Ground zero cleanup chief looks to help quake, tsunami survivors

Sept. 11 volunteer organizer aims to ‘pay it back’ to Japan



As Charlie Vitchers looks back over the last decade and remembers nine months overseeing the cleanup of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 , 2001, terrorist attacks, he vividly recalls countless examples of selflessness during New York City’s darkest hours.

As the “go-to guy” for the hundreds of people and numerous agencies involved in the massive effort to remove rubble after hijacked jetliners crashed into the Twin Towers and debris spread over a wide area, he readily recalls the details.

“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about 9/11,” he said in a recent interview near the site, emphasizing the toll the cleanup took on everyone involved in the lengthy and complicated process.

“I remember precisely a lot of things.”

Despite the horrors that unfolded that day, Vitchers witnessed how quickly local, national and international volunteers rallied to lend a hand in the days and months afterward.

The 53-year-old remembers a Japanese group who played a critical role recovering remains from the perimeters of what became known as ground zero.

For Vitchers, Sept. 11 started out as a typical day. As superintendent of a massive project at the St. Moritz Hotel he was conducting a walk-through of the 37-story building when he learned of the first crash.

To gain a better vantage point, he climbed outside, even scaling a ladder to do so and saw smoke and “a bright orange fireball explode.”

After hearing that another plane had hit the second tower, he knew something was wrong. Watching the buildings collapse on television, Vitchers was driven to put his decades-long expertise to work. Along with other highly skilled construction workers and tradesmen, some of them having put the towers up, he headed toward the disaster zone.

After trekking for six hours through Manhattan, he fought persistently to gain access to the area, eventually commandeering laborers to help clear roads so rescuers could get as close as possible.

“What scared me down there in the initial days was nobody knew how many people had died down there,” Vitchers said in a book he later authored with Glenn Stout and Robert Gray called “Nine Months at Ground Zero.”

Supervising teams to carry out the necessary work, which included navigating heavy equipment such as bulldozers with blades longer than 5 meters, he had to balance safety with rescue and later recovery efforts.

While the focus was on “the pile” where the majority of firefighters or police officers had fallen trying to help thousands of workers escape the towers, little attention was paid to other buildings along the perimeter.

Soon after the catastrophe Vitchers began surveying nearby buildings for their structural integrity. He was the first to raise the alarm about a large volume of South Tower debris that had fallen onto scaffolding around a building at 90 West Street.

That was where the Japanese group, along with other teams from California and Missouri, were called in. For two full days they took on the daunting task of retrieving remains mixed in with rubble.

In the chaos of the early days Vitchers did not clearly recall many details about the Japanese group, but what stuck with him over the years was the image of the distinct white and red flag on their rescue jackets.

“It was a very solemn day and I will never forget it,” he said, describing the early October morning he sent all the volunteers in.

“They went up there and did a great job and I don’t know how they did it because it was terrible,” he said. “That was a very significant part of seeing the goodness of people willing to take a task like that on.”

Vitchers was especially grateful to the Japanese who had traveled so far and overcame language barriers to complete the delicate task.

When the March 11 disasters this year captured the world through news images of black waves swallowing people, buildings and whole towns in the Tohoku region, he thought of the team who had stepped in to aid New Yorkers in 2001.

Since then he has been trying to find a way to “pay it forward” to the rescuers by attempting to seek out the right channels to help survivors rebuild.

As a part of a nonprofit organization called The New York Says Thank You Foundation, which was created as a result of the help that poured in after the terrorist attacks and assists victims of other disasters, Jeff Parness, the organization’s founder, and Vitchers now want to spearhead a project to build something in Japan.

“I would rather swing a hammer and give you (survivors) $1 million worth of work and to get to know you (survivors),” he explained, emphasizing the value of personal involvement over monetary donations.

Part of the foundation’s appeal is in cementing friendships by helping community members rebuild vital structures and encouraging them to do the same for future victims.

Due to logistical and language issues, the American organizers are looking for the appropriate local authorities willing to work with them to identify a community in need.

“To be able to help direct a major project over there would be something I would love to do,” he said. “We can help. I don’t care if it is planting trees, debris removal, it is stuff that needs to be done.”