your neck to admire them, the old Bell Telephone Barclay-Vesey Building, and alongside, the glittering glass-curtain 7 World Trade Center. The stout limestone low-rise of the Federal Office Building and Post Office that runs along Vesey to Church. Off to the east, the rectangular Millennium Hilton, the old East River Savings Bank Tower, and my own home offices, One Liberty Plaza. And south, the forlorn hulk of the soon-to-come-down Pataki-bloomberg building, and the lovely Cass Gilbert Woolworth wannabe, the 90 West Street building.

The dirt and rock of the footprint is a world unto itself, beneath and within a world nearly outside the scope of your imagination just beyond. And you can’t help thinking about, with a tingle, the Tower that will arise – right THERE – as you’re standing THERE.

Of being right there at the enormous rock cuts within which the tower footings will soon be placed; the pneumatic drills fine-tuning the deep shapes which the initial blasting only blurred; these are very large, deep foundations, right into the glistening, light gray Manhattan Schist. I have retained a small piece of Schist from this location as a memento. Schist is a flaky rock with the sparkly grains of embedded minerals visible. It’s a “pretty” rock, with the sparkles and darker embedded flecks. The Schist in the Freedom Tower foundation is light-grayish, although Schists can run the gamut from gray to dark brown. The Tower will be sitting on sturdy ancient bedrock, the underpinning of all massive Manhattan skyscrapers.

A passing construction worker mentions that the “ladder men” – the rebar specialists – will soon be on-site, fitting the giant rebar cages already on-site into the rock cuts below. To be fastened into place as the base of the massive steel frame which will shortly thereafter emerge.

Too it is a construction site almost as if of another planet, it is so enheartening to realize the iconic tower which will arise from the utter destruction of 9/11. There were but 10 workers at most on the Freedom Tower footprint, 2-3 pieces of equipment chiseling away at the Schist, and otherwise shaping the critical foundation. There were a few bystanders watching the foundation progress intently, and directing the unwieldy machinery. We stood alongside the two parallel trenches which sprout rebar gaping at the austerity of the footprint; so few men doing work you feel in your bones is inspirational and important and that these men were the finest construction workers in New York.

The real payoff for the site visit was the chance to ask one of the construction workers the question I’ve been speculating about in this diary for weeks: What are those two deep trenches, approximately at the south end of the Freedom Tower footprint? I had speculated they were “utilities” trenches, perhaps to run communications and utilities cables into the PATH tunnel, under the river, and onto the mainland. Then I thought these rebar footings might be the start of the south wall of the Freedom Tower itself, or, alternatively, part of the Memorial. None of the above!

The two initial footings are the grounded supports of FULTON STREET, which will run across the WTC site from east-to-west. Above those two parallel footings, traffic will run between the Freedom Tower and the Memorial. Yet as I look at the southern-most of the two footings, what will be the south side of Fulton Street; it nudges quite close to the outline of the North Tower of the original World Trade Center. You have to think that Fulton will sit on top of these parallel footings off-center, otherwise it will intrude right next to the north edge of the North Tower, which will be a critical element of the Memorial. But it is interesting to consider now in these early stages, how these initial pieces will come together to create the finished Freedom Tower/Memorial.

Freedom Tower Port-o-San

And at the Memorial site, just alongside the east edge of the South Tower and the south edge of the North tower, two deep holes are being punched through the concrete flooring of the bathtub: speculation: will these be crane footings for the cranes which will build-up the Memorial structure? Something to monitor and report as information becomes visually evident, or another trip to the site is permitted. Who knows how close this guess will be then? While we were on-site, there were also several drilling units poking holes straight into the site’s concrete floor. Just the drill and a solo operator, no operator’s cab on the drill, it’s almost a robot unto itself, incessantly driving its bit and string deeper into the sacred ground surrounding the original Tower outlines.

And, too, a visit to the last remaining relic of the World Trade Center, the so-called “Vesey Stairs” on the north side of the site, right on Vesey as the name implies. There hasn’t been much news about the ultimate fate of this piece of history down which so many fled five years ago. They’ve aged themselves, in the elements, they are not in the best of condition, but there’s surely enough to be saved to tell a story of escape and continuity and resilience.

Photog LouV stand in front of Vesey Stairs

Back of Vesey Stairs (click to enlarge)

And no week goes by without some non-construction off-site activity. Again, more questions from public officials about the sturdiness of the insurance company promises to continue payments. When the tentative agreements were reached back in April to begin construction, they general consensus was to have iron-clad final agreements in place “by September 11” now just 2 weeks away. Any hold-up at this point would be discouraging, such is the sprightly progress now underway on the Freedom Tower and now Memorial footprints. Also of note, the crane for the pataki-bloomberg building slowly jacks itself higher; it’s rising directly in front of our western-facing office windows. Soon a new vista and view towards the west will open to occupants such as us, another section of “empty sky” to contemplate.

