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Thomas Kean: Behind the Sept. 11 Commission

The chairman of the Sept. 11 Commission, Tom Kean, and vice-chair Lee Hamilton have written the new book, Without Precedent: the Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission. The two write about the challenges of completing their work on the commission with little money, a tight timeline, constant wrangling to gain access to classified documents, and the necessity of forging a consensus among Republican and Democratic commissioners.




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on August 16, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 16, 2006: Interview with Tom Kean; Interview with Charles Vitchers and Bobby Gray.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Tom Kean, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, talks about
the difficulties of heading the 9/11 Commission, working with the
president, and what the US needs to do to protect its citizens

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

When the commission appointed to investigate the September 11th attacks held
its first hearing, it used rented water pitchers and a gavel borrowed from a
judge. 9/11 Commission co-chairs Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton say in a new book
that the 10-member panel was given a seemingly impossible task: sorting
through a blizzard of information about the attack in an emotionally charged
atmosphere and a bitterly fought presidential campaign. With too little time
and not enough money, surrounded by politicians who wanted them to fail and
government agencies determined to withhold information.

In July 2004, the Commission issued its report on the attack and made 41
recommendations for change. Last December, Commission members followed up
with a report card, giving the nation mediocre to failing grades on
implementing their proposals.

Tom Kean's and Lee Hamilton's new book is "Without Precedent: the Inside
Story of the 9/11 Commission." I spoke with Tom Kean earlier this week.

Well, one of your first chapters is titled "Set Up to Fail." Was this
commission set up to fail?

Mr. TOM KEAN: When I was first appointed, I thought it was. I mean, here
were five Republicans and five Democrats appointed by the most partisan people
in town, who were the majority and minority leaders in both houses, appointed
during, probably, the most contentious presidential election in the nation's
history; not given an adequate budget; and not given adequate time. And I
looked at that scenario and figured, `There's no way we're going to be
successful unless we change a number of those factors.'

So it was very, very difficult, and I really thought we were. I thought a lot
of people hadn't been for the commission, were very worried about what we'd
do, and I thought a number of people really wanted us to fail.

DAVIES: Who wanted you to fail?

Mr. KEAN: Well, there's a whole group in the House who voted against us.
They didn't want it set up. Others sort of reluctantly agreed we needed a
commission. But the real moving force were the families and certain members
of Congress--people like Senator McCain, Senator Lieberman--who really pushed
it. But a lot of the Congress were very reluctant, and I don't think--when we
first started, I thought a lot of them would not be too unhappy if we were not

DAVIES: And what about the president?

Mr. KEAN: Well, the president signed the legislation, called me when he
asked me to serve and said he would do whatever was necessary in the
administration to help us out, and so I didn't put the president--at least
when I was appointed--I didn't put the president in that category. We had
some problems now with the administration--which we can talk about later--as
we went on and a lot of tough negotiations, but when I said "set to fail," I
didn't put the president in that category.

DAVIES: You know, in this commission, you're dealing with really sensitive
things. I mean, intelligence matters and military issues that are often done
in closed-door briefings in Congress. You decided, in this Commission, to
hold public hearings. Why?

Mr. KEAN: Well, there are a number of reasons. First of all, there was
tremendous pressure from the families who wanted to be with us. They wanted
to know what we were doing so they could follow it and they could help. And
those families were an incredible group of people, and we wanted to
accommodate them in every way we could.

Secondly, we felt if we were going to be successful, we had to bring the
public along. I mean, we had to let them follow what we were doing, get
engaged as we were getting engaged, because if our recommendations--all of
which are based on things that actually happened in the plot--if people were
going to understand those recommendations, they had to follow our work on the
plot. And the only way we thought of doing that was to have public hearings.

And we were, you know, we were a very unusual commission that way. Not only
did we have public hearings, but we allowed the commissioners to go out
and--you know, we allowed the commissioners to do whatever they wanted to
do--but they went out and--we encouraged them to go out on the talk shows and
everywhere else and talk about our work so the people could find out what
we're doing and become engaged.

DAVIES: You fought all along to avoid partisanship in the Commission's work,
but you were doing this in the middle of a presidential election. And I
guess, probably the moment of the greatest polarization occurred in mid-2004
where you're hearing from some of the top policy-makers in the government in
public hearings, and then Richard Clarke, the former national security
coordination--or counterterrorism coordinator's book had come out, which made
very strong charges that the Bush administration had dropped the ball on
terrorism. This is in the middle of a presidential election campaign. And
this was a moment at which some of the hearings did, in fact, you know, have
some quite partisan statements among the commissioners. And it looked as if
it really could fly apart, and you could have a kind of Washington
partisanship take over the work. How did you undertake to keep it together?

