NEW YORK — Timmy Vassilakis is not just another hard hat.
In a city where success is so often measured vertically, this project is personal.
Vassilakis was an apprentice for a heating and air conditioning company on the 106th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He was assigned to fetch coffee for his co-workers on an idyllic morning much like Thursday.
He got out.
But when so many others vowed never to return to the chasm in Lower Manhattan, Vassilakis couldn't seem to stay away. He has been installing pipes in what will eventually be the tallest building in the nation — the Freedom Tower.
"It's taken way too long," said Vassilakis, 31, a construction worker with Jamaica, N.Y.-based Cardoza Plumbing Corp. "I think it should have been rebuilt a long time ago."
Steel work on the city's most-talked about skyscraper, which is northwest of the footprints of the old World Trade Center, currently tops out at the 78th floor, with concrete reaching 70 stories.
When the landmark is completed in another year or two, it will max out at 102 floors, capped off by a 300-foot antenna that will bring the Freedom Tower to a symbolic 1,776 feet.
"I'd go up there," said Brian Tighe, 47, a sales manager from San Jose, Calif. "It's amazing to see the progress.
"It's kind of a sign of strength to me," said Tighe, who viewed the structure from Vesey Street with his son Sean, 15, and daughter Kiera, 12. "We get knocked down, but you get back up."
But don't call it the Freedom Tower, as a tour guide from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey said several times during a visit to the site Thursday.
The Port Authority, the building's developer and owner of the land at ground zero, is a stickler for 1 World Trade Center.
A 10-minute ascent from street level leads to the building's open-air 70th floor.
"The key is, don't look outside and don't look down," said Frank Crecco, 58, a plumber from Long Island.
Veteran skywalkers aren't the least bit fazed by death-defying height, which affords a jaw-dropping view of the Empire State Building.
"It gets to a point where it doesn't matter," said Mike Kossuth, 50, a steel surveyor.
Crecco puffs on a cigarette, calling the $3.1 billion project a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "There's a lot more pride in it," Crecco said.
In the shadow of the Freedom Tower, work is also progressing on the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum. On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, family members of the victims will get priority access to the memorial, which consists of two massive reflecting pools on the footprints of the old towers. Metal plates with the victims' names were recently installed on each side of the pools, which will be fed with water by a pair of fountains.
From a park bench in the St. Paul's Chapel cemetery on Trinity Place, which is directly across from the Sept. 11 Memorial and Freedom Tower, Jim and Jane Mulholland watched the site's ongoing transformation Thursday. They were visiting from Houston. "I think we have to say to the world, 'We operated here before and we operated after,' " Jim Mulholland said.