On a warm, wet cotton ball of a June morning, Marc Becker is walking ground zero. Becker’s forty-seven, with twenty-six years spent working construction, thick-chested and slope-shouldered, wearing jeans, an untucked short-sleeved denim work shirt, and a royal-blue hard hat. A red-bordered security ID hangs from a cord around his neck.
He’s seventy feet below street level, on the floor of the sixteen-acre pit, an off-kilter quadrangle dug forty years ago to hold the World Trade Center.
Four years after 9/11, ground zero is a landscape of damp dirt, rock, concrete, and steel. It is hallowed ground—soaked, like every other square inch of the planet, in blood and sacrifice—but it is not an empty hole, not by a long shot. A 460-foot construction ramp slopes down into ground zero from Liberty Street, the pit’s southern border, passing over a covered train track that snakes through the site. Every few minutes, another commuter train from New Jersey curves into the rebuilt station that sits below Church Street, along the pit’s eastern edge. Across from the station, at the pit’s western boundary, two trailers sit shadowed by a massive, pockmarked, four-decades-old concrete wall reaching all the way up from the floor of the pit to a construction roadway that runs parallel to the six broad lanes of West Street.
“What you’re standing on,” Becker says, “was the basement of the whole complex for the towers—the original B6 level, as is. That’s why this is like holy ground to people—they were still pullin’ stuff out, if you know what I mean. Spring of ’02, they were still finding parts down here. Remains.”
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this patch of earth. The last resting place of nearly three thousand murder victims—you feel every moment that it’s a privilege to be here, and you worry that it’s a sacrilege, too—it’s also a spot where steel will rise once more to the sky, and folks will come not only to mourn but also to work.
“We’re ready to build,” Becker says. “We’re ready to go. I don’t get involved in politics. All I can tell ya is we’re ready to build. I’ve been here since 9/11; it’s very personal to me. I saw all the horrors. I mean, the horrors. I saw what the poor souls looked like after they jumped outta the buildings. Whatever got pulled outta the debris, I saw it. It’s personal. It’s personal. I don’t forget it.”
Becker builds buildings. That’s not only what he does; that’s also who he is. And in New York City, 9/11 was personal beyond the butchery: The hole in the skyline where the Twin Towers rose is a hole in this city’s heart. Here, they build ’em high. Knock down the Twins, they go higher.
“This is slab on grade,” Becker says, talking about the scuffed stubble of old concrete and rebar set into the deep bedrock, Manhattan schist, to anchor the Twins. “We hit rock from eighteen inches to two feet down. With the new tower—going by the original design—the new slab on grade was gonna be two feet below. You’re right on top of the rock then. We’d take all this out and lower it—bring in heavy machines with hammers on ’em to start breakin’ the rock.”
The original design. Becker’s referring to the 1,776-foot-tall building to be called the Freedom Tower, and the original design for it was trashed in May, a month ago. This is a bad thing for Becker—for a lot of folks—after nine months spent working down here, getting ready to build again.
Back on July 4, 2004, they sank the cornerstone into the ground. The imam and the reverend said prayers. The governor spoke of rebirth, resolve, and sacred duty. Photos were taken. Then everyone took off.
After the holiday, Becker and the crews went right back to work.
Now he points toward Vesey Street, along the north end of the pit, where the jagged concrete slabs and steel support beams of the original parking garage—the B4 level, a floor above the train tracks—have been left jutting horizontally from the concrete wall in a rough zigzag trussed with steel, new and old.
“The slabs were very weak from all the damage. You see the beams that go back to the slurry wall, these cross braces? We had to put all that in. Once that was in, we were able to demo these slabs. They were so weak that you just couldn’t chop ’em down—they would collapse on you. There was a whole sequence of how to remove the slabs over that B4 slab and the trains—over an active, running train. It went without a hitch.”
This slurry wall, the three-foot-thick, eleven-acre rectangle of scarred concrete within the pit, was built in 1967 to seal the Trade Center’s foundation against seepage from the nearby Hudson River, whose eastern shoreline used to slice right down this site. The bathtub, the workers called it, and still do. It was held in place by more than a thousand steel-cable tiebacks fed through six-inch holes drilled through the walls, then grouted and jack-yanked at a forty-five-degree angle deep into the bedrock until the seven basement and subbasement levels of the World Trade Center were erected. The buildings themselves, once raised, held the bathtub in place.
