After 9/11, the bodies at Ground Zero were made heroic; the immigrant bodies that cleaned them up, less so
If money comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.
—Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1
“We have still not had a death,” he said. “A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.”
—Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
We can tell the story in an easy calculus. The South Tower of the World Trade Center once stood 1,362 feet tall. At 9:03 a.m. on the morning of September 11 2001 it was struck by a Boeing 767 flying at 590 miles an hour and burning 9,100 gallons of jet fuel. The quarter-mile long tower burned at 1,800°F until 9:59 a.m., when it collapsed, sending 500,000 tons of material to the ground at 120 miles per hour and instantly killing 600 people. The North Tower, roughly its equal in size and weight, collapsed 29 minutes later, killing some 1,400 people. Before “Ground Zero” was ever invoked as an election-season rhetorical salvo, before it was ever emblazoned on a special-edition enamel plate anywhere near an eagle, and before it inspired George W. Bush to call it, in his diary, the 21st century’s Pearl Harbor, it constituted 16 acres of a “working fire” that burned 50 meters deep, a designation that gave immediate jurisdiction of the site to the FDNY. The firemen first brought in blueprints and floor plans, rushing to locations where they believed elevators and stairwells would have collapsed with the people they carried. Next, they introduced a map that used global positioning technology to plot patterns among locations where bodies, or parts of bodies, were being found. There were few survivors in the rubble—only 11, in fact —and it soon became clear that the mapping technology would instead be used to locate the dead.
The fire was mean and hard to extinguish. It burned long and deep, flaring when exposed to oxygen and fueled by tons of highly conductive paper and furniture soaked in jet fuel. On September 16, NASA sent an airplane over Ground Zero to gather infrared data that the U.S. Geological Survey made into a thermal heat map, one that showed patches of rubble burning at temperatures above 1,292°F, hotter than the burning point of aluminum. The New Scientist dubbed it “the longest-burning structural fire in history.” Heavy rains fell all day on the 14th and on the night of the 20th, into the dawn of the 21st. A total of four million gallons of water soaked through the debris and pooled at the World Trade Center’s “bathtub,” the 60-foot deep rectangular foundation on which the towers stood. Officials worried the foundation’s weak walls could give way, causing water from the Hudson River to seep into the PATH and subway tunnels, effectively flooding the city’s underground.