Mr. KEAN: Well, this was probably the most difficult moment we had because
Richard Clarke, who'd been sort of the czar of terrorism under both Clinton
and Bush, testified and moved the publication of his book to the date of the
hearing, or his publisher did. And in the book, he had testified for about
five hours in private. We thought we had everything he had to say. But then,
in public testimony, he gave us some new information having to deal with Iraq,
claiming that the administration had been preoccupied way back, before the
attack on the World Trade Center, with Iraq. And that was something we'd
never heard before. Now that was, in a sense, an attack on the administration
and some of the Republicans in the Commission thought that was unfair and they
thought they had to defend the administration, or at least defend them by
their questions. And so you had some Democrats saying nice things about
Clarke and the Commission's Republicans sort of attacking his credibility,
because he had praised the president when he'd testified before Congress when
he was a member of the administration. So they had some ammunition to go
after him with.

And then Condi Rice agreed to appear. First time a national security adviser
has ever testified in public before a group like us. She agreed to appear,
she answered Clarke, and some of the Democrats felt they had to attack Condi
Rice, and the Republicans then started defending.

So we had those two hearings at which the partisanship started to surface, and
I had a number of discussions with both the Commission as a whole and private
discussions with a number of injured individual commissioners, because I'd
said to them, `Look, if we come across as partisan with Republicans and
Democrats, we're going to look like everybody else in this town, and I mean,
we're not going to have any credibility with our report. And we just got to
get back onto the facts and let's--facts aren't Republican or Democratic. We
got to find out the facts in this case, we're going to make recommendations,
and that's what we're all about. And the partisanship started to die down
after that. But we did have that moment when there was a little more
partisanship than we liked.

DAVIES: The Commission wanted to interview President Bush and Vice President
Cheney. That must've been a tricky set of negotiations. In the end, they
were interviewed together, I believe. Is that right?

Mr. KEAN: Yeah, that's correct. From the president's point of view, this
was understandable. No president has ever appeared before a commission unless
it's a criminal matter. I mean, Nixon appeared, I think, on a criminal
matter. Clinton, I think, testified on the Monica Lewinsky thing. But in a
matter of policy, an event like this, no president ever testified. Lyndon
Johnson, when he was asked to appear before the commission investigating the
Kennedy assassination, said no. He sent a letter instead. So this was
precedent-breaking. And Bush didn't want to do it, to set a precedent. And
he didn't want Cheney to do it. And we said you have to do it, because we
have to know what the president knew and when he knew it, and we have to get
his own accounts of the events of that day.

So he agreed to appear with both myself and Lee Hamilton, the chairman and
vice chairman of the Commission, which is a Congressional precedent--the
president does that from time to time. We said, `No, you should meet with the
whole Commission.' And that stopped everybody for a while, but eventually the
president decided that he would do that, but he wanted Cheney in the room. He
wanted both of them together. We said, that's fine. We had a set of
questions for the president, a set of questions for Cheney, and we had an
interview, and to the president's credit, he gave us as much time as we
wanted. At the end he said, `Are there any more questions? Anything any
commissioner wants to ask me?' So he answered everything fully and completely.

DAVIES: That said, having the two of them together, I mean, doesn't that sort
of violate one of the central sort of basic tenets of an investigation, that
you interview witnesses individually so that they can't tailor their comments
to what another might say?

Mr. KEAN: I don't think it was a problem in this case because we had a very
separate list of questions for the president and the vice president because
they weren't together that day. Remember, the president was in Air Force One,
having left Florida. Cheney was in the situation room, or rather the room in
the basement of the White House where they you go in the bunker. And they
weren't together.

So we had very separate questions for Bush and Cheney. We had a list of
questions prepared by the staff. We asked Cheney questions having to do with
what he was doing that day and when he was doing it. And then we turned to
the president and had a group of questions for him.

But I don't think it hindered us in any way, and I don't think any
commissioner felt there was anything that was unasked or any information that
we didn't get that day.

DAVIES: You know, the war in Iraq was raging as the Commission did its work
and certainly, I'm sure, kind of loomed over the proceedings throughout. What
kind of pressures did that bring to bear on the Commission?