After the WTC buildings were destroyed—not only the Twins but four other office buildings and a hotel—and the 1.5 million tons of wreckage was removed, these exposed bathtub walls were what remained. Pocked by its myriad round, rusted iron snouts that had sealed the now-corroded anchoring- cable holes, the slurry wall was in dire need of shoring up.
Becker and the men he works with had to pin back the wall with fresh tiebacks where they could. But here, along Vesey, where the train exits the pit, where the walls were badly hurt, and where the original design placed the north side of the Freedom Tower, they braced the slabs to keep the slurry wall from collapse until they got to work building the new tower.
To the world beyond the bathtub walls, ground zero is a hole, a mournful memory, a symbol. But to the men who build buildings, it’s the worst kind of job—a job left undone. They put up the towers that stood right here, they climbed the pile of what was left, and they carted it all away. They rebuilt these train tunnels and tracks, raised this new station—ahead of schedule and under budget—and got the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) line back in business. They braced these walls and they figured out how and where to plant the Freedom Tower’s column footings—the steel-and-concrete bases sunk into bedrock to anchor the rising steel, spread its weight, and keep it from sinking—without tearing up the railroad tracks.
“We had footings literally between the PATH tracks,” Becker says, and you can hear the pride and frustration in his voice. “We were building the main tower columns in between those PATH tracks.”
The bathtub was clean. The cornerstone was laid. Almost four years after 9/11, ground zero was good to go.
And then, just as the first order for the Freedom Tower’s foundation steel was drawn up, it turned out that the New York Police Department had serious concerns about the building’s design. It was only twenty-five feet away from West Street. The base of the 1,776-foot tower was open, exposing the columns. The NYPD was worried about truck bombs, is what it boiled down to.
All the work stopped, and some very important people looked stupid.
George Pataki, New York’s governor. Larry Silverstein, the real estate developer who signed a lease on the World Trade Center six weeks before 9/11 and was ready to start rebuilding on September 12. And the folks over at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the brooding quasi-governmental behemoth that built the old WTC and still owns these sixteen acres. Awfully stupid.
On May 4, Governor Pataki issued a statement pledging “yet another magnificent design that will once again inspire the nation and serve as a fitting tribute to freedom.”
Then Pataki gave the architects and engineers a mere eight weeks to redesign the whole thing and move it farther from West Street. On this day, Pataki’s deadline is just three weeks away, and Marc Becker has no clue what’s going to happen to all the work already done here.
But Becker is sure of one thing. “I know it’s gonna happen,” he says. “I just don’t know when.”
He walks over to the cornerstone, twenty tons of Adirondack Mountain granite. It’s covered by a tarp and hidden inside a blue plywood box in one corner of a column footing in the southeast corner of the imaginary parallelogram that was going to be the footprint of the Freedom Tower. The rest of the footing—eleven feet deep—is half-filled with pooled rainwater.
Will they have to move the stone? “I don’t know.” He shrugs. “I have no idea.”
Twenty yards south of the cornerstone, a two-hundred-foot square traces the footprint of the old north Twin, marked with orange-and-silver traffic cones spaced to cover the top of its sheared-off perimeter columns, still sunk into sixty-ton bedrock. Another square of cones marks the south Twin. Two offset squares, one north, one south, two hundred feet per side—the length of a standard Manhattan street block. Here they stood, and here they slammed to earth.
Nothing will be rebuilt here. Even as the work crews prepped the site, Marc Becker kept the Twins clear.
“No piece of equipment,” he says now, “no machinery, no storage in these footprints—always outside of it.”
Here the heart aches. It hurts here. To stand here knots your throat; it fills your eyes. Here there are no ghosts—everyone’s gone for good—and this moment, like every moment, passes.
Even then, you dare not breach those lines. You rebuild, but you don’t ever forget. Here they died. Here time stopped.