November 15, 2001
Below Rubble, a Tour of a Still-Burning Hell
By JAMES GLANZ
The descent beneath the World Trade Center is a passage into a grotesque landscape of stalagmites formed by dripping metal, entire office floors compressed into a space of
six inches, and train cars smashed all the way down to the tracks by collapsed concrete
The trade center's basement was once a six-level shopping center, parking ramp and
underground train terminal spreading over more than two million square feet. Now it has
become a place where the horror of the aboveground devastation is amplified by the gloom
of the debris-strewn, claustrophobic space a hazy darkness pierced only by flashlights
and an occasional crater that lets dim sunlight filter through from above.
Yesterday, a rare journey to the bottom of the trade center's basement revealed a few
places with only superficial damage, like the Commuter's Cafe, five levels below the trade
center's plaza, where dust-encrusted bottles of liquor still sit on the shelves.
But most of the basement has become an underground quagmire where muddy pools of
water, cinder blocks, travertine facing from collapsed walls and half-melted ventilation
ducts spread crazily over floors that end suddenly, at sheer drops into the darkness.
The confined air is acrid because of the fine dust that is everywhere and the fires that
continue to burn deep in the debris. "It's still cooking," said Thomas O'Connor, who manages the
construction and engineering work at the site for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the
buildings and arranged for the tour through the basement.
In the days after the collapse of the towers two months ago, the tangled steel was still so
hot that it glowed like charcoal briquets in the unlighted basement, Mr. O'Connor said,
adding, "For seven weeks it was surreal down here."
Now, it has become the unreal city of T. S. Eliot's "Waste Land," a place where dread lurks
in the shadows and terrible things emerge by gleam of light. Even so, it is a city that
construction crews removing the debris have come to understand, and as they continue
clearing the site for now, using grapplers, cranes and wrecking balls aboveground they
believe the site is structurally stable as the work continues. In particular, the submerged wall, nicknamed the bathtub, that holds back the waters of
the Hudson River seems to be sound.
The trip which felt more like spelunking through caves or archaeological ruins than
touring an urban structure began at the opening of a downward-sloping truck ramp on
Barclay Street, one block north of the trade center site, where all freight was once
delivered to the trade center. Beginning at the site's northern boundary at the western
edge of the L- shaped 5 World Trade Center, which burned but did not collapse the trip
was constrained by several elements of the smashed topography created by the collapse of
the twin towers.
To the west, a giant hole punched through the middle of the United States Custom House
by falling debris from the north tower continues to the bottom of the basement. Steel
beams dangle from the edges of the hole like ragged tapestry and form a wildly chaotic pile
in the center. To the southwest is packed debris from the north tower itself, and to the
south, many basement floors have been crushed by debris hurled from the south tower.
As solemn as it is, the passage below is not just a study in destruction. As respirators
dangled from the necks of everyone else in the small group, John O'Connell, a rescue
worker with the Fire Department, smoked a big cigar. "It's my respirator, it's my oxygen indicator and it's my explosion indicator," Mr. O'Connell
said. "The only problem, the explosion indicator, it works only once."
After a walk southward down the truck ramps and a dogleg right, to the west, the dancing
flashlights illuminate the edge of the debris that fell nearly straight down through the north
tower and collected down here. At first the mind simply refuses to accept what the eyes see
the recognizable traces of 20 floors, much like geologic strata, over a 10-foot vertical
span. In one place, the steel decks of half a dozen floors protrude like tattered wallpaper, almost
touching where they are bent downward at the edge. "You're looking at roughly 60 feet of
the building, smashed into about 3 feet," Mr. O'Connell said.
A three-foot stalagmite of steel, which looks for all the world like a drip candle, sits next to
one of the immense steel columns that held up the north face of the tower.
The column, two feet across, has a sort of compound fracture the top has been pushed a
foot south of the piece it is resting on.
Down two more floors to the mezzanine, and the Commuter's Cafe seems to wait for
customers next to dozens of turnstiles and a partly smashed bank of escalators leading
down to the PATH station.
"Hey, Eddie, why don't you go sit on your regular stool?" someone yells in the darkness.
A few feet south of the cafe, the floor abruptly ends, as if something has bitten it off, but a
stairway near the escalators leads down to the train station, at the bottom of the
Among the sodden chaos of fallen steel and cracked walls, the ceiling slopes downward on
the south end of the platform at about a 20-degree angle and ultimately meets the train
tracks. Half a train car emerges from the nothingness between floor and ceiling and connects to a
string of four more cars to the north.
No one was killed here. But signs of a hasty evacuation are all around. An unopened
eight-ounce can of Arizona Iced Tea sits upright on a bench at the center of the platform a
few feet from the crushed car.
Near a tear where the steel-reinforced guts are spilling out of the slumping ceiling, Ed
Smith, a Port Authority policeman, says mournfully: "I poured that concrete out of high
On the way back up, the mottled and apparently charred wall of the bathtub appears in a
few places. Construction crews are working to preserve the wall so that it can encircle any
new buildings that rise at the site, as it did the trade towers, keeping out the waters of the
"From the fire and whatever else happened, it's been through hell," said Frank Lombardi,
chief engineer at the Port Authority, pointing to part of the bathtub wall.
But so far, he says, the wall is entirely stable.
Like miners, the group emerges into the light at the freight entrance. Mr. O'Connell is still
smoking his cigar.