Mr. KEAN: Well, it was just out there as a, you know, as something, as it is
today that the nation is divided about. And it was a real problem. The
question we had to answer was a--while the war in Iraq happened after the
information we were asked to research, there was one question. The question
that came up was, `Did Saddam Hussein have anything to do with 9/11? Was
there any kind of alliance between he and al-Qaeda?' And so that was something
we had to run to ground. And we sent investigators, we worked on that
question very, very hard and the answer we came up with was that, yes, there
were contacts between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein a number of times over the
years, but that, no, Saddam Hussein was not part of the plotting in any way
that caused, eventually, 9/11.

DAVIES: You know, the Commission had a complex relationship with the families
of the 9/11 victims and certainly no one had a greater stake in a thorough
investigation than they did. On the other hand, I mean, you know, there's
this view, for example, in the criminal justice system, that you don't want it
driven by victims who may be blinded by their passion for vengeance. You want
a commission that can set aside at least some of that emotion and
dispassionately review the facts. Tell us a little bit about how you saw the
role of the families in the Commission's work.

Mr. KEAN: Well, of course the families aren't monolithic. I mean, there are
all sorts of families out there with all sorts of different points of view.
We did work mostly with what was called the Family Steering Commission, which
was a group of families who represented three or four of the family
organizations. It was a very complex relationship. On the one hand, they
were enormously helpful to us whenever we hit a problem. I mean, we had
problems trying to get the deadline extended; the families were there to help
us. We had a problem getting the money needed to complete the report; the
families were there. Every time we had a problem, the families stepped there
to help us out as they're helping us out now, frankly, and still with the

DAVIES: And how did they help you out in those critical moments?

Mr. KEAN: Those families, you know, many of them have taken their grief and
decided that they're going to use the grief really to help future families and
try to make sure that this never happens again. But in the process, they
learned how to work Washington. And whether it's sitting outside a
congressman's office, whether it's picketing a home, whether it's standing
outside the White House, whether it's stopping public officials as they enter
the Capitol--whatever it was, they put the pressure on. And I'll tell you,
those families were wonderful as far as we were concerned, because they were
very hard to resist. And they were sort of the shock troops we had. When we
were five Republicans and five Democrats out there and trying to do a job, but
we didn't have lobbyists or anything else...(network technical
difficulties)...absolutely wonderful in every way in that respect.

On the other hand, they had problems with us. I mean, they didn't think we
were moving fast enough, they didn't understand a lot of the ground work that
had to be done before we could start the public hearings. They wanted more
public hearings. They wanted us to point fingers, in many cases. They felt
that people were to blame and they wanted those people sort of fired and
brought out publicly and all of that. And we didn't think our job was to
point fingers. We thought our job was to find the facts and publish the facts
for the American public and let the public make its own decisions on that

So we had a difficult relationship, but in the end, a very satisfactory
relationship because we both had the same ends.

DAVIES: My guest is Tom Kean. He's the former governor of New Jersey, and
the author, with Lee Hamilton, of the book "Without Precedent: the Inside
Story of the 9/11 Commission." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Kean. He's the former
governor of New Jersey and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. He is co-author,
with his co-chair Lee Hamilton, of the book "Without Precedent: the Inside
Story of the 9/11 Commission."

One of the most contentious episodes in the Commission's work involved its
public hearings in New York City, where you return, you know, to where the
greatest number of victims were, including, you know, rescue workers who had
fought so valiantly and so many had lost their lives, and yet you wanted to
examine the facts and, to some extent, hold officials in New York accountable
for their response to the disaster. And you wrote at some point that it
simply became impossible to be as tough as you probably should have been on
Mayor Giuliani and some of the other New York officials. Did you not do the
job you should have done there?

Mr. KEAN: Not to the extent we probably should have. It was a--what
happened was, we had two days of hearings. We realized that New York was the
epicenter of the tragedy. What we didn't realize, a year later, how raw the
emotions still were. How the room filled up with people who were booing and
cheering public officials, how the rescuers were heroes in many cases because
they had done remarkable things to try and pull those people out of the

On the other hand, the response had been slow, in some cases. Communications
had been bad. And there were other people who blamed that for the death of
their loved ones. And we asked very tough questions the first day of a number
of official fire, policemen, so on. And the headlines of the next day in the
New York papers indicated, at least in the tabloids, that we had done a
disservice because it's very hard to question public officials without, in
their minds, seeming that we were somehow demeaning the heroes.

And then, next day, we had Giuliani lead off. Giuliani, particularly when he
talks about this subject, is an entirely charismatic figure. He gave riveting
testimony of that day, and emotions that day, and all of that. And really had
us and the whole audience--people were weeping in the audience. And after it
was over, we didn't ask Giuliani tough questions. We'd gotten the answers to
the questions already because he'd already appeared in private session with
us. But in the public session--and the criticism we make in the book is not
of Mayor Giuliani. Mayor Giuliani gave us everything we asked for. We didn't
have a single thing we asked that he didn't do. But as a criticism of
ourselves, I think we were so caught up in the emotion of New York and the
emotion of that moment that in the public hearing, we probably should've asked
a little tougher questions of the man. We just didn't.

