Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, not one project has been finished at the World Trade Center site. This Sunday on CBS, 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley took a trip to the seven-story pit.
“I describe it as a national disgrace.” Larry Silverstein, the 78-year-old New York City real-estate tycoon, shook his head slowly as we stood over the muddy pit known around the world as ground zero. It took three cameramen from 60 Minutes to photograph the expanse of the 16-acre hole that was once the basement of the World Trade Center. True, some construction had begun, but as I stood there with Silverstein looking at rainwater pooling down below, I thought, “Nobody’s gonna believe this.”
According to the plans announced with fanfare seven years ago, Silverstein and I should have been craning our necks at five skyscrapers, including America’s tallest tower. We should have been jostled by commuters surging in and out of a spectacular, $2 billion train station. And, all around us, there should have been a gentle, cascading sound from the 9/11 memorial, two waterfalls laid out in the footprints of the Twin Towers, a whispering reminder of 2,752 people murdered here.
But as we stood near the center of the seven-story pit, none of that was here. Nearly nine years after the attack on Manhattan, not one project was finished. Silverstein, who wears ship propeller cuff links that symbolize his affection for his massive yacht, was supposed to have built those five skyscrapers himself. He ended up with the job after what may be the worst timing in the history of commercial real estate: He signed a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center just six weeks before 9/11. Now he stood over the hole in the heart of Manhattan and spoke in his clipped Brooklyn accent, as though he was revealing a dark, national secret, “It’s hard to contemplate the amount of time that’s gone by here, the tragic waste of time and what could have been instead of what is today.”
This story began as so many stories do at 60 Minutes, with a simple question. Walking through the office one day last fall, I asked one of our producers, Shawn Efran, “Hey, what ever happened to ground zero?” It seemed to me a lot should have been finished downtown, but I wasn’t hearing anything about it. Shawn and I had been among the many 60 Minutes people who had raced downtown after the first 767 struck in 2001. Most everyone who witnessed the calamity will tell you it’s never far from their minds, even now.
The morning of 9/11, the Twin Towers were still standing but mortally wounded. I left our 60 Minutes offices on the West Side and jumped into a cab. “World Trade Center,” I said. “ Ya nev’a gonna get there,” the driver replied without looking back. Sure enough, after a couple of miles down the West Side Highway, the cops turned the cab around. I bailed out and started running along the Hudson River, trying to reach the scene. I pushed through what seemed like tens of thousands of Manhattan office workers, walking up all six lanes of the highway. They looked like refugees from combat, which, of course, they were. As I came into the neighborhood of the World Trade Center, I started to trip over and kick something scattered all over the road. They were women’s high heels, hundreds of them, abandoned in the panic. I raised my eyes from the Blahniks and Ferragamos to the burning facade of architect Minoru Yamasaki’s Tower Number One. My first sense was relief. The tower hadn’t fallen. But just then, the building’s television mast that reached to 1,727 feet appeared to sway, which struck me as incredibly odd. Amazing how you won’t believe what’s happening right in front of you when your mind is unequipped for the truth. I decided the sway was an illusion created by the heat of the fire but, just as I fabricated that reassuring thought, the top floors began to pancake. People say catastrophes appear to unfold in slow motion. I promise you, it’s true. To my eye, the 110th floor fell on 109, which fell on 108. Bang, stop, bang, stop, bang, stop. I told myself it would quit—10 or 15 stories—but as the roar shook the air and the collapse picked up speed, I surrendered to what was happening. I dropped to both knees and prayed to God to take the souls without pain. It was the only thing left to hope for.
A hurricane of ghastly gray powder shot through the canyons of downtown and covered everything: survivors, flattened fire trucks, and taxis that were now just 18 inches tall.
Then, silence. Like the first big snow of winter.
The powder blew and drifted. It struck me there was nothing left that was recognizable. How many thousands of computers had there been, office chairs, desks, filing cabinets, doors, telephones? Where were the people? All had been cremated by the titanic force of the collapse. The only thing that survived (and that rained down for more than an hour) was paper. There were stock trade receipts, appointment calendars, photos of a family on a ski vacation. Paper, ashes, and silence.
At the end of that day, standing by the flaming neo-Gothic arches that formed the base of the towers, I knew two things were true: The United States would have Osama bin Laden in a cage, and ground zero would be rebuilt into a soaring statement of American spirit.
Now standing with Silverstein on the edge of the pit, an old thought came back to me, “Amazing how you won’t believe what’s happening when your mind is unequipped for the truth.”
The Master Plan
A year and a half after the attack, another architect would have a clear canvas in Lower Manhattan. After a global competition, Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind unveiled his master plan for the rebirth of ground zero. People would argue about the design but not the ambition: five skyscrapers, one reaching 1,776 feet, a memorial, a performing-arts hall, a museum, and a transit hub. As the strobe lights of news cameras shot like lightning over the buildings of Libeskind’s scale model, no one knew this dramatic announcement would be the first in a series of meaningless unveilings. Instead of a construction site, ground zero became a stage for politicians to announce futile ground-breakings, mere illusions of progress. By the 10th anniversary, next year, $7 billion will have been spent and not one project finished.
When you ask for specifics about completion dates, he says things like, “What I can tell you is that downtown will come back.”
“For me this is a dream job. This was the job that I always wanted.” Standing in the pit, Chris Ward would have you believe he’s the luckiest construction manager in the world. I felt I had to remind Ward that he was one in a series of executive directors of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to take on ground zero. “Come on,” I said, “This ate up three executive directors before you. Now you’re No. 4.”
“I’m No. 4. Well, you know, fortune favors the daring.”
The Port Authority is the behemoth of a bureaucracy that builds bridges, tunnels, seaports, and airports around New York and New Jersey. “The Port,” as it’s known, built the World Trade Center in the 1970s and still controls the land. It was up to the port to make the ground zero site ready for Silverstein’s construction projects. But the port is years behind schedule and billions over budget.
Under his white hard hat, Ward has the rounded, heavyset features common to the New York and Jersey construction workers swarming over the pit today. Ward has a background overseeing big projects and I couldn’t help but notice on his résumé that he has a degree from the Harvard Divinity School. “Can’t hurt,” I thought, on a project as bedeviling as this.
Ward was hired to head the Port Authority a year and a half ago, specifically to get ground zero off the ground. As he walked me, two producers from 60 Minutes, and three camera crews through the project, he wanted to emphasize how hard a job this is. All the building projects are interconnected in the basement. A delay in one place can hold up the whole works. He has two active rail lines to work around. And one relic of 9/11, the Deutsche Bank building, remains an abandoned hulk that’s holding up much of the project. The building’s demolition has been held up by a fire, lawsuits, and asbestos abatement. Ward told me, “This is one of the great construction feats of all time, the most complex site in the whole world.”
Ward sounds optimistic, but there are a thousand things in this complex job that threaten to upend his newly drawn schedules and budgets. When you ask for specifics about completion dates, he says things like, “What I can tell you is that downtown will come back.” I felt for the guy. Incompetent bureaucrats and feckless politicians had left him with this mess. So much more can and will go wrong.
Construction has begun on the memorial and on two skyscrapers at ground zero. The steel is now rising above the pit on one of Silverstein’s office buildings and on the 1,776-foot skyscraper that will be the signature tower on the site. But the master plan is history. For the most part, no one can say with certainty what will be built at ground zero or when.
As we wrapped up the filming in the pit and the crews were putting away their gear, I thought ground zero had been victimized again, this time by a lack of leadership. Since 9/11, there have been three governors of New York, four directors of the Port Authority, and no one to see the project through.
Scott Pelley is a 60 Minutes correspondent.