Working-Class Heroes


Questions that linger: Were the hijackers peering through the cockpit window as they swept toward their Lower Manhattan targets? In the final instant before collision, was it possible for them to discern human faces in the building ahead? Unlikely. Nor is it likely that they knew that the representatives of the Great Satan they were about to crush were mostly working stiffs, many of them union members.

New York still awaits a final census of the dead and missing from the World Trade Center, but tallies so far indicate that most victims were people whose only offense was getting to work on time.

Even at the large investment firms that registered the most staggering losses, the casualties were members of a largely white-collar regiment: computer technicians, data analysts, secretaries, systems engineers, and commodities clerks, as well as brokers and traders.

At least 1000 of the victims belonged to labor unions. Among them were the firefighters, city and Port Authority police, and emergency medical technicians lost in the rescue efforts. Others were the kidnapped pilots and flight attendants. Union members also worked throughout the towers. At Windows on the World, the swank restaurant atop One World Trade Center, as many as 79 members of Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union perished. Twenty floors below them, at least 39 members of Public Employees Federation, most of them workers at the Department of Taxation and Finance on the 86th and 87th floors of the south tower, are missing.

Some 27 maintenance workers, members of Local 32B-J of the Service Employees International Union, are missing, according to union spokesman Bill Meyerson. “They were window cleaners, security officers, elevator starters,” said Meyerson.

In addition, at least 50 members of the building trades were killed, union officials estimate. About 17 of them were carpenters assembling office partitions, another 15 were electricians, five were painters, and four were laborers.

“The World Trade Center has always been a major employer,” said Steve McInnis of the New York District Council of Carpenters.

In a harbinger of the rescue efforts their fellow members would make later that day, union officials believe some tradesmen died trying to help after the attack.

“We know of one person who was working in the complex on elevator construction, who went in to help when he heard the elevators were plunging,” said Paul Fernandes of the New York City Building Trades Council. “He hasn’t been heard from since.”

Questions also linger about the final moments in the life of Billy Cashman, a union member who died in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in western Pennsylvania after passengers fought hijackers for control of the plane.

“We have to believe Bill was very much involved in that fight,” said Bob Ledwith, business manager of Metal Lathers Local 46 of the ironworkers union.

There were plenty of reasons to think so. Cashman was a teacher in the local’s welding school, a soft-spoken man who refrained from cursing and “never said a bad word about anyone,” according to Ledwith. Cashman was also a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division and held a red belt in karate. “He kept himself in great shape,” said Ledwith. “He was 60 years old with the physique of a man half his age. He was raised on the West Side of Manhattan, Hell’s Kitchen, and he still had the streets in him.”

Cashman was aboard the flight because he was on his way to an annual hiking trip in Yosemite National Park. “It’s certain that plane was headed for a target, the Capitol or somewheres,” said Ledwith. “And we just know that Bill would’ve done something. I told the members, people sometimes wonder why in the union movement we call each other ‘brother’ a lot. It’s because we have this bond. And Bill exemplified it.”

If Bill Cashman made his union proud in the desperate but anonymous battle aboard Flight 93, his fellow building trades members did the same in the wake of the attack.

Moments after the first dark smoke began rising from the north tower, construction workers all over the city began heading for the Trade Center. At 76th Street and Third Avenue, several dozen hard hats boarded a city bus and made the driver take them downtown. Others commandeered contractors’ vans.

In downtown Brooklyn, where three new high-rises are going up, workers, their toolbelts flapping, ran across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The new AOL Time Warner tower on Columbus Circle was stripped of workers within minutes of the first attack. “Every job in Manhattan and most in Brooklyn were pretty much shut down by 10 a.m.,” said Fernandes, who rode to the site in one of two truckloads of steamfitters.

At the carpenters union headquarters on Hudson Street, more than 300 members assembled at the union’s apprentice school early Wednesday morning. “We unloaded every pair of gloves we had, gave them goggles, hard hats, whatever we could find,” said McInnis. “Then they marched straight down to the site. Their pass was their union card and their hard hat; they didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Several thousand hard hats worked at the center for the next week. Those who could operate acetylene torches—ironworkers, demolition laborers, millwrights, carpenters—did so. Others dug or operated heavy machinery. Construction workers are notorious for jealously guarding their own jurisdictions: Steamfitters aren’t supposed to hit nails; carpenters don’t touch wiring. Those rules were ignored during the gritty excavation work.

On Day Two, a volunteer trying to bring food and water to rescuers pointed to a small backhoe, calling out: “Whose machine is that?” A member of Carpenters Local 1456, whose jurisdiction is limited to building docks, answered, “I don’t know but if you need it, I can run it.” He jumped in the cab and began clearing a path through the dust and debris.

Nobody was paid that first week. Meanwhile, paying jobs at construction worksites elsewhere in the city sat abandoned as workers refused to leave the rescue effort. Finally, in an effort to get the city going again, Building Trades leader Ed Malloy sent out a written plea for his members to return to work.

Terror, by definition, recognizes no innocents; its power flows from the fear it engenders with random casualties, by proving the frightening vulnerability of everyday targets. That lesson was clearly received. But it was just as effectively refuted with every shovelful lifted from the pile.