ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - February 2002


Issue Highlight — Refusal as a Doorway to Commitment
Can saying no be the first step to yes? Refusal as a Doorway to Commitment is the provocative subject of Peter Block's One From Column B in this issue.

Teamwork at the Ground Zero Cleanup
An Interview With a Mohawk Ironworker on Teamwork During WTC Cleanup

On September 11, Mohawk ironworkers were among the first on the scene at Ground Zero after firefighters and police arrived. Ironically, the Mohawks helped erect the two, 110-story towers. Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve, which is south of Montreal, and the Akwesasne reserve on the Quebec, Ontario, and state of New York borders, are still untangling the World Trade Center rubble.

On a snowy Saturday afternoon, I caught up with Randy Mitchell, a welder with Iron Workers Local 440, as he played pool in a tournament on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Mitchell, a 35-year-old from Akwesasne, worked for 14 weeks straight at Ground Zero. His first day home was Thanksgiving.

At the time of the terrorist attacks Mitchell was at New York University. His first reaction was to drop down on one knee. He witnessed the horror and chaos unfold: people jumping out of windows, others freefalling. The Mohawk steelworkers raced to the site, but local authorities pushed everyone away. Law enforcement officials told the group to return in a few days after they established some order amidst the destruction.

Mitchell’s father, grand chief of the Indian reserve, called him that night, pleading with him to return home. He feared for the safety of his only son. But Mitchell decided to stay and help out, along with about 100 other Mohawks.

Mitchell worked for Tully, a firm doing construction on the West Side Highway. Tully had offices at the World Trade Center (WTC) site and has been involved in two-thirds of the cleanup.

The Mohawks were amazed at the extent of the devastation. They saw mangled iron split open, similar to a peeled banana, Mitchell told me. Although the WTC structure was built with a thick outer skin, the building itself swayed and tilted in the wind. It was all outer-skin design that held the structure together. When the towers were hit and then ripped by internal fire and explosions, steel rained down like an avalanche.

How did Mitchell, the Mohawks, and other ironworkers work together as a team? There was no blueprint for how the ironworkers cleaned up the building remains. Mitchell was in a team of 12 (five were Mohawks).

“We were going in with machines that tug, pull, and lift iron up. Some of these machines can pick up 30 to 40 tons,” he said. “We have to go into a pile where we’ve got one or two machines assisting us; we start finding iron, cutting, and burning. On the last cut and burn, a machine is holding the piece that you’re on—it allows you to make the last cut. You’re trusting your life with the machine to hold the iron secure so you can climb back down and get out of the way so it can clean, tug, and tear everything away.”

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) required site workers to protect themselves with masks and gloves to prevent unnecessary injuries. But the Mohawks were in a situation where something had to be done and their welding skills were put to the test. The cleanup is a coordinated effort that requires the utmost adherence to safety—where there were no defined rules, Mitchell reported.

Mitchell spoke candidly about some of the risks, “I didn’t enjoy getting in a crane, jumping up on top and cutting pieces of the WTC skin off a neighboring building like Banker’s Trust on Liberty Street. I put out a fire there unexpectedly. I had warned them [authorities] about that risk. The wind was gusting that day; we had to pick off skin from the WTC. There was a big gaping hole in the middle of the structure—17 floors long, 100 feet deep—and the middle of the building is gutted 150 feet inside where there were offices.” Mitchell said that the space would catch fire, and it did.

This fire was two weeks into the tragedy; roles for volunteers were just getting organized. According to Mitchell, 200 firemen were sitting on chairs at the time, exhausted and dirty. They had been digging and scratching through pile after pile. When Mitchell told them of the fire, they thought he was kidding. The firefighters joked that Mitchell had two strikes against him—Tower Four had also been on fire during his shift.

Ironworkers had different ways of slicing the steel, according to Mitchell. Some were cutting thick steel with lance rods. Mohawks were doing it with torches. Mitchell cut 10-inch thick columns—it would take him 20 minutes but he’d have the steel two-pieced. As soon as the ironworkers developed a system for successfully doing things, other guys and volunteers were on the side learning, asking how they did that. Mitchell compared the work to an apprenticeship—no one had ever handled anything like the WTC cleanup. But, when the
volunteers are done, they will be expert welders.

