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Profile: New York City Department of Design and Construction

New York City Department of Design and Construction was a participant or observer in the following events:

Michael Burton.Michael Burton. [Source: PBS]Following the World Trade Center collapses, a decision is made to quickly transport the remaining structural steel to scrap yards, to be shipped abroad and melted down for reuse. Consequently, virtually all of it is disposed of before investigators trying to assess why the WTC collapsed can examine it. Michael Burton and other officials at the Department of Design and Construction—the New York City agency overseeing the cleanup operation (see (September 11, 2001-May 2002))—are responsible for making this decision. Burton clears it with Richard Tomasetti of Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers, the prime consultant on the cleanup job. However, referring to the subsequent WTC investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (see August 21, 2002), Tomasetti will later admit that had he known the direction that investigations into the collapses would take, he would have taken a different stand. (Langewiesche 2002, pp. 30; Glanz and Lipton 2004, pp. 330 and 396) Authors and New York Times reporters James Glanz and Eric Lipton write that Michael Burton, “who had become the effective czar for the cleanup job, had made it clear that he cared very little about engineering subtleties like the question of why the towers first stood, then collapsed on September 11. ‘We know why they fell,’ he said. ‘Because they flew two planes into the towers.’ But he was deeply immersed in the details of hauling steel out of the debris pile.” (Glanz and Lipton 2004, pp. 299) Much of the WTC steel will be shipped to India, China, and other Asian countries for recycling (see September 12-October 2001).

Kenneth Holden.Kenneth Holden. [Source: Public domain]The New York City agency that oversees the Ground Zero cleanup operation following the 9/11 attacks is the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). (Glanz and Lipton 2004, pp. 299) This obscure 1,300-man bureaucracy is normally responsible for overseeing municipal construction contracts, such as street repairs and jails. Its two top officials are Kenneth Holden and his lieutenant, Michael Burton. (Langewiesche 2002, pp. 9) Burton is in lower Manhattan the morning of 9/11, instead of in his office in Queens, for a meeting at City Hall, just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. (Rubin 4/22/2002) That afternoon, he meets Holden and together they begin organizing the cleanup operation. By 5:30 p.m., the group of workers they have assembled gains permission to explore the WTC ruins. Under Burton’s direction, the team of “unbuilders” subsequently undertakes what journalist William Langewiesche describes as “the most aggressive possible schedule of demolition and debris removal.” Yet this appears to go against established procedures. On previous occasions the standard emergency response to natural or man-made disasters in the US, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was to rapidly nationalize efforts on the ground, under the direction of FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers. (Langewiesche 2002, pp. 66, 90, 94, 146) New York’s official emergency plans, which were written before 9/11, in fact require the Department of Sanitation to remove debris after a building collapse. A mid-level official who was involved in writing the latest plans mentions a week after 9/11 that she doesn’t even know quite what the DDC is. DDC’s only previous experiences of dealing with emergencies are a sinking EMS station in Brooklyn, caused by a water leak, and a structural failure at Yankee Stadium. According to Langewiesche, there is no specific moment when Holden and Burton are placed in charge of the Ground Zero cleanup effort. “Rather, there was a shift of power in their direction that was never quite formalized and, indeed, was unjustified by bureaucratic logic or political considerations.” Reportedly, at some point, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made a “back-room decision to scrap the organization charts, to finesse the city’s own Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and to allow the DDC to proceed.” (Langewiesche 2002, pp. 66, 88 and 118; Rubin 4/22/2002) The Ground Zero cleanup operation officially ends in May 2002. (CBS News 5/16/2002; LeDuff 5/29/2002)


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