In a dinner seminar at the 500 Blake Street Cafe, Paul Burton discussed the difficulties of his role as the Executive Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Design and Construction at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
He explained to about 40 members of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Connecticut why engineers, although accustomed to planning their work carefully and deliberately, must have the knowledge and preparation to make quick decisions in the face of unexpected emergencies.
As the head of the entire cleanup process of the World Trade Center site, Burton managed the contracting of more than 1,300 separate projects — a total of more than $4 billion — related to clearing away 16 acres of rubble in lower Manhattan. He said about 100 contractors and consultants lived with each other for months in the only building available to them: a damaged high-rise.
Burton said his experience with the World Trade Center cleanup taught him a great deal about the value and necessity of teamwork. “If you put a bunch of smart people together driven by a common goal, together they can do anything they want to,” Burton said.
He said managing the cleanup of the site was literally a 24-hour-a-day process. Within 12 hours of the collapse of the towers, engineers inspected over 450 buildings surrounding the site for damage. They constantly monitored a handful of adjacent buildings in danger of collapsing — in particular Liberty Plaza. In cooperation with the New York City Police Department, Burton’s team created a secure perimeter extending more than a mile from the cleanup site. In the first week alone, the city of New York spent $40 million.
Burton said it became necessary to design a management system to efficiently delegate work to the thousands of government officials, construction workers and investigators involved in the cleanup. In such a dangerous atmosphere, there was no time for every person to consult with authorities. He said workers communicated openly among themselves and made many of their own decisions.
Seminar guests said they were moved and inspired by Burton’s presentation.
“It was very promising and enthusiastic to hear Burton’s stories of teamwork and decisions under pressure,” Craig Archacki, a structural engineer at Girard and Co. in Rocky Hill, Conn., said. “Any engineer can apply Burton’s lessons to his work.”
Burton said he had never before managed a project that so deeply affected the emotions of workers. He said putting workers on 12-hour shifts and speaking openly helped to harness their emotions for “a positive purpose.”
“I saw everyone from businessmen to rough-looking construction workers break down and cry,” Burton said.
While Burton was greatly involved with “turning New York back to the New Yorkers” as quickly as possible, he said safety was always his department’s primary concern.
“Saving lives was our absolute priority,” Burton said.
Laura Champion, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Connecticut, said Burton was invited to speak at the event because of his unique contributions to the field.
“[Burton] makes us all very proud to be consulting engineers when we hear these stories of teamwork and saving lives,” she said.
The entire cleanup of the World Trade Center site was projected to last 16 months and cost $1.2 billion. Under Burton’s leadership it cost $600 million and took nine months.