DAVIES: There's been some new criticism of Mayor Giuliani. A new book's come
out by some folks who say he made bad decisions about where he placed the
emergency management team in New York and that he'd done far too little to
update its radio communications. Do you feel there's anything there that the
Commission should've known about?

Mr. KEAN: Well we knew about all that. And I think we mention it. Yeah, it
was not, in retrospect, the wisest decision in the world, to put the
communications center down in an area which had already been attacked once,
because obviously when it was attacked again that became useless. And the
communications were not great between the police and the fire.

Having said that, though, the communications between police and fire were not
great anywhere in the country and between first responders--and still aren't.
Because the spectrum is held by radio and television. Therefore, first
responders don't have it even five years after 9/11. And we saw what happened
in Hurricane Katrina. Again, the same thing happened with 9/11: the first
responders could not communicate with each other and, in both cases, it cost
lives. But I don't blame that on Mayor Giuliani; I think that's--that's
something's that's got to be fixed by the United States Congress.

DAVIES: The Commission members' report in December seemed to get a lot of
attention for the ways that the nation wasn't ready for another attack.
Looking more broadly, has the nation responded positively to the
recommendations? How much has actually been implemented? And for those
things that still aren't done, what are the chances we're going to see action?

Mr. KEAN: Well, there are a number of things that have been done. I mean,
for instance, the Congress and the president signed the largest reorganization
of the intelligence apparatus in American history. We believe that
reorganization is going to help a lot to force the agencies to share
information and to have a much more coordinated approach to US intelligence
gathering. That's going to be helpful.

But it's taking too long, in some cases. That's in the intelligence area.
There are another number of things that are happening that are helpful,
certainly that there is, for instance, a Civil Liberties Board now which we
gave them a bad report card on because they haven't set it up yet. Now they
have set it up. We don't know how effective it's going to be, but at least
they've set it up so they would get a much higher grade on that.

The president has now said he's going to go along with the Geneva Convention,
or the United States is. We gave him a low grade on that. Now it would be a
much higher grade.

So, you now, we've moved forward on a number of the recommendations, but there
are still, glaring, a number of things we have not done. The United States
Congress has not reformed itself hardly at all. And they're the ones, for
instance, who have to monitor the US intelligence agencies and if oversight is
what congressmen have told us, dysfunctional, then it's not going to be very
effective. So the Congress itself has a lot of work to do in this area.

DAVIES: And since the Commission no longer meets as a body with this public
discourse project--that's now laid to rest--are there forces, avenues, for
continuing to push these reforms?

Mr. KEAN: Yeah, I think every member of the Commission, all 10 of us, are,
in our own way, trying to push these recommendations and continue to do so. I
think if you talk to any commissioner, you'll find out that they've probably
in the last 10 days they've spoken somewhere or they've appeared on a radio
show or a television program or given a speech or done something. There's not
a week or so that goes by that all of us don't do something. We're all
committed to this kind of thing. And what we all believe is that, before
9/11, we identified the problem as a lack of priority-setting. That it wasn't
that President Clinton and President Bush and their administrations didn't
recognize al-Qaeda and terrorism were a problem. They just didn't have it on
the top of the list. And right now, we feel, it's not this administration,
this Congress, doesn't realize it's a problem--they know it's a problem--but
it's distracted by the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, a number of other
problems that you read in the headlines every day. And we think, as
commissioners, that the defense of the American people is the most important
thing the Congress and the administration should be doing. And that should
always be the top priority.

DAVIES: Tom Kean's book with Lee Hamilton is "Without Precedent: the Inside
Story of the 9/11 Commission." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Coming up, more with Tom Kean, the chair of the 9/11 Commission. And
Bobby Gray and Charles Vitchers talk about sorting through the ruins at Ground


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. My
guest is Tom Kean, former governor of New Jersey and co-chair of the 9/11
Commission. He and Commission co-chair Lee Hamilton have a new book, "Without
Precedent: the Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission." The Commission issued
its report and 41 recommendations for reform in July 2004.

