More than a million tons of debris — steel and ash and remains of lost lives — were swept up and carted away in the months after hijackers hit the World Trade Center. The main cleanup effort ended about 10 months after 9/11. But the painstaking process of sorting through the wreckage continues on a smaller scale.
Within the past few years, additional debris from the attacks has been recovered from manholes and other previously inaccessible pockets in lower Manhattan. More debris has surfaced as crews worked on the memorial at Ground Zero.
Phillips and Jordan, a contractor with an executive based in Zephyrhills, has played a key role in the cleanup effort. The firm designed and maintains two mobile forensic sifting units where anthropologists and forensic investigators can sort through the newer batches of debris.
The priority is to identify human remains. More than 1,000 families never received remains to bury.
"Through our contacts with the police department, that's how (Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York City) contacted us and said here's the problem," said Aaron Nichols, communications director for Phillips and Jordan.
Ben Turner is the president and chief operating officer of Phillips and Jordan, and is based out of the Zephyrhills office. He's been involved with the cleanup efforts since the beginning.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chose the company to lead the forensic recovery and debris disposal of the World Trade Center collapse — the country's largest crime scene. Turner arrived on the scene Sept. 14, 2001.
"The aftermath of the terrorists' attacks on the World Trade Center resulted in one of the most challenging debris fields that this country has ever seen," Turner recalled last week. "It was just overwhelming to see the pile of debris in New York City."
Phillips and Jordan was hired to manage the Forensic Recovery/Debris Disposal operation at the Staten Island Landfill, and work with contractors already in New York.
"We had to get everyone to play well together," said Nichols.
Also, the team had to come up with a site specific health and safety plan for all of the agencies and contractors employed on the site. That meant keeping workers with 16 federal agencies, five city agencies, two state agencies and 10 contractors safe.
Turner is most proud of accomplishing a directive he received upon arriving in New York: Lose no more lives to terrorists. No one died working on the massive cleanup. The only accident happened when wind blew over a table that hit and broke a police officer's ankle.
Another major challenge: The firm had to come up with medical evaluations and respirator fit tests for personnel who worked on site continuously.
Everyone needed to stay healthy.
A total of 14,968 respirator fit tests were performed, along with providing site-specific safety training to more than 43,600 people, according to Phillips and Jordan.
At the landfill, the Phillips and Jordan team helped workers sifting through the debris by bringing in "picking stations." They placed material at waist level on conveyor belts, allowing workers to more easily look for human remains, personal effects and other evidence.
By the end of July 2002, Phillips and Jordan completed its part in the initial cleanup. The firm billed the government about $65 million for the work.
Then in 2006, a utility worker found more debris and human remains in a manhole near Ground Zero. That triggered new efforts to find debris in other forgotten places, and by December 2007 crews had excavated about 15,000 cubic yards that were sifted for remains and other artifacts.
Phillips and Jordan originally built a screening facility under the Brooklyn Bridge. But New York City's medical examiner asked the firm to create a mobile screening unit that could respond anywhere.
Since then, more debris has been recovered from previously inaccessible pockets under streets, inside buildings and on rooftops, and processed in the mobile screening platforms. By June 2010, the medical examiner's office recovered 1,845 potential human remains from areas in and around the World Trade Center. Among them were partial remains of 25 9/11 victims who previously hadn't been found.
Their families could finally lay them to rest.
Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.