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Crane operator finds self among trade center's lost

She returned there on a sweltering summer day, to the place that some people had called hell and some people had called hallowed ground but that she had simply come to think of as the place where she had discovered her own lost soul.

"There," she said, "is where I found my first body."

"And there," she said, "is where I was first assigned to work with my crane."

"Oh, and right over there," she said, pointing, "that's where a steel beam almost fell on me."

It had been almost two months since the official end of cleanup at ground zero, the vast crater that had once been the World Trade Center, and Pia Hofmann was returning to the site for the first time. One of the nearly 3,000 union construction workers who labored for eight months in the funereal wreckage of the worst terrorist attack in American history,

Hofmann carried a battered white hardhat under one arm. She wore a pair of dusty work boots that still haunted her because "God knows how many people's ashes once covered them."

Unlike so many of the people crowded onto a fenced-off viewing platform outside ground zero, she did not cry.

Friends and family had worried that returning to ground zero would be hard on Hofmann. But it wasn't, and as the 43-year-old crane operator revisited the site one July afternoon, she found herself admitting a simple and unlikely truth:

"I miss this place. I can't help it. I do."

Hofmann was far from alone in her feelings. Hundreds of construction workers all over New York were saying the same thing. Like Hofmann, they were attempting to return to lives interrupted, and for many of them--those who were seeking counseling for depression, alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorders--the transition was not going well.

In some ways, Hofmann's story is unique: She was born in Germany and had come to New York three decades ago with little more than some big American dreams. She had started out as a dress designer and ended up astride a 100-ton crane. She had been virtually the only woman operating a big rig at the site and had been just one of 12 people chosen to carry out the final, flag-draped stretcher during the nationally televised closing ceremony.

In other ways Hofmann's story is typical of so many other ground zero construction workers: She loved New York and wanted to do her part to clean it up. She felt like each small dent she made in the rubble gave her a bit more control in a new and uncertain world. And although she never could have anticipated it, her capacity to run the machinery needed to clean up some 1.8 million tons of tangled debris had landed her in the first place she had ever felt an all-consuming sense of purpose, belonging and even peace.

"I can't imagine that any of us will ever be the same as we were before," she said, looking around the nearly empty site. "And who knows? Maybe that's for the best."

The ones who are honest admit it readily: Ground zero was a drug. It got in the blood and messed with the mind. It drew you back, even when you quietly began to wonder if it would tear you apart.

Almost immediately, the 16-acre field of debris became a world unto itself, with its own social structure, rules and rhythm. Its army of workers--who had universally dubbed ground zero "The Pile"--came to know the site the way expert mountain climbers know a peak they have scaled 100 times. The workers learned its crevices and its unstable pockets and the places where so many victims had been pulled from the steel that the priests gathered there even before being summoned.

The stench of death

They learned the things the rest of America didn't have to: That you smelled the bodies before you saw them; that the firefighters in their flame-retardant gear were most likely to be discovered in one identifiable piece.

"The place became my life," Hofmann would say later. "I wouldn't take a day off because to me that place was normal, and the rest of the world--where people were laughing, eating, having babies--was abnormal."

The workers' hours were brutal. Seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Unlike the much-heralded police officers and firefighters, most of whom were rotated in and out of ground zero every few weeks to keep them from burning out, construction workers who hadn't taken a day off in five months were the rule, not the exception.

Family men who had never missed a son's football game missed the whole season; husbands who had never spent a night away from their wives moved into donated Manhattan hotel rooms and apartments.

"It was an honor," said Vinnie Medaglia, one of Hofmann's earliest ground zero friends. "There we all were, right in the center of it, cleaning up America's mess for her. As bad as things were, that made you feel good."

The average ground zero worker was male and from an outer borough like Brooklyn or Queens. He had a thick New York accent and a grandfather, father or at least a few cousins who had carried a construction union card. Compared to these guys, Hofmann was relatively new to the rough-talking, tight-knit scene.

A mother of two, Hofmann had only recently gotten her B-class license, a slip of paper that said there wasn't a crane manufactured she couldn't run. The accomplishment was so rare for a woman that when it was announced at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 14 monthly meeting shortly before Sept. 11, some 300 men spontaneously stood up and gave their union sister a several-minute ovation.