Well, Tom Kean, you and your fellow commissioners hung together for a year
after the release of your report. You formed a nonprofit corporation called
The 9/11 Public Discourse Project to see to the implementation of your
recommendations. And you issued a report in December on how well the nation
had learned the lessons--or how much better prepared the nation was to
withstand a terrorist attack--and gave some very, very tough grades. I mean,
when you look at this--on airlines, for example, on airline passenger
explosive screening, you gave a C. Checked baggage and cargo screening, a D.
Airline passenger pre-screening, an F. And they go up and down in a whole
variety of areas. Now we've just recently seen an alleged terrorist plot
uncovered in Britain. What's the state of our preparedness as you see it now?

Mr. KEAN: Well, I'd say it's better than it was in 9/11. It's still not
good enough. We made 41 recommendations. A number of those recommendations
are not yet done. I mean, you talk about screening for explosives, a few
people, if you go to the airport, you'll go through what's called a puffer
machine. And the puffer machine has been installed, you step into it and it
gets traces of explosive on your clothes or anywhere else. But that's
installed in very few airports. Very few people do that, and therefore, most
airports, you can walk on if you have traces of explosives or explosives and
they may not catch them.

The baggage screening, we've got the equipment now, we've got the technology,
but we're not using it in most airports. And that's a question of money. The
Congress has not yet appropriated the proper money to do that baggage
screening properly, so and there's a whole area of recommendations that I can
go through where we gave F's and D's in some cases, and most of those F's and
D's still stand today. Five years after 9/11, those things still haven't been
done, and we're less safe because of it.

DAVIES: What are some of the most troubling?

Mr. KEAN: Oh, I think some of the most troubling are the fact that, five
years after 9/11, we're still not taking homeland security funds and
distributing them according to need. We're still doing it basically pork
barrel. I mean, we give it equally--or almost equally to a lot of places in
the country, Wisconsin, they get more money than New York City per person. I
mean, that's crazy. We know what bin Laden says. I mean, bin Laden means
what he says. He says he wants to attack the commercial center of the United
States and its monuments. Well, without question, that's number one, New
York, and number two, Washington. And if they don't get the most money, then
the system isn't very good. And if those two areas get attacked again,
everybody in the country suffers. So to not to hand out this money where the
people in the greatest risk get most of it is crazy. That's one thing.

You mentioned a little while ago first responders, the fact they can't talk to
each other as yet in a crisis is crazy, too. I mean, why haven't we done
that? We talk about instant command systems. There should be somebody in
charge everywhere in case of an attack. That still hasn't been put into

If you want to ask me what the thing that keeps me awake most at nights is,
it's the fact of a possible terrorist with a nuclear device. And the only way
we can really stop that is to contain enriched uranium at the sites in which
it's made. Now, there are about 100 of these sites around the world. We've
got to contain it. There's a bill called Nunn-Lugar, Congress puts a certain
amount of money every year toward that, but it's going very slowly. It's
going to take about 14 years. Now, we haven't got 14 years. We've got to
contain those sites a lot faster. And I think if we made it a priority, we
could do it in two or three years. That's what we should be doing.

DAVIES: One of the problems that you've identified, and many have identified
in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks, was the inability for the CIA and the FBI
and other security agencies to share critical information. When I look at the
grades that you gave the nation just this past December, on incentives for
information sharing, D; government-wide information sharing, D. That still
isn't happening.

Mr. KEAN: It's still not happening, but to be fair, you've got to say that
it's better than it was on 9/11. And the fact we've now got a structure to
work within, that we've got Negroponte appointed. We've got somebody who's
chief of all-over intelligence at one center, that's very helpful. And he
tells me we're starting to make progress. But that's the word he uses, `We're
starting to make progress.' And five years after 11, we should be further
along than that.

It's the cultures in the intelligence agencies, whether it's a military or the
FBI or the CIA, is deeply embedded. And it's a deeply embedded culture of not
sharing. And we know that the lack of sharing of information was one of the
biggest problems in 9/11. Had the FBI and CIA shared the information they
had, there's a possibility it could've been prevented. They didn't. And if
they're still not doing it today, then it puts the nation at risk.

DAVIES: You know, as I reflect on the experience of the 9/11 Commission, I
was struck by the very last sentence of your new book. It reads, "The
opportunity of the 9/11 Commission was to respond to a brutal attack on our
democratic society with a demonstration of the value of democracy itself." I
wonder if you could just reflect for a moment on that sentence and the
experience of this investigation.

