When I came in to work on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I knew something was up when I saw my secretary had a portable TV propped up on her desk.
As I began to watch coverage of the terrorist attacks in New York I thought I was dreaming. It overwhelmed me.
At the time I was an an employee of Washington Group International (WGI) in Boise. WGI had an office in the World Trade Center, with a number of staff on the 55th and 57th floors. If I recall correctly, we lost 12 employees that day.
I am a certified industrial hygienist, now with 39 years of experience involving environmental health and safety programs. So 15 years ago, after the attack, I requested an assignment to be a health and safety professional at the World Trade Center catastrophe event.
My job was to identify workplace hazards through physical investigations and sample analysis — primarily chemical and particle/fiber sampling — and oversee general safety issues such as protective methods for working there.
From Sept. 19 to Nov. 5, I was deployed to New York City and assigned to a new work operation location — an abandoned second-grade classroom a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center area, but inside the security- and safety-controlled area.
The Fire Department of New York was managing the area when I arrived. The scene at ground zero was eerily mystical. It was like skeletons of these buildings standing out there on piles of rubble, with flames and smoke all around, and firefighters poking though it. It was like nothing I had ever seen in my life.
It smelled awful, and nobody knew what was producing it or how dangerous it was. What we knew is that an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 cars were on fire in the underground parking garages. There was the stench of death. We did frequent odor analysis.
Your clothes smelled of it at the end of the day. At the time we were staying in a hotel in the Theatre District. We would pass by people dressed up and on their way to the theater. We stunk as we boarded elevators with them, but they would thank us for being there. They appreciated our efforts.
During my time in New York City I also participated in a health and safety project planning team with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). The assigned company and government project leaders needed to plan: (1) the future site worker safety and health monitoring and applicable methods, (2) the anticipated needed sampling, scheduling and analysis of collected site samples, and (3) the needed site project assistance — such as respiratory and skin protection requirements — to the contractor workers’ health and safety programs.
What were the concerns? We didn’t know what a lot of them were, and it was variable. In industrial hygiene it makes a big difference what kind of cartridge is in your mask. You need detailed chemical information — but there were so many unknowns.
Our WGI on-site group was supporting the NYC Department of Design and Construction, which had a local project leadership role.
I was one of the 19 WGI company employees assigned to work the project on-site and full time. I managed a team of approximately eight to 12 local subcontracted air and asbestos sampling technicians who collected approximately 300 personal worker air samples during our period.
Our work location for managing the collected data and the collected sample management was the assigned second-grade classroom nearby. This was a challenge to work in, both physically and emotionally: small chairs and tables, student artwork and personal items left behind, and the overall static visual impact of a significant event impact.
I was overcome that little kids had been endangered and their lives were forever changed. In the profession you store emotions in your brain, but at some point in time you can have a breakdown. Everybody has their limit about what they can deal with. I had never faced anything with so many unknowns and so much risk.
My personal work assignment was for 12 hours/six days a week — 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There were corresponding 12-hour night shifts, and my off-day was managed by two other company CIH industrial hygienists.
At day’s end I was totally exhausted and felt like I stunk. My goal was to separate the 12 hours off from the 12 hours on. We would go down and have a beer or two at a nearby bar to try to erase what had happened during the day. Sometimes in the evenings and on my days off I went to went to art museums, concerts — any and everything removed from what the days had been like. It was like a mental cleansing device to hear music, lectures.
Each day of the on-site week included a critical 9 a.m. joint meeting of representatives of the supporting private industry teams and government agencies to discuss work safety.
I was a representative for WGI at each daily planning meeting and the follow-up planning and reporting. Each day pretty much included serious safety hazards correction and possible emergency responses or corrections to protect worker health and safety.
After the conclusion of the project contract, many members of the team, including myself, gave presentations across the United States to various organizations and groups on the challenges and technical management of their project assignments and personal challenges.
When it was over, at first, we tried to erase the memories of this from our minds. But we later decided we needed to convey this information from a scientific point of view. While each of us had major personal impact of the project, our continuing connection has decreased significantly — so hopefully news recognition such as the 15-year anniversary of 9/11 will rekindle our personal contacts.
William Piispanen lives in Boise where earlier this year he founded a consulting business that provides industrial hygiene services.