Drastic change of career

Hofmann, who had been a designer of high-end formal gowns and a stay-at-home mom, went into construction after a divorce left her without a steady income or health insurance.

Obsessively competitive, Hofmann liked the idea of operating a crane because crane operators were considered top dogs on any construction site. It wasn't uncommon to find operators who had $500,000 houses, heated, two-car garages for their matching Volvos and tax returns indicating they had earned nearly $200,000.

But getting there wasn't easy. The training required of a New York crane operator took nearly five years, and when things went wrong in that seat, as much as 60 stories in the sky, it was the crane operator's reputation--and life--on the line.

On the morning that two jetliners tore through the World Trade Center's twin towers, the ink was still so fresh on Hofmann's operating license that she had yet to be given her own crane at a Manhattan job site. She had only been allowed to run smaller equipment and, like a Carnegie Hall understudy, to fill in on the crane when its usual operator was down with the flu or running late.

When Hofmann arrived at ground zero on Sept. 19, she was assigned her own rig.

"Everything suddenly made sense," Hofmann would remember much later. "Being down there was the first time in my life I was sure I was in the right place at the right time."

That sense of purpose was common among the workers. Some men, moved by the sight of a giant steel crossbeam found in the rubble and raised on the site's perimeter like a roughhewn crucifix, averred they found God.

Some who had stumbled into construction after years of vowing they wouldn't follow their fathers into the business began bragging about their jobs to their own sons. Some of the old timers--those who had been on the crews that erected the World Trade Center--began to talk of delaying retirement so they could play a part in every stage of the site's history: the building, the unbuilding, the rebuilding.

At ground zero, Hofmann stood out not only because of her unruly blond hair, colorful tank tops and heavy-lashed eyes, but because of her attitude. She didn't walk, she strutted, and she could swear a blue streak with the best of them. She had no qualms about speaking her mind.

Like many of her cohorts, the crane operator was furious over how much attention and glory New York's uniformed officers had gotten in the aftermath of Sept. 11. It wasn't that she didn't celebrate their bravery or mourn their casualties, but she took offense that the world seemed completely oblivious to the role construction workers were playing in ground zero.

By late fall, the animosity between the construction crews and the uniformed officers at ground zero was palpable.

The police and firefighters resented that some ground zero construction workers were said to be making up to $20,000 a month because of the unions' hard line on hourly and overtime wages and the federal government's unwillingness to set a spending cap on such a high-profile cleanup effort.

'Bag and tag' angers workers

The construction workers were offended by what they had nicknamed the "bag and tag" manner of dealing with civilian corpses: Uniformed bodies were blessed by a cleric and carried out on flag-draped stretchers while civilian bodies were simply zipped into black body bags and trucked off to the morgue.

Hofmann changed all that.

It had been just before lunch on a February afternoon when the crane operator uncovered the body of an office worker. Someone on the ground yelled for a body bag to be hauled in, but Hofmann snapped.

"That body ain't coming out of there on my watch without a priest blessing it first," she shouted over the drone of her machine's engine.

Bobby Gray, who had been appointed ground zero's master mechanic, a role that made him responsible for overseeing all the operating engineers, was radioed to mediate. When he arrived--leaving his lunch behind at a nearby diner--he found Hofmann calm and reasonable, but firm. The dead deserved respect, she said, whether they carried a badge or not.

In the end, the body was blessed by a priest and an impromptu civilian honor guard was assembled. The practice became standard after that.

Eventually, ground zero settled into an equilibrium. The cleanup, strange as it seems, became something of an elegant dance. There would be a dozen or more cranes lined up, their giant booms moving in tandem.

Still, some men had to leave the site, unable to deal with all they were seeing. Many who stayed began to drink heavily. Guys worked when they otherwise would have called in sick as worker after worker came down with the deep, thick hack that became known as the "WTC cough." About once a month word would spread that some guy's already shaky marriage had fallen apart.

None of this surprised crane operator Jimmy Pignatelli.

"Hey, we weren't trained to see what we saw," he said one day. "We didn't sign onto jobs that were supposed to include dead bodies and terrorism. We drive cranes for chrissake."

The bar wasn't fancy, but it was convenient.

A working-class tavern with decent hamburgers and cold draught beer, the Dakota Roadhouse sits at 43 Park Place, just a few blocks from ground zero. During those long months between September and May, the site's workers increasingly found themselves spending time there.