Mr. KEAN: Well, the idea that a democracy--that five Republicans and five
Democrats could get together and investigate their own government in the
largest investigation of the United States government probably in our entire
history, and could do it--at times, overcome the opposition of the Congress;
at times, overcome the opposition of the president; at times, fight through
some very difficult publicity--and come together, people who are different
parties, and work together to make sure a report is published, first of all
which actually portrays the events, and secondly, which makes 41
recommendations to make people safer, and can agree together on those things
in a bipartisan sense, you know, that, to me, is a good example. In fact, I
was visiting European Parliament last year, and they had copies of the report,
and they said, `You know, this is the kind of thing the American democracy can
do every now and then better than anybody else in the world.'

DAVIES: Well, Tom Kean, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KEAN: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Tom Kean is former governor of New Jersey and co-chair of the 9/11
Commission. His book with Commission co-chair Lee Hamilton is "Without
Precedent: the Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission."

Coming up, first-hand accounts of work at Ground Zero. This is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Charles Vitchers and Bobby Gray, both construction
workers at Ground Zero, discuss the tools and processes used to
undertake the cleanup and the emotional resonance of the job

Construction superintendent Charles Vitchers and crane operator Bobby Gray
were both on their own construction sites the morning of September 11th, 2001.
But within hours of the attack, they were at Ground Zero, using their
construction expertise to make the site safer for rescue workers, help search
for remains, and clear out rubble. Their experiences at the site are
recounted in a book, "Nine Months at Ground Zero: The Story of a Brotherhood
of Workers Who Took on a Job Like No Other," which is based on their
interviews with writer Glenn Stout.

Terry Gross spoke with Vitchers and Gray about their work at the site.


Would you describe what the pile looked like in the beginning when you first
started to participate in the deconstruction?

Mr. BOBBY GRAY: I think it's so important to describe the response. It made
you feel so good to see. It just was like this American response. Like, you
know, you sucker punched us, you know, knocked the wind out of us, you know,
but we're getting right back up again, and that's the feeling I kind of got
from it.

I'd heard estimates up to like 5,000 people on that pile. And it was every
denomination, every gender, every religious--any person that was around there
that thought they could help came down. You know, what that said, as good as
that made you feel, you had to realize that 100 yards away, there was a
100-story building in flames, and 5,000 people right next to it on a bucket
brigade. And that's how chaotic it was.

So in one sense it made you feel really good to see the response, but you also
knew that this was just so incredibly dangerous that at any given point we
could start adding casualties instead of recoveries.

GROSS: Would you describe some of the precautions you had to take when you
were actually working on the pile?

Mr. CHARLES VITCHERS: Yeah, the initial--well, the biggest problem down
there was the heat and the smoke and the dust. You didn't know where you
could go until you moved so far into the pile that the heat got so intense
that you'd be standing on a beam and realize that the smell you're smelling is
your boots are burning. The bottom of the rubber on your boots is starting to
melt. You know, we all had--it was September--we all had long jeans on, we
were kind of dressed well. I was wearing a flannel shirt. And you'd feel
your neck getting hot just from walking by some of the steel. And then you
started to look and realize that these pieces of steel that some of the guys
were trying to pull out with some of the equipment were cherry-red hot. It
was like a poker in a fireplace. That's one way I explained it. Cherry-red
pieces of steel that when you put them on the dunnage, which is wood on the
back of some of these trucks, the dunnage would catch on fire. So you'd pull
sticks out, you'd have to put them down and hold them down for three or four
hours before you could actually move them.

GROSS: You know, just--you describe in the book that even walking on the
pile, it was like walking on a suspension bridge. With each step, you could
feel something sway or give.

Mr. VITCHERS: Absolutely.

GROSS: Were you worried that there'd be a collapse in part of the pile and
someone would fall in and get seriously injured or killed?

Mr. VITCHERS: Absolutely. When we first went in to approach the slurry wall
and get onto the pile itself within the slurry wall--the slurry wall was about
70 feet deep, which was six levels of basement were there, and the debris was
collapsed in it. And it was like pick-up sticks. Try walking on pick-up
sticks of steel with two to 300,000 pounds of machines. Something moves,
you're gone. And when you walk out there with the machinery working in
proximity, it would always shake.

We got infrared aerial shots from the Army Corps of Engineers, they showed us
where the heat below was. It would be 2400 degrees, the steel we knew was
still burning hot and possibly melting. The steel was being stressed. So you
never knew what the conditions were going to be five hours later. It could be
totally safe and then all of a sudden the heat would stress and stuff would
start moving around, so we took 60, 70-ton pieces of steel that we took from
the perimeter and basically made like a bridge on top of the debris to get the
machinery up. This way, if there was a collapse down there, at least the
machine wasn't going to fall into a hole. It would drop, but it wasn't going
to fall into a void and just disappear on us.

