On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the North Tower of the World Trade Center fell, killing some fourteen hundred people, firefighters rushed to the site with blueprints and floor plans, marking locations where they believed elevators and stairwells would have collapsed with the people they carried. They were looking for survivors. Global positioning technology plotted patterns formed by the spots where bodies, or parts of bodies, were found. But days went by and only sixteen people were found in the rubble, and it soon became clear that the mapping technology would be used to locate the dead.
The fires at Ground Zero were mean and hard to extinguish; they burned long and deep, flaring when exposed to oxygen and fueled by tons of highly combustible papers and furniture soaked in jet fuel. Thermal heat maps from NASA and the United States Geological Survey showed swaths of rubble burning at temperatures above 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the melting point of aluminum. By December 3, 2001, New Scientist dubbed it “the longest-burning structural fire in history.” Officials continued to call Ground Zero a “rescue operation” — implying it was still possible to find survivors, but they couldn’t keep hope alive and at the same time submerge all sixteen acres with water and flame retardant — until the hundredth day of the fire, when the last flame was extinguished.
Rescue workers called the sixteen acres of debris on Ground Zero “the Pile.” The powdered debris in the Pile contained more than 150 compounds and elements, including plaster, talc, synthetic foam, glass, paint chips, charred wood, slag wool, two hundred thousand pounds of lead from fifty thousand computers, gold and mercury from five hundred thousand fluorescent lights, two thousand tons of asbestos, and ninety-one thousand liters of jet fuel. The nearly three thousand human beings who died made up a minuscule part of the debris. It was a site of desolation set on fire.
The first responders were firefighters and EMTs. The second responders were undocumented immigrants.
Lucero Gómez is a social worker who runs informal group therapy sessions with mostly undocumented, all-Latinx former Ground Zero cleanup workers. Lucero tells me that almost immediately after 9/11, undocumented immigrants started getting phone calls “from a very underground kind of network of people who are undocumented and need work. They called at night. They said, ‘Tomorrow there is work, come work.’” The city hired contractors — Americans, Anglo, white. The contractors hired subcontractors, many of them bilingual Latinx people with the golden ticket of American citizenship who could present themselves as friendly faces to other immigrants — “We look like you! We speak like you!” — and would make the eventual abuses unexpected. Vans drove from Queens out to Long Island, through Nassau and Suffolk Counties, up and down the immigrant enclaves, looking for day laborers to bring to Ground Zero. The workers were mostly Eastern European and Latin American. Many of the women knew the area well, having cleaned offices and apartments in Lower Manhattan for years. They knew they’d be called to dust. There was so much dust.
In 2001, Milton Vallejo had been working nights as a security guard at the World Trade Center. Milton is tall and gentle. On the morning of September 11, the day-shift guards, friends of his, came in to take over; he joked around with them for a bit, then headed to the subway. He was underground when the news hit. He couldn’t breathe. He raced home. He watched the news. He prayed to God. He had to help. It was his duty. Plus, work was work. The next day, he made his way back to the World Trade Center, now called Ground Zero. He found long lines of people waiting to enter the site. He wondered if he’d be asked to present his papers — the terrorists had been foreigners — and got out of line. An official of some kind — from where, he doesn’t remember — overseeing the line walked over and asked him why he left the line. Milton fumbled. The truth is, I’m not here legally, he said. Get back in line, she said. When it was his turn, she had him sign his name on a blank sheet of paper and compared his signature to the signature on his Colombian passport. “They made all of us sign on blank paper, then compared the signature to any ID we had. Then they let us in,” he says.
“It looked like a Western, just like a desert,” Milton says. “Everything was dust and water and there was no light anywhere.” Milton was assigned to clean basements, where he waded waist-deep through dirty water and chemicals. He tied plastic grocery bags around his ankles. The dust was the hardest to clean because it blinded him and stuck to his wet clothing. He wasn’t given goggles. The subcontractors gave him air masks, but they were flimsy and broke easily. After a few days of work, Milton started spitting out mucus. Something scratched at the back of his throat, so he had to keep clearing it. It was wet and dry at the same time. After one week, he got his first paycheck from the subcontractor: $60 a day for working a twelve-hour shift; some days were longer than twelve hours. When he tried cashing the check, it bounced.
I first met Milton at one of Lucero’s group sessions in 2011. That day, the meeting was dedicated to a discussion of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, a law that promised to provide medical treatment to 9/11 first responders, survivors, and cleanup workers.
The people at Lucero’s sessions are all sick. They carry hospital ID cards issued by Mount Sinai and Bellevue, where they are treated. Many of them have developed cancer. They have rhinitis, gastritis, arthritis, severe acid reflux, asthma, high blood pressure, and back pain. They have PTSD, anxiety, depression, and paranoia. Their psychological symptoms are triggered by the smell of barbecue, by darkness, by any news coverage of natural disasters. The group helps them in some ways, but Lucero is just one person and cannot do it alone. Meetings are irregular.