Remembering Sept. 11: Construction Workers Reflect 15 Years Later In 2001, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston interviewed two men who had been hauling away what was left of the World Trade Center towers. Fifteen years later, she went back to find them.
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For Those Who 'Worked The Pile' At Ground Zero, Horrors Of Sept. 11 Haven't Faded

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For Those Who 'Worked The Pile' At Ground Zero, Horrors Of Sept. 11 Haven't Faded

For Those Who 'Worked The Pile' At Ground Zero, Horrors Of Sept. 11 Haven't Faded

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tomorrow is the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. While we've heard hundreds of stories about the heroic first responders and tower survivors, there may have been less attention paid to another group of people who were at ground zero day after day, the construction workers who hauled away the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers. They were also on a recovery mission, as they found hundreds of victims buried in the rubble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DANNY NOLAN: It's never easy. It's devastating. These people are coming out - whole bodies still - they're just encased in concrete powder. They're not deteriorated. They're coming out in one piece - a lot of them. It's mind-boggling.

SIMON: That's a worker named Danny Nolan. In late 2001, he was plotting the first wrecking ball to swing in Manhattan in 25 years. Bobby Gray was the foreman on site.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOBBY GRAY: In first couple of days, there were people that were - I assume, lived nearby - that were actually giving us photos of family members. You know, if you found them - I don't know how they did it. I don't know how any of us did it.

SIMON: NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, told their story on our program 15 years ago and went back this week to find the two men that she interviewed.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: No one seems to know where Danny Nolan has gone since the demolition work at the World Trade Center site wrapped up. I stood next to him in the cabin of his crane 15 years ago as he was taking down Tower 6 in the weeks after the attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NOLAN: This is the drum that I'm working with. It's the red right drum. This is your swing lever. This is your lever that makes the machine crawl.

TEMPLE-RASTON: People I talked to at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 14 lost track of him. They say they think he might've simply moved on. But I did manage to find Bobby Gray.

Bobby? It's nice to see you. It's been a while.

GRAY: Pleasure - how are you?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Very well. Did you have a beard before?

Bobby Gray, 15 years after the attacks, is still working the World Trade Center site. But now he's putting up buildings instead of taking them down.

GRAY: Now I take care of - you can't see them. But I've always been a tower crane rigger. So I put the cranes in, then raise them up to the building and then recover them. You're going to jump them all the way back down or disassemble them on the roof.

TEMPLE-RASTON: His cranes are now on the roof of what's called Tower 3 - 3 World Trade Center, 80 floors of glass tower and office space on Greenwich Street set to open in 2018. I came down to ground zero to remind Bobby Gray of our talk 15 years ago and to see what, this much later, still haunts him. We ducked into a deli near the construction site.

GRAY: Do you want a water or anything?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm good, thanks.

GRAY: There's, tables, like, in the back, I think.

TEMPLE-RASTON: We listened to the radio piece we did in 2001 and took off the headphones to add something about...

GRAY: One moment, in particular.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Earlier on, before they put a security perimeter up, a woman handed him a photo of her son and asked Gray to call her if he happened to find him.

GRAY: And all I remember saying is, this is my mother. This is what my mother would do. You know, this is like everybody's mother whose son didn't come home that day. It's still really painful to think about that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Do you still have the picture?

GRAY: No, no.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sitting across from Bobby Gray, he seemed genuinely sorry he didn't keep a photograph the stranger had given him 15 years ago - that he couldn't tell me that he still had it. He didn't know at the time that it would end up meaning so much to him.

GRAY: Looking back is - now I know - is that you never left. When you were there, you just - you lived, you breathed it, you slept it. And that was it. I - it's just - I guess, just the way it was for me, anyway.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And then all that intensity of feeling began to fade, not just for the workers but for New Yorkers and the country as well. He remembers when he noticed it happening.

GRAY: I used to leave at night. There were a group of people - used to stand out on the West Side Highway. And all they would do is honk and wave to all the people - the workers - that were going home. And it was really special to see that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But as the weeks went on, he noticed...

GRAY: Gradually, those people got less and less and less until one night, you drove by, and they weren't there anymore.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That, he said, helped him put the whole experience into perspective.

GRAY: That's the way I felt about the whole thing - is at a certain point in time, I'm going to put this behind me and, like I say, compartmentalize it someplace special until we start talking about it today, you know? Let it come up a little bit.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Construction on the World Trade Center typically stops on September 11th. Bobby Gray said he'd mark the day privately. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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