And that was common sense things were done down there, because you couldn't
engineer this job. And, you know, there was no blueprint to work from.

GROSS: Bobby Gray, you were overseeing some of the machinery that was being
used. Give us a sense of what was being used and for what purposes.

Mr. GRAY: Being a crane operator myself, my initial thought was that I
needed to get some very heavy capacity mobile hydraulic cranes, which are
these huge cranes that come in on rubber tires and they set up fairly quickly
and they have great lifting capacities. But then, never having been on a
demolition job before, I was introduced to this machine called a grappler,
which is essentially a typically, like a backhoe that you would see on an
excavation site, where a bucket scoops in back towards the machine. But
instead of a bucket, they put an articulating tine on it, so you have three
tines on the top and two on the bottom, and they can come down and clasp, sort
of like closing your fist on a pile of sand. And I saw the operators starting
to use this machine, this grappler, and was amazed. And within a week or two
realized that the cranes, because we couldn't reach the slurry wall with the
cranes, that these grapplers were able, with their--they're a track machine,
so they were able to track up onto debris piles and were getting into places
where a crane could never get. And I soon realized that this was going to be
the machine of choice. This was the way we were going to disassemble this

GROSS: They could get where cranes couldn't because they were smaller and

Mr. GRAY: They are typically smaller, although there are some very big ones.
But their ability to displace their weight evenly because they're a track
machine--they have steel Cats--and they're much more agile as far as when
they're traveling. When they're traveling on the cats, they can get and
climb, whereas a crane, because usually has a large boom on it, can't sort of
go side to side. It gets very unstable, where these grapplers can actually
climb and walk and backtrack and just much more efficient up on the debris

GROSS: Forgive my lack of knowledge of this, but what are cats?

Mr. GRAY: Cats are the steel pads, if you will. Instead of having rubber
tires. You know, on an Army tank, you see the treads that propel the tank?

GROSS: Yes, yeah.

Mr. GRAY: Almost identical, except they're usually a little bit bigger and
heavier on the grappler.

GROSS: OK. So was the grappler operated in a certain way to preserve remains
so that you could look for remains?

Mr. GRAY: Absolutely. We--they initiated a process called a daisy chain,
and you would go in and grab a small amount of material in the tines and you
would shake it out. And the fire department had spotters. So what would
happen is, you would take some of this material out from the pile and you
would spread it out in front of the spotters, which were mostly FTNY. And
they would search through it by hand and rakes.

GROSS: Were there a lot of remains that were found on your watch? And,
Charlie Vitchers, on your watch?

Mr. VITCHERS: Yes, there--it's not comfortable to us speaking about the
remains. But to answer your question, it was a 24-7 recovery operation.
There was always recoveries going on every day. I only remember one period of
time where we went maybe a week or two weeks and really didn't get any
recoveries, and then all of a sudden you'd hit a mass of, you know, 70 people.
It was incredible. We discussed it. That opened up every conversation in the
meeting to keep people in tune with what we were doing down there.

And you have to realize to describe the site, I would describe it as
emotional, all the way through. People were just emotionally attached to
finding their brothers, their sisters. We had fathers and mothers, we had
brothers looking for their brothers, looking for their fathers, and so on. So
it was a very emotional site. And when you use machinery, the machinery was
very delicate to pick apart the steel after the ironworkers would burn a
section that was manageable. Then the grapplers would come in and lift that
section of steel, move it out of the way, get the rescue workers in there to
see if there were any recoveries. And we basically took the site down that
way. Nothing got moved once or twice or three times without getting looked at
each time before it finally found its way to the barge, which then took it to
Staten Island, where it was again looked at.

So it was very intense and foremost on everybody's mind that we weren't there
to just dismantle this job and get the steel off and start to rebuild the
site. We could've done that in a month and a half. We were there to do the
right thing and make the recoveries the right way. And that's how everybody
proceeded on the job.

GROSS: Were the remains that you saw on your watch whole bodies or limbs or
just, like, things even smaller, you know, , than limbs that you knew were
human remains?

Mr. VITCHERS: Most of the remains that were found were found by the rescue
recovery workers. You had volunteers from every nation in the world there.
Cadaver dogs were finding stuff. And we didn't really get involved with it as
construction workers. We just supplied the machinery and the manpower and the
ironworkers and the burners to take the site apart so that the recovery
workers could go in there and recover any remains they found.

As far as visceral descriptions, I can't go there, Terry, because it's just
too wide of a range and it hurts too much when you bring it back up and
people--especially family members--have to relive it.

GROSS: And Bobby Gray, do you share that discomfort in talking about the

Mr. GRAY: Yep.

