Fragments of Hope

Dec. 1, 2001
The brochure reads the Screen-It screens sand and gravel, compost, bark products, topsoil, loam, stumps, brick, concrete, asphalt, gypsum, coal, slag,

The brochure reads “the Screen-It screens sand and gravel, compost, bark products, topsoil, loam, stumps, brick, concrete, asphalt, gypsum, coal, slag, log deck and many more materials.” Never intended to process personal items such as rings or credit cards, the “many more materials” now includes any tiny remain buried in the gargantuan pile of rubble from the fallen World Trade Center. Construction Equipment Co. manufactures it. Big East Equipment rents it. FBI agents and police officers at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, N.Y., use it to sift through debris from the Sept. 11 attacks.

Normally used to refine sand for golf courses, sort recyclable material or provide clean stone for concrete used in roads, buildings and houses, the Screen-It screen plant at Fresh Kills sifts out the very fine dirt, leaving evidence for detectives to label and identify. “It's a demolition we're cleaning up,” says David Zevetchin, president of Northford, Conn.-based Big East. “We're pulling out pieces of information.”

The process not only provides evidence, but also the much-needed closure for the families and friends of those lost. Eighteen workers at each of the four screen plants watch for material during 12-hour shifts. Because there was no human loss in Building No. 7, debris from it is being kept separate from the trade tower debris.

There are two plants for the tower debris and two for Building No. 7. The trade tower plants have sorted such items as a fireman's radio, a police officer's badge and human hair, while plants sorting through the Building No. 7 debris have found items the CIA had stored there such as money, guns, drugs and a password book, Zevetchin says. The latter evidence comes from pending cases that now will help the agency continue in its investigations.

Much of the material is wet after being doused in water to cool it from the lingering heat of the initial fires. Zevetchin says the soupy, muddy state of many of the items is not a problem for the screen plants. “We're still able to screen and pick off wet, damp, water-logged material,” he says.

Initially, investigators were sorting through the debris with rakes, a process Zevetchin calls the cave man approach to sorting and sifting. Ken Johnston, sales consultant with Big East, watched this on TV and realized the machines he has worked with for more than 20 years could sort through the smaller material much more quickly and efficiently. He contacted Yanuzzi, one of the companies with machines at the landfill moving debris. Johnston visited the site with an employee from Yanuzzi who had clearance and spoke to officials. Big East first had to prove the machine could perform and did so with a trial run in front of FBI, New York police and Department of Sanitation officials.

“We immediately found body parts,” Johnston says. Zevetchin adds, “They [officials] instantly hired the contractor. They didn't let us turn the machine off.

“By having these in my rental fleet, we've allowed police officers and FBI agents to sift through the material,” Zevetchin says. “We felt that we could walk on to this site and automate it so that the clean-up process could be cut down from years to months.”

Once the barges carrying the debris from Ground Zero dock, trucks transport debris to the landfill. There, excavators separate larger material and load smaller material onto the designated screen plants.

“There are machines moving constantly,” Johnston says.

The steady flow of activity has slowed somewhat since the first few weeks of the screen plants' presence, when there was already a build-up of debris. The machines and its operators have seen the flow shift from a gush to a trickle. “Right now, it's a problem of getting the material to us quickly enough,” Zevetchin says. Because police and fire departments work toward thoroughness, and the government works toward speed, Zevetchin says a constant balance exists.

Despite the back and forth maneuvering, all entities want to achieve the same thing, which is finding something small in order to provide something large. “All they [workers] want is to be able to bring some piece of evidence to the families,” Zevetchin says. “At the beginning, the screen plants were used to help build the towers, and now at the end, they're being used to sort out a fragment of hope. Now I can tell my children that what I'm doing is giving people some answers. It's very gratifying.”

“I know we're accomplishing something,” Johnston says. “It's probably the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life.”