NEW YORK—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."
"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.