The wives of some ground zero workers got used to their husbands coming home late from their 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shifts. They would smell like beer and smoke, and their eyes would be tired and sometimes a little haunted.

"I would always ask him if he wanted to talk about it when he got home from his shift," crane operator Jimmy Chiusano's wife, Sandra, remembered, "but he never did.

"He would just say, `I went to the Dakota, and we talked it out there.'"

Friendships had formed fast and tight between the workers who eventually would log more than 3.5 million hours on the dangerous, unprecedented job site and where, amazingly, not a single laborer would die.

Hofmann spent long hours at the Dakota, drinking glass after glass of Absolut vodka and cranberry juice, her hardhat on the stool next to her. Conversations along the cigarette burn-scarred bar invariably turned to The Pile, and a lot of men cried unabashedly.

Tough guys cry too

"I have seen callous men become emotional, and emotional men become callous," said ground zero maintenance foreman Mike Fossati. "I have seen men you could beat with a 2-by-4, and they wouldn't shed a tear who now cry at the drop of a hat. And I have seen men who cried at the drop of a hat who now can't shed a tear."

Hofmann was one who never broke down. Some of the guys thought it was uncanny, this woman who worked like them and told dirty jokes like them but never wept like them.

It even worried Hofmann. She had a lot going on in her life. Her divorce was still pretty fresh, and one of her sons had been mandated by the courts to check into a drug rehabilitation center after an arrest for driving while intoxicated. She had started to have visions of dead people's faces while she operated her crane.

But the tears wouldn't come.

By spring, ground zero was nearly cleaned up. Several dozen at a time, men were told by their unions that they were no longer needed and that they should report to jobs sites all across the city that had been put behind schedule or completely halted when their workers and equipment were shifted to ground zero.

Where once the construction crews had been allowed to park illegally on nearby side streets while they worked at ground zero, they began to find their cars towed when they emerged, spent and filthy, from their shifts.

Ground zero's closing ceremony was scheduled for the morning of May 30. The day was to be largely free of speeches and pomp, except for the removal of the last steel beam and the carrying out of the empty stretcher that symbolized the bodies never recovered.

The night before the ceremony, Hofmann was notified that she had been chosen to be one of the 12 people who would carry out the stretcher. She was the only woman in the group.

As if by habit, everyone went to the Dakota afterwards. Up and down the bar, construction workers who had never met before Sept. 11 promised to keep in touch. The men sat for hours programming their ground zero friends' numbers into their cell phones.

Much later, Hofmann walked alone to her truck. Not pausing to look back at the site, she tossed her hardhat into the passenger seat and drove away.

Battered shoes--and soul

There would have been something almost poetic about it, walking into a new stage of her life, a life without ground zero, in freshly soled shoes.

In those first days not consumed by the long hours of the site, Hofmann took her battered Red Wing work boots to a Long Island shoe repair shop and dropped them onto the counter.

"These need some work," she told the shoe repairman.

He picked up the brown boots that had stepped on hot, twisted steel for eight months, dangled them by the fraying laces and studied at them from every angle.

These look like they've been through hell, he told her.

"They have," Hofmann replied.

Hofmann didn't think she looked--or felt--much better than those shoes. Her once-shiny blond hair was dull. She had gained weight from sitting on a crane for so many hours a day while eating rich, Red Cross meals of meat loaf, mashed potatoes with gravy, sometimes stuffed salmon.

She was battling her fourth upper-respiratory infection. She felt so tired that at her new job she refused to climb even a flight of stairs and instead had one of the day laborers drive her wherever she needed to go in a golf cart.

Like many other ground zero construction workers, Hofmann had taken only a week of vacation between her last day at the site and her new job. She had been promoted to master mechanic--the highest administrative position for an operating engineer at any construction project--at a site in Harlem, where the city was building a new bus-repair facility.

Where her work days had once been filled with the adrenaline of dangerous terrain and the urgency of uncovering bodies that would be sent home to grieving families, Hofmann now spent hours processing paperwork that ensured her guys got paid on time.

In her construction trailer, she spent hours chain-smoking, arguing with contractors and watching television.

"I went from that to this?" she asked one day.

"You've got to be kidding me."

