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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Unsung Heroes

Air Date: Week of

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Americans have been awed by the courage of the fire fighters and police officers that risked, and sometimes lost their lives in the rescue effort at the World Trade Center. Now that focus is turning to cleanup, Living On Earth's Diane Toomey spoke with sanitation workers involved in that task and how they are dealing with scenes of death and devastation.


CURWOOD: We thought we'd meet some of these unsung heroes, people who, unlike the police and firefighters, are unaccustomed to dealing with the aftermath of violence and death. Living On Earth's Diane Toomey spoke with some of the people who are cleaning up lower Manhattan.

ARENAS: My name is Eddie Arenas. I'm a sanitation worker. Manhattan East 6th is my garage.

TOOMEY: Eddie Arenas has been at Ground Zero 12 hours a day, everyday, since the attack.

ARENAS: What we're doing is we're clearing up the streets around-- I'm tired. Don't mind me-- Ground Zero-- Oh, I've just had it today. I'm waiting for my supervisor to tell me "go home."

TOOMEY: The sanitation workers are armed with barrels, brooms and shovels, doing what they can to clear a path for the heavy machinery that needs to come in. Arenas says, he's seen firsthand what the force of the collapse did to the towers.

ARENAS: It all turned into, like-- I don't know. It's hard to explain. It's like dust, really. You know. I mean, look at this that's on me. That's what we're picking up, with a bunch of papers and clothing and a lot of stuff in it. You don't know what's in it.

TOOMEY: Sometimes, though, it's only too obvious what's in the debris.

ARENAS: I seen these two police officers walk out with a body bag. Normally it takes six police officers to walk out with a body bag. It just took two. So, what they're finding in there is not whole bodies. It's just body parts. And that made me cry. Because it did...I felt really bad for these people, because these people never had a chance.

TOOMEY: Arenas says he sometimes gets frustrated because he wishes he could do more.

ARENAS: It's tough. You know. You try to do-- you know. You want to get in there. You don't want to just be cleaning. You want to get in there and get-- Me, personally, I want to get in there and help, you know, and, move stuff, you know, even if it's by hand. I don't mind the hard labor.

TOOMEY: What have you been told about the need for you guys to keep working these 12-hour shifts.

ARENAS: They told us to stay strong. They'll let us know when they'll cut the force down. Because we're a small-- we only have, like, six thousand people on the sanitation, so.


ARENAS: We could use a lot more, that's for sure.

TOOMEY: There are others involved in the cleanup. Like trucking companies responsible for hauling the wreckage to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Fresh Kills was closed earlier this year, but then reopened because it was the only place in the area big enough to handle more than a million tons of debris. Whitney Trucking has dispatched its entire fleet to lower Manhattan. Christopher Uzzi is one of the company's owners.

UZZI: I'm a Vietnam Veteran, and I think I seen some war torn areas in life. This is a mess. I've been in the construction business 35 years and I haven't seen an immensity, an enormity. In fact, there's Building South, that's a pile. Building North is a pile, Building Seven, Building Five and Building Three. We're all trying to figure out how long it would take to get all this debris out. And, some people get overwhelmed. They say, eight months. Some people say, six months. That's twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week of moving trucking.

TOOMEY: So, let's talk about your last full shift, which was, what, yesterday, starting early in the morning?

UZZI: I've been on 24 hours, but, I'm fine. I'm going to be able to be relieved. I'm tired. You know, I haven't-- my wife is cooking meals and I never get home to eat them.

TOOMEY: But Uzzi says however many missed meals it takes, he wants to see this job finished.

UZZI: New York is walking on the street. And I'm a New Yorker myself. I think the quicker we clean it up, the more we get a positive outlook back to this city. It just, you know, every time you look at the debris, it seems like your mind goes blank and you just can't understand it. Or, how it was done. So, in my opinion, the quicker we clean it up, the better we look for the world, too.

TOOMEY: And the morale of your men at this point?

UZZI: I think everybody's overwhelmed when you first pull up. I think you have to take a minute to take it all in. So far, the morale is good.

TOOMEY: One of Christopher Uzzi's drivers is Salvatore Cinquemani. He and the rest of the truckers here have already made about 5,000 trips to the Fresh Kills Landfill where FBI agents comb through the wreckage for potential evidence.

CINQUEMANI: Fresh Kills is starting to look like Ground Zero. The smell there and, in the beginning, when we first started dumping there, was like propane. Like the gas they're pumping out. Now, it's starting to smell worse than that. It's starting to smell like-- like my family owns a funeral home. So, I could say it could start smelling like a morgue.

TOOMEY: When Cinquemani first came on duty, he pulled a 24-hour shift.

CINQUEMANI: I would have stayed here longer. But, I was a little bit too tired to sleep, and I just don't want to put anyone else's life into jeopardy.

TOOMEY: And when did you get on site? What was your first?

CINQUEMANI: We were down here, I believe it was Wednesday morning or the day it happened, Tuesday, Tuesday night. We were all ready to come down. I told my, my boss said, "Come on. We're going to go down there." I said, "I'm down." I said, you know, "Let's do it on the arm if we have to. Just to help people."

TOOMEY: You mean, without pay?

CINQUEMANI: I don't care. Pay or not. I would have came down here Tuesday. I would have came down here with my own shovel.

TOOMEY: Salvatore Cinquemani, Christopher Uzzi, and Eddie Arenas spoke with us near Battery Park, just a few blocks away from ground zero. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: Our stories on the cleanup at the World Trade Center complex were produced by Jennifer Chu and Jesse Wegman.




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