Two Weeks Ending 8/11/06: As these weeks end, today is just one month shy of the 5-year anniversary of the 9/11 destruction. It was poignant to come out of the PATH under-river tunnel into the daylight of "Ground Zero" (a term I don't like to use) and skirt just south of the machines reshaping the Freedom Tower footprint. But it is encouraging to note that while the pace of the rebuilding has obviously been torturous across these five years, work is being done. They start early and they are over there right now, equipment altering the entire WTC site and especially the Freedom Tower footprint. For one thing, workers have finally gotten a handle on the accumulating water within the slurry wall "bathtub" which encloses the western half of the entire WTC site. Hoses criss-cross the ground, all of them leading into a lined dumpster. The water collects there, and is pumped via a large PVC-type pipe down into the ground and presumably into the local sewage system. So over the past two weeks the floor-level was kept dry. Although last night (8/10) it rained heavy and water accumulated as it will, this morning it looks like it's drying better than in the past. In fact, by late afternoon on 8/11, it's much drier than usual after any rain.

The pace of building on the Freedom Tower footprint quickens. That's the spiffiest site of all WTC sites in terms if it looking ship-shape and purposeful activity occurring. In previous diaries, there was mention of two deep, "slit trenches" which ran parallel at the south side of the Freedom Tower footprint. I thought these were for infrastructure, maybe the southern-most was, it's filled in now and hard to say what it was for. But the northern slit trench has is in fact a structural element, there are circular cages of rebar being cemented into the "northern" slit trench; it's a footing of some kind. The more I look at it, the more the alignment of this rebar might be footings for the south wall of Freedom Tower itself. Paperbacknovel.com is looking to get its staff down into the site for reporting purposes. When that trip happens, maybe we can get the story straight from the guys doing the work. Whatever the footings are, they are an encouraging site because something is about to be built on top of them. 

There was news out at the beginning of this week that the Memorial Commission has awarded a New Jersey firm a contract to being the "footings" work for the Memorial, which will arise about the World Trade Center footprints. Since this contract just happened, this leads me to believe that the footings being built on the south side of the Freedom Tower footprint are in fact Freedom Tower structural elements.

Also of note, on the public Vesey Street walkway, workers removed the scaffolding "ceiling" which opens up interesting views and vistas as you approach the West Street bridge leading to the World Financial Center. They've opened that all up and it's a pleasant walk. The part of the pedestrian bridge just north of the Freedom Tower corner has been blocked from public access, the public can still ascend the West Street bridge closer to West Street. But it's so close to West, you might as well forego climbing the stairs up onto the bridge and instead cross right there at street level.

Workers started trying to shift Church Street traffic east a few weeks back to being construction on the eastern most "slurry wall." However, as massive drilling is still going on at the east side of Church Street directly in front of Century 21, there is no place to shift the traffic from west to east, they have to finish the work on east Church Street before they can begin shifting traffic. The work on east Church Street involves large drillers, they are creating the foundation for the underground pedestrian walkway that will lead from Church and the WTC site, down Dey Street and over to Broadway and the new Fulton Transit hub. This is all 3-4 years off. The LMCCC has posted banners declaring what the area will look like in "2010" they won't make that deadline but there's plenty to be done. It's an odd construction site, the area along east Church Street from Cortland two blocks to Fulton. There's a pedestrian walkway which skirts the site, so as these massive machines are working on the narrow sidewalk, people are walking right alongside. Church Street is a major north-bound artery out of the financial district and it's impractical to close it. So work needs to either alternate from side-to-side, or one side needs to be completed. Right now, the east side it might seem as if they know they need to get done there's constant work on the narrow east Church Street sidewalk.

WTC site and Freedom Tower Footprint (on the right) on August 11, 2006

A note on the Pataki-Bloomberg Building deconstruction. Last week's diary mentioned the building of a tower crane to presumably start this process. The crane is built, the boom stands tall and ready alongside the building. But air sensors detected "high levels of silica" according to some recent news, and I suspect that is holding things up. Silica is sand, but if they said sand they could start the deconstruction. "Silica" sounds threatening so as usual, some interests are holding up the process. That is discouraging. Interesting to note that this week that construction crews broke through a section of the massive water tunnel being created under Manhattan. A news account noted that Mayor Bloomberg sat on a tunnel-boring machine as it broke through "the last eight inches of quartz, granite, and SILICA." Silica is SAND, and it's EVERYWHERE. Those poor tunnel workers are being exposed to silica, where's the outrage? There is none, because silica is SAND. But if it's at the pataki-bloomberg Building, silica is a dangerous substance that must be carefully accounted for before bringing that annoying hulk down.

News also out on 8/10 that the Brits, with possible help from US and Pakistani intelligence services, foiled a British native-born plot to smuggle liquids onto planes, which, when mixed, would be explosive. The plan was to destroy a string of planes heading from the UK to the US, possible as Al-Gayda sick way of commemorating 9/11. The struggle continues. And so does the building.

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