Though she didn't know it because all her old ground zero friends were fanned out at job sites all across New York, other workers were feeling the same way.

Dr. James Halpern is a psychologist working with the American Red Cross on an initiative to provide mental health counseling to people affected by Sept. 11. The most common complaint therapists were hearing from patients was that "there's such a void to fill from going from an intensely meaningful and purposeful life to one that's simply quiet and normal," he said.

Physically, Hofmann was concerned. She had started to feel severe heart palpitations as she sat in her too-quiet trailer. A heart specialist told her she might have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

9/11 shrine at home

Ground zero dominated Hofmann's life. She had set up a shrine to Sept. 11 in her living room.

There was Life magazine's heart-wrenching photo book, "One nation;" there was a pair of tall gray candles, twin towers of wax, standing side by side on the mantle; there was the unbroken champagne bottle she had found amid the rubble. One day in early July Hofmann even hosted a party she dubbed "The First Annual People from The Pile Reunion," in which she invited all her World Trade Center site friends.

As the weeks away from ground zero passed, Hofmann found herself snapping at the smallest things: workers who showed up late, a waitress who brought her overdone scrambled eggs.

One night after work, Hofmann went back to the Dakota, where she ran into Fossati, the maintenance foreman.

"How are you adjusting?" Fossati asked her.

"Not so good," she answered. "Not really very good at all."

Fossati, a recovering alcoholic who only ordered energy drinks at the Dakota, let Hofmann talk for more than an hour.

Then, as he got up to leave, he gave her some advice.

"You've got to let someone in," he said. "Being this miserable all alone is only hurting you. It's going to rip you apart."

"Who says I'm miserable?" Hofmann fired back.

"Everyone else can see it," Fossati said sadly. "It's like when I was drinking. Everyone could see I was a drunk except me."

Her turn for tears

Thirty-three days after the official close of ground zero, Pia Hofmann cried.

Hofmann was at breakfast with a friend from the Harlem building site. They had just ordered eggs, cornbread and bacon at the Barking Dog Luncheonette when quietly Hofmann broke down.

"I can't take it," she told him. "I can't take it anymore."

She told her friend how regular life felt unimportant compared to the urgency of the work she had done for eight months; how her new job afforded her too much quiet time to dwell on all she had seen; how hard it was to be separated from the support system that had developed at ground zero.

Most of all, she wanted to move on, and she wanted New York to move on.

Three days later Hofmann made her trip back to ground zero.

Not long before she had dug out an old shoebox that contained hundreds of photos from her time at the site. One picture was especially telling: Ground zero filled virtually the entire frame, Hofmann barely visible in the blurred reflection of a crane's side mirror.

But on this July afternoon when Hofmann had returned with a reporter to have her photo taken at the bottom of the crater, she no longer looked tired and drawn. It was if she had come back to the forefront of her own life, and ground zero had slowly begun to fade further and further into the background.

In recent weeks, Hofmann has begun dating someone, though she refused to characterize it as serious and she sheepishly admitted that he was someone she had met at ground zero.

She has been laughing more. She was thinking of taking a nice, long vacation. She has followed through on seeing a pulmonary specialist about her recurrent upper-respiratory infections and was waiting on her test results.

From the bottom of the crater everything looked off kilter. Space and size and distance seemed confused. The hole was so big that the few remaining pieces of hulking equipment seemed unreal, insignificant.

The wind, which hadn't seemed to be blowing at ground level, was whipping around the crater. Dust blew in Hofmann's eyes, and she teared up as she tried to rub it out.

"It's hard to miss this part of it," she said.

Just before Hofmann got into the truck that would drive her out, she looked toward a far corner of the crater, just about where the north tower had once stood. Of all that she had seen during her months at ground zero, it was something that had happened there that lingered in Hofmann's memory the most.

It had been her first week on the job, and Hofmann was dragging her machine's mighty claws through a mound of steel when a monarch butterfly emerged from a wall of smoke and floated gracefully past the window of her crane's cab. The butterfly reappeared about the same time the following afternoon. And the next.

On the fourth day, Hoffman found herself looking for that flash of black and orange. But the butterfly never returned.

"Three days, almost like clockwork, and then it was gone, as if it had found somewhere better to go," she said. "I had thought of it as a little lost soul, so maybe that means that once it left this place it figured out where it was supposed to be."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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