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In the days, weeks, and even months following the September 11 attacks, thousands of first responders risked their lives at Ground Zero. One group of responders whose stories remain overlooked are the sanitation workers who cleared more than 1.6 million tons of debris from the World Trade Center site. Their work enabled rescue efforts and also played a key role in the critical opening up of downtown Manhattan.
Approximately 3,700 Department of Sanitation (DSNY) employees were involved in clean-up and processing at Ground Zero and other sites around the city. For