NYC landfill reopened for debris

Trucks ferry remnants of towers to Staten Island

Investigators use site for sifting

Their search for clues could last up to a year

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 19, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Dominick Gracci still can't get over it.

For his entire adult life, the twin towers of the World Trade Center were a faraway touchstone, the only Manhattan buildings visible from his home on the swampy side of Staten Island.

Now, the towers are sitting right in front of his nose - heaped in a million pieces at the giant Fresh Kills landfill.

"When I'd go on the top floor of my house, you could see those two little towers sticking up," said Gracci, a 41-year-old Rikers Island corrections officer, over a beer at the Waterloo Cafe, down the road from the landfill. "Now, it's so weird, to see the debris right in front of you. You pass the dump and you can see the World Trade Center right there."

It was only six months ago that Fresh Kills, the notorious landfill that took New York City's trash for more than 50 years, was finally closed to city waste. When the last garbage-laden barge passed through the harbor on March 22, city firefighters fired water cannons in celebration.

Now, the landfill has been reopened to accommodate one last load: the more than 1 million tons of debris left by the Sept. 11 disaster.

One week after the attack, the landfill has become a second "Ground Zero." With every six-ton truckload of debris that is lugged out of lower Manhattan, the piles of twisted steel and concrete at the landfill grow larger - as do the crowds of investigators and workers sorting through them.

Twenty-four hours a day, a couple hundred FBI agents, National Guardsmen, and local police on 12-hour shifts use rakes and sieves to search the debris for human remains and clues overlooked at the disaster site.

It is a ghostly scene, carried out behind high fences and armed checkpoints, and under bright searchlights that allow the work to proceed through the night. The workers wear white body suits and take breaks under large tents; the trucks arrive every 10 minutes and line up on the landfill ridge above the highway like part of a nomadic caravan.

"It's lit up like a UFO landing or something," said truck driver Lou Esposito, 46, of Staten Island, as he drank a coffee at a gas station after dropping off a load. "They've got all these separate piles of debris set up, like Easter eggs."

Towers' `burial ground'

The awful irony of the task isn't lost on those engaged in it: The towers, the ultimate symbol of the city's glitter and wealth, are being laid to rest in the place that embodied the city's grimy underside, the vast dump where the refuse of the consumer capital was hidden away.

"It's the end of an era, in two ways," said Richie Snyder, one of the drivers who has been carrying two or three loads from lower Manhattan daily. "They closed the dump; and now the twin towers are going into it."

Mike Cadigan, a Verizon repairman, always looked for the World Trade Center when he drove to work in Staten Island from his home in New Jersey.

"Fresh Kills is the burial ground for the World Trade Center. It's eerie and sad," he said.

When the landfill opened in 1948, it was supposed to take trash for only five years. Instead, by the 1980s it was handling most of the city's waste, taking 29,000 tons a day and growing to 3,000 acres.

Named for a nearby creek, Fresh Kills was the bane of Staten Island, the source of a nauseating stench that was especially strong in summertime and the subject of derisive jokes by residents of the other four boroughs. For years, island residents argued to no avail that it was unfair for the city's least-populated borough to absorb the entire city's waste.

The landfill's presence helped keep Staten Island a refuge of the working middle class - those who wanted out of the big city but couldn't afford the New Jersey suburbs; or city employees like Gracci who are required by law to live in New York but couldn't afford houses in the better parts of Brooklyn or Queens.

"We need to live out here," said Gracci. "But the odors - they're disgusting. No matter how long you lived here, you still smelled it. Know when it was especially bad? At 5 in the morning. When you're sleeping, you don't know what you're breathing, but then you'd wake up and smell it."

Cleanup contribution

Gracci and other residents were thrilled when the city decided to close the landfill and start shipping New York's trash to Virginia and Pennsylvania. The city had hoped to cap the landfill's 108 million tons of trash and turn it into a park.

Now, local residents have new reason to shudder as they pass Fresh Kills, its Dutch name now terribly fitting. Debris-sorting there could take at least a year.

"You can see all the fire trucks stacked up like pancakes," said Stephen Tysdale, an employee at an adjacent car dealership. "It's heartbreaking."

But he and others said they don't mind that Fresh Kills has been temporarily reopened to take the tower remains. There is nowhere else in the city to put the debris, they said, and it is Staten Island's contribution to the cleanup effort.

"They could use my back yard if they wanted to," said Amanda Collins, 25, a Waterloo Cafe waitress.

Over at the gas station, truck drivers and operators of the excavators being used to sort the debris at the landfill trade war stories: the hundreds of shoes found amid the debris, the occasional body parts, the smell of burnt plastic mixed with who knows what.

"It's a horror up there," said Brian McClymont, a 39-year-old truck driver from Queens.

"It's the same stuff we usually haul, metal and concrete - except that you've got to know that your neighbors are somewhere in it," said truck driver Vinnie Russo, 31, of Staten Island.

A changed landscape

The visits to the landfill are especially upsetting for those drivers who frequented Fresh Kills in the days before it closed.

"The best view of the towers was on this mountain," said Esposito, pointing up at the landfill crest where the investigators toiled. "On a clear day, you could see everything."

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