Rebuilding the Skyline

Mike Reilly at work on the Freedom Tower.

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
October / November 2011

The heroism and sacrifices of Irish Americans on September 11, 2001 have been well documented. What has not been discussed nearly as much are the contributions Irish Americans are currently making to the long rebuilding process at the World Trade Center.


Honoring the Past

There’s Irish-born Tony Kearney, who supervises some 500 construction workers. There are ironworkers Tommy Hickey and Mike O’Reilly, both of whose fathers were also ironworkers, and who trust each other with their lives hundreds of feet above the bustling streets of Manhattan. And another superintendent named Georgie Fitzgerald, whose uncle worked on the original Twin Towers.

And there’s plumber Jimmy Walsh, whose own mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks, and who is now working on the memorial to those who perished in the attacks 10 years ago.

These Irish Americans were among the laborers, planners, supervisors and architects recently profiled in a fascinating Discovery Channel documentary called Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero. The six-part series chronicled the planning, problems and pride which have gone into building the Freedom Tower, which reached 1,000 feet tall on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

A constant theme throughout the documentary – one echoed by the Irish American ironworkers and supervisors, as well as former New York Governor George Pataki and master planner Daniel Liebskind – is that the work currently being done at the former Ground Zero honors the past but also looks forward to the future.

“We’re going to show what this nation is all about,” says supervisor Tony Kearney, who came to the U.S. from Ireland in 1985. “This nation is a nation of immigrants … a nation of people who want to succeed and persevere.”

As the documentary makes clear, the workers at the Trade Center ran into many problems over the past decade, as the memorial was planned and skyscrapers finally began to rise into the skyline. Often, the project simply seemed too daunting.

But, as plumber Jimmy Walsh, put it: “Failure was not an option here.”


“He’s Like My Brother”

In some ways, the heart and soul of the Rising documentary are ironworkers Tommy Hickey and Mike O’Reilly. They combine pride in their work with a sense of humor, not to mention an appropriate sense of awe at the fact that they are literally building history from the ground up.

“Tommy, he’s like my brother. Every thing I do affects him and everything he does affects me,” says O’Reilly.

Hickey adds: “We’ll probably see each other 20 years from now and talk about this job.”

The Irish American duo come from a long line of ironworkers, which is no

Ironworkers unions such as Local 40 and Local 361 in New York City have long had a strong Irish presence, not to mention family bonds.

“It was in my blood, it was in my family,” Tommy Hickey says about ironwork, at one point during the Discovery Channel special.

Hickey’s partner Mike O’Reilly had not initially planned to follow his father into the trade.

O’Reilly’s father was working as a connector on 7 World Trade Center when young Mike was just 11.

One day, Mike’s dad slid down a column of steel – “like we do every day,” O’Reilly notes.

But O’Reilly’s father sustained a serious injury, one that left him paralyzed from the waist down. It did not, however, rob him of his sense of humor.

“The first thing he said after he fell was: ‘Can I have a cigarette?’ And ‘Let’s get back to work.’”


Answering a “Call”

Then, on 9/11, Mike O’Reilly saw the collapse of the north and south towers and later that afternoon, the collapse of 7 World Trade Center. To go along with all the other pain and suffering brought on by the events of that day, Mike saw the tower that his father worked on crumble to the ground.

Soon, Mike quit his bartending job and discussed becoming an ironworker with his father.
“It’s been like a calling to me,” says O’Reilly. “Ever since 9/11 all I ever wanted to do was help rebuild. What else are you thinking about other than rebuilding your nation, your city?”

He now understands the passion his father, who passed away in 2007, felt for the job. He feels it too.
Ironworkers such as Hickey and O’Reilly set the pace of the World Trade Center project. They lead the charge into the sky, constructing the iron column at the center of the building – the core – as well as the floors. This is the building’s skeleton, and makes all of the other necessary work possible.

As the tenth anniversary of the attack approached, Trade Center workers were building a new floor every week, something that had never been done on a skyscraper this large and complex.

“Ironworkers, in short, set the pace. If not, a domino effect takes place. The project can only go as fast as the ironworkers go,” the Discovery Channel narrator notes.


“An Honor”

A times, the pace and scale of the Trade Center construction worried even experienced supervisors, such as concrete superintendent Georgie Fitzgerald, whose uncle worked on the original towers.