Ironworkers had to go in between Towers Four and Five and cut into the floor to gain access into a gaping pit below. They welded, cut, and re-fabricated iron to create a ramp that would accommodate large trucks—the team designed access ways to pick up iron and steel.

There was no format or battle plan, Mitchell explained. “You sit back, scratch your head and say, ‘God, we are going to be here forever.’ But, with two shifts going at 12 hours a day, the next week there was so much done,” he told me. The men felt pride in their work—they were accomplishing something extraordinary.

Most volunteers lost track of the time; it seemed irrelevant to the tasks at hand. Mitchell was grateful for the fact that ironworkers were not allowed to physically touch human remains. This kept him sane. “If there were any type of a rescue, we would have been more than glad to get right in there and help save a person,” he said. But it became evident early on that they weren’t going to find any more people. Instead, they found body parts, torsos with no heads or limbs.

The men found bodies in the rubble by smell through the wind. If workers suspected that an area had remains, they slowed the machinery down. Mitchell discovered twisted mangled iron with flesh on it. He recounted the horror: “You would stop the machine, call the rescue unit to come over with the dogs. Dogs would claw and scratch in the area and find bodies. It was a good day when they found bodies whole. They’d put a body on a stretcher and cover it with a flag if it was a policeman, fireman, or civilian.” A procession saluted the deceased; volunteers resumed cleanup shortly afterward.

Mitchell had two main partners, Rusty and Paul. Rusty hailed from Oklahoma; Paul was from San Diego. Paul was injured twice on the job. He cut his wrist open, requiring 18 stitches. Paul was also hurt while working on the North Tower near Citibank. Here, the New York Police Department and FBI held their weapons and artillery in a storage area. “We’re cutting steel that is so thick, it’s literally leaving lava. Molten steel was dripping, falling down with sparks on everything,” Mitchell confessed. “This 45-caliber round exploded. We knew the caliber because the casing lodged in Paul’s cheek. He had to be taken to the hospital to have the casing removed.”

Another time, men and their machine fell into a hole that collapsed. It was open wide like an earthquake—100-feet long by 20-feet wide, Mitchell exclaimed. The machine stopped itself from falling further. When it tilted in the hole, the operator jumped and held on to pieces of twisted metal. Mitchell saw this man get out and quit on the spot.

Despite the grueling dangerous cleanup work, Mitchell made a lot of close friends on the job. They seemed to follow this mantra: work hard, get it done, and get out. When one man quit, there were 10 others ready to take his place.

Thursday nights, Mitchell let off steam by playing in a pool league. At the billiards table, he temporarily escaped Ground Zero, both mentally and physically. His team placed second in the league, he proudly said.

“We’ve basically cleaned up all the steel in the area and the surrounding buildings; the demolition is done,” Mitchell said. “Now, workers are going into the basin of the former towers, seven floors down.”

Four months after the tragedy, 60 to 70 Mohawks remain at Ground Zero. There is no longer a need for extensive manpower. “It got to the point where you’re still working seven days a week, you’re still putting in 12 hours a day—but you have four to five hours of downtime,” Mitchell explained.

Shortly before Christmas, Mitchell was sent to a Con Edison power plant on 14th Street. He’s breathing a bit easier these days, working five days a week. The father of four goes home on weekends to see his family.

When Mitchell heard that five volunteers could leave the WTC project, he seized the opportunity. “I took my check, said my goodbyes,” he admitted. “My tour of duty is complete.”

ERIN FLYNN is founder of Flynn Media, a New York-based communications firm that offers writing, editing, and publicity services. She helps companies write material and get it published. Erin can be reached via her Web site at .

Community Concern for “Their” Iron Workers
Press Republican, Plattsburgh, NY
By M’chelle Peterson Contributing Writer

The last missing man from Iron Workers Local 440 was checked off the list Friday morning.

“It really affected our community here in Akwesasne; we had 100 men from our small community working down there, and everybody knows everybody,” said Iron Workers Local 440 Union Business Manager Michael Swamp. “It was a terrible three days, until everybody was accounted for.”

February 2002 News for a Change Homepage

In This Issue...
The World of Patch Adams and Gesundheit!
Behind Pike Place Fish: A Conversation With Jim Bergquist
How We Use “Fish!” the Video

Teamwork at the Ground Zero Cleanup
Thriving Through Teamwork

Peter Block Column

Return to NFC Index

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