A salute to the New York City Sanitation Department

George Crombie
Director of Public Works
City of Nashua, New Hampshire
Member APWA Solid Waste Management Committee

On December 18, 2001, I traveled from Boston to New York City to interview Peter Montalbano, First Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Sanitation, to discuss the heroic efforts of the New York sanitation workers in cleaning up the City after the horrific events of September 11.

The New York City Sanitation Department was then headed up by Commissioner Kevin P. Farrell and is one of the largest sanitation departments in the world. Over a 116-year history, the department and its 10,000 employees have provided street cleaning and disposal for 7.5 million inhabitants, disposing of 13,000 tons of refuse on a daily basis. Despite this long history, the events of September 11 and days following would forever fortify the harrowing efforts of the NY Sanitation Department.

The following are excerpts of my conversation with First Deputy Commissioner Montalbano describing the events surrounding September 11.

What do you remember about September 11?

I was sitting in my office just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center when I heard an explosion. My first thoughts were that construction workers down the street had broken a gas line. Within minutes staff began to peer out the windows and saw the smoke billowing from one of the World Trade Center towers. Beyond conceivable thought a second plane hit the second tower, and within what seemed the speed of light, the twin towers one by one collapsed taking out our phones and radio system. With the second collapse, the area became surreal. For countless blocks, the dust and debris settled on streets and buildings like a new fallen gray snow.

What were some of the key decisions made after those shocking first hours?

We knew we were going to have to play a major role in the cleanup, but didn't know the timing due to all the uncertainty. Our planning efforts began at once. We needed to relocate our offices to a central command where we could coordinate staff and equipment. The location we chose was the Motor Equipment Repair Facility on 58th Street in Queens. The 58th Street Motor Equipment Facility allowed for an area to plan operations and to move equipment and Sanitation Workers to Ground Zero in from around the City. Three major areas that we knew we would be involved in were street cleaning, collection, and disposal.

How did you approach the thought of having to dispose of thousands of tons of debris?

The likely candidate was the Fresh Kills Landfill. Although the facility had been closed, the operating permit was good through December 31, 2001. Under the leadership of New York State Governor George Pataki, and then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island was reopened solely to accept the wreckage from the World Trade Center. During the coming year it is estimated that over 1.5 million tons of construction debris will be disposed at this site. The guidance of Marty Bellew, Director, Bureau of Waste Disposal and Mike Mucci, Director of the Fresh Kills Landfill, would prove invaluable to the many government agencies, contractors, and law enforcement personnel involved in the disposal operations.

How did you approach the task of moving over a million tons of debris out of Manhattan in that the Fresh Kills Landfill was separated by water?

After consideration we decided the best way to remove materials was to set up transfer locations as close to Ground Zero as possible. We were fortunate to have two marine transfer stations that had been previously closed located at 59th Street on Manhattan's west side and a site in Brooklyn adjacent to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. These two facilities were re-opened and up and functioning within twenty-four hours. These transfer stations not only provided a location for the New York City Sanitation Department to dump, but were used by the four major contractors Tully, AMEC, Turner, and Bovis who had divided the World Trade Center into four quadrants to begin the painstaking task of removing these massive structures.

How did you clean all the dust and debris from the streets?

We decided that we were going to meet two goals. The first was that we were going to clean up the area surrounding Ground Zero in lower Manhattan just as fast as humanly possible and maintain our regular cleaning and collection schedules in the rest of the City. I am proud to report that we did both. The cleanup of the thousands of tons of debris on the streets was a daunting task. We divided the area from the Hudson River to the East River from Canal Street to the Battery into twenty-seven sectors. Over 800 sanitation workers, chiefs, supervisors, and superintendents from across the City were brought in to work in teams covering each sector working rotating twelve-hour shifts. Major equipment used included short-hoses, flushing trucks, street sweepers, fuel trucks, refuse trucks and open body dump trucks and front-end loaders. Trucks with sand spreaders were used as barricades around the cleanup blocks. Block by block, New York City sanitation workers wearing protective clothing, i.e., face masks, eye protection, and gloves, and facing the risk of further building collapses, began hosing down the buildings, loading debris, sweeping and flushing the streets, and bringing the City back to life. Obstacles faced during the cleanup effort included working with utility companies restoring communication, air monitoring, and the never-ending danger of another building collapse.

What type of advice would you like to share with public works officials who may be faced with such a catastrophic event in the future?

  1. Have a backup communication system in place. In a catastrophic event, phone communication and radio stations may go out. Think about possible satellite communication.

  2. A secure and viable landfill site is a must. You are going to need an area to take the debris for examination and evidence retrieval.

  3. Disaster situations involve a tremendous amount of continuous coordination with other agencies. Decisions need to be made quickly. Therefore, an agency such as the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is needed to coordinate the operations of all agencies at the scene. You need to make sure that the individuals who represent you at OEM are "street smart," know your operations, and can make decisions.

  4. Communities really need to know how state and federal monies are allocated to a city or town. Each community should have at least one expert who understands how the system works to facilitate your area's cleanup efforts.

  5. Know a lot about both private and public resources in your region and how to go about securing them in a time of crisis. There should be a streamlined procurement process in place.

  6. Have access to a portable fuel system such as gas trucks that can service equipment on the go.

  7. There is no manual or guide that will take the place of a well-seasoned management team and staff who have an impeccable understanding of their operations.

  8. We have entered into a new age where we need to be diligent, have a clear understanding of our surroundings, and have disaster plans in place.
To date, over 700,000 tons, nearly half of the estimated materials, have been removed from Ground Zero and the blocks surrounding the site. It won't be until late this year that the cleanup effort is complete. I wasn't sure how I would react when I arrived in New York. Before leaving New York City I toured Ground Zero and the adjacent blocks. To say the least, my experience left me with great pride in being an American. The New York City Sanitation Department and its employees have done a remarkable job in bringing new life into the City. The streets and sidewalks were spotless and you could hear and see the flushing trucks and sweepers at work. The streets were filled with police officers, firefighters, utility workers, public works employees, and children with teachers explaining the significance of September 11 each in their own special way.

There have been thousands of letters sent from children across the country who have rallied around New York City. My favorites were: "When the rain stops, the sun comes out"; "American ends with I Can"; "Dear Workers, be careful. Thank you for saving people and cleaning. I saw the plane crash in the World Trade Center. You are doing a great job and are safe. Sincerely, Gary"; and "It is our great pleasure to send these 356 pairs of work gloves. The students of Pine View School, Sarasota, Florida wish to express their sincere thanks and appreciation to you and your department for your courage and hard work, signed, A fellow American, Holly Waggoner."

The New York City Sanitation Department is a wonderful organization. Not only did they do a remarkable job in cleaning up the City under tremendous adversity, their employees donated money to the victims of September 11 and they collected hundreds of Christmas presents to give to needy children.

The American Public Works Association and all of its members from across North America salute the New York City Sanitation Department for setting the standard in making us proud of our profession.

Special thanks go to Kathy Dawkins, Director of Public Information, New York City Sanitation Department and John Pampolone, Assistant Director of Public Information, who authored the photos.

To reach George Crombie, call (603) 589-3140 or send e-mail to CrombieG@NashuaNH.org.