“It made you nervous about how you were going to put that together,” said Fitzgerald. But, he added: “Being given the chance to put [the Trade Center] back up is an honor.” Fitzgerald is just one of several Irish Americans in this special with a family connection to the fallen towers. None is more poignant than that of plumber Jimmy Walsh, whose mother lived on Staten Island and was an administrative assistant for Marsh & McClennan.

“We never found anything, never had a funeral or burial,” Jimmy notes. He later adds: “My family’s never been the same since.”

Walsh is now among the plumbers working on the Trade Center memorial, the centerpiece of which are two reflecting pools which occupy the footprints where the original towers stood. These pools are the largest man-made waterfalls in North America. The names of every victim of the 9/11 attacks (as well as those killed in the first attack in February 1993) will be listed on the memorial. The pools will be surrounded by an eight-acre park of trees, as well as two large steel tridents from the original towers.


Balancing Tragedy and Hope

It is easy to forget that right after the attacks, Ground Zero had a crater seven stories deep and roughly a quarter mile wide. Imagining the site as a completed memorial, or even a bustling construction site, seemed inconceivable.

“People said don’t build anything there,” noted former New York Governor George Pataki. “They said the whole thing should be a memorial.”

Master architectural planner Daniel Liebskind said he strove to create “something that would heal,” and “balance between tragedy and hope.”

Aside from the memorial, there will also be a new transportation hub at the site. The Freedom Tower, meanwhile, will ultimately rise to 105 stories tall – and a total height of 1,776 feet, once a 400-foot antenna is placed atop the building, when the project is completed in 2013.

For all of the talk about healing and hope, the designers of the new Trade Center have also taken unprecedented security measures as well. The Freedom Tower, for example, has been built on a 200-foot pedestal, 20 stories high, which makes it virtually immune to ground attacks, such as the one that took place on February 26, 1993.

Stairways will also be 50 percent wider than the old towers, are designed to keep smoke out, and will remain illuminated even if the building’s power goes out. All of these improvements are designed to facilitate escape in the case of another catastrophic incident.


Battling Wind and Snow

While there are some things you can prevent, other obstacles have inevitably arisen during the building process. Scheduling problems forced supervisors such as Tony Kearney and Georgie Fitzgerald to push their workers to speed things up. There was also the post-Christmas blizzard of 2010. In fact, the winter of 2010-2011 was particularly harsh, with five major snow storms hitting the New York area.

“You can’t work with two feet of snow up there. It’s a nightmare,” ironworker Tommy Hickey said.

Kevin Murphy, another supervisor, noted that as the building climbed higher and higher into the sky, the wind became increasingly hard to deal with. “You just can’t control the crane as well with the high winds,” said Murphy.

Then again, adversity is something many of the builders on the Trade Center site have always had to put up with. Consider Irish immigrant superintendent Tony Kearney. “I came from a broken home so I had to make my own way in life,” he notes. He calls himself “a pit bull” when it comes to his determination.

But his softer side comes out when he reflects on what all of the workers are trying to accomplish. “When I look up and I see those guys, the pride they take in their work…it’s amazing, it really is,” said Kearney. Ultimately, Kearney sees the Freedom Tower as a “temple of perseverance, a symbol of hope that whatever happens, we can overcome it.”

The Freedom Tower is scheduled to open in late 2013.


3 Responses to “Rebuilding the Skyline”

  1. Paula Gates says:

    God bless these guys for breathing life and hope back into New York. And God bless Mike O’Reilly who is the cutest thing ever — and if you ever see him, feel free to tell him! Great article.

  2. Tom Drumm says:

    I’m currently watching the Rebuilding the World Trade Center. Two outstanding figures are Mike O’Reilly & Tommy Hickey. Gentlemen, I salute you both. What you are doing for NYC, NYS, and the entire United States leaves me speechless. I wish you both had Facebook accts. I would tell you how I feel. I’ve been watching Documentaries for over 2 weeks concerning 9/11 and this is the best yet. I can’t wait to come to NYC to view all your hard work. God Bless you both and your families for putting your life in danger everyday. The Souls lost are smiling down at you both and all the people involved. God Speed to you both. Tom Drumm, Hornell, NY

  3. God Bless all the men women and families who borne this tragic burden. As an expatriate from NYC now residing in Sydney Australia I am interested in the ironworkers of Irish, Mohawk ancestry and I have been developing a proud and compelling narrative feature film.
    Love to speak with anyone who would have an interest in telling a story of these awesome and legacy building men and women.

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