Cooperation Spurred WTC Clean Up

October 10, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Following the devastation of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Michael Burton was handed the dubious task of creating order out of chaos at Ground Zero.

When the first plane hit the first WTC tower, Burton was on the FDR freeway just five miles from the site. He was five blocks away when the second tower came down.

"It was like the Apocalypse," Burton told members of the Economic Club of Grand Rapids gathered at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel last week.

"The city was in chaos. People were nearly hysterical or completely hysterical.

"The entire uniformed services of New York City were mobilizing at the scene, and I realized leadership was also going to have to apply to the engineering and construction community to help out," recalled Burton, senior vice president of URS Corp. in New York.

At the time of the terrorist attacks, Burton was first deputy director for the New York City Department of Design and Construction.

He was one of a few key people whom then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani tapped to spearhead the World Trade Center clean-up.  

Burton quickly mobilized a core group of about 15 people from the engineering and construction community to assess the damage at Ground Zero.

The first and most urgent mission, he said, was to create access to the site so rescue workers could find and assist victims.

Paths had to be cleared through the debris to allow for the movement of heavy equipment, trucks and cranes.

Some 59 cranes were assembled and organized according to a crane location plan, he said.

Burton's team had to secure the site's perimeter, which meant establishing a police escort and ID badge system. They had to set up a communication system, as well as establish a management structure of reporting.

Then they divided the site into quadrants and assigned crews to each quadrant in an effort to make the work more manageable.

"The task was so large that no one company could have handled it. That's why we divided it into quadrants," Burton recalled.

"We were trying to do things that had never been done before. On-the-spot decisions based on gut experience had to be made. That's why we established a decentralized system — so decisions could be made on a minute-by-minute basis.

"We had to determine what was safe and what was not. Nothing was safe."

About 100 different organizations, both public and private, were involved in the World Trade Center clean up.

Burton said one of the lessons learned was that a massive clean-up effort such as the World Trade Center's demands the resources of big federal agencies, as well as those of the local private sector.

"Neither could do it by themselves. That will probably be the model going forward," he said.

He said that at any given time, 3,000 to 4,000 people were actively working at Ground Zero. 

Trying to direct the activities of that many people was a very difficult task, he said, as was trying to manage people who, naturally, were "incredibly emotional" over the devastation and loss of lives.

But on the positive side, Burton said, the situation really forced people to draw on all their resources and perform at levels that they had never performed at before.

"I had 100 of my people working there and they excelled much higher from what I've ever seen them do before.

"I think one of the very positive things that came out of this was that people became focused on safety, and that enabled us to finish the entire operation over the nine months without losing one recovery worker's life."

Not only did the WTC clean up take half the time originally anticipated, it came in $700 million under initial cost estimates.

Why was the process faster and less costly than anticipated?

Burton attributed it to the delegation of operations, clear objectives going in, accountability, smart people, teamwork and passion.

"They worked as a team.

"People were dying, and it certainly taught me a lesson that if you put smart people to work as a team and they're passionate, you can accomplish just about anything you want to."

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