GROSS: The impression I got from the book is that it almost feels
disrespectful to you to discuss it.

Mr. GRAY: It took a toll on all of us. I kind of would agree with Charlie.
It's something we tried to steer away from in the book, any kind of real
description. Only because it's so difficult for the families, first and
foremost, but also for the people that were there and had to experience it.
Someone once said that you're seeing things that God never intended you to
see, and, to me, that kind of just says it all.

DAVIES: Bobby Gray and Charles Vitchers speaking with Terry Gross. More with
them after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Bobby Gray and Charles
Vitchers. They have a new book about their time spent cleaning up Ground
Zero. When we left off, they were talking about finding remains among the

GROSS: I was surprised to read about what you didn't find, which was
virtually anything else. What didn't you find that you expected to find?

Mr. VITCHERS: Well, I figured, working in the pile and having previously
worked in the Trade Center as a carpenter and then as a foreman, for years I
fit out many floors in both of those towers through the years, and like a
refrigerator or water bottles or couches or furniture, desks. You would think
you'd find something like that. Everything was pulverized. What was amazing
is that we did find remains. I don't know how that happened. But the only
thing that was in that pile was concrete, steel, and whatever remains we could
find. And with anything else that was in the contents of those both
buildings--probably because of the friction of the collapse of the
building--was totally, totally just pulverized.

So that was kind of strange, walking through it. And then you'd turn around
and you'd find a cell phone, or you'd find an ID tag, or you'd find a
photograph, a photo album that might've been sitting on somebody's desk. And
the only way to understand how that got down into the pile without getting
crushed or getting burnt was that it floated down. You know, certain paper
flew across to Brooklyn for days after the collapse of the building. They
were finding notes from people's desks in the Trade Center in Red Hook,
Brooklyn, downtown Brooklyn. The wind just carried this stuff around. So
that was strange.

GROSS: Bobby Gray, anything that surprised you about what you did or didn't

Mr. GRAY: It surprised me that some of the glass survived, and you could
tell some of the higher floors because the glass was half as thick as the
glass on the lower floors. Typically, everything in the Trade Center, as it
got higher, the materials got lighter so that the building could withstand the
extra weight. And we did find some of the exterior glass, and you could pick
it up and hold it in your hand. You would know it was from a higher floor up
top, or close to the top. And you'd also find pieces of the glass that was
from the lower floors, you know, that was much thicker. And you just wonder
why--how did that get through that tremendous energy of floor impacting floor
after floor and the grinding and the pulverizing that went on?

GROSS: Have either of you been having any kind of health-related problems
that you connect to the nine months that you spent working at Ground Zero?

Mr. GRAY: Well, I still have a cough. It's been diagnosed as a
nonproductive cough. I guess it's a.k.a. The World Trade Center cough. And
every once in a while that seems to flare up. And the only reason I go to a
doctor's is when it starts to interrupt my sleep, so I've gone twice. I've
got to--Mount Sinai has a program for recovery workers. I've been up to that.

What is difficult is wondering every time you get the onset of a cold or
something, you know, `Is this the time bomb ticking? You know, is the fuse
lit? You know, is this cough that I have a cold or is this going to manifest
into something worse?' And that--you try and compartmentalize that and put it
someplace in the back of your mind. But every once in a while, you know,
as--a few months ago I started to get a cold and I'm sitting here wondering,
just, `Oh, my God. Is this the big one?' So you have to deal with that on a
daily basis.

GROSS: So what are you each doing now?

Mr. VITCHERS: Well, right now I'm assigned to a new building coming out of
the ground at the 15 William Street, downtown Manhattan. It's going to be a
39-story building. And we're just blasting concrete right now, getting the
foundation ready to start.

Mr. GRAY: And I'm still bouncing around Manhattan, trying to help build
skyscrapers, whether it be on a crane or as a master mechanic or whatever it
is I can do to help.

GROSS: So it sounds like you're definitely not phobic of skyscrapers after
having seen the World Trade Center collapse.

Mr. VITCHERS: Absolutely not.

Mr. GRAY: No, not at all. Not at all. One of the perks of my job is I
always get the office with the best view.

GROSS: Well, thank you very much. Both of you, thank you.

Mr. GRAY: Terry, thanks for having us.

Mr. VITCHERS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Thanks.


DAVIES: Construction superintendent Charles Vitchers and crane operator Bobby
Gray. Their experiences at the World Trade Center site are recounted in the
book "Nine Months at Ground Zero."


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

We'll close with music by pianist Bill Evans. Today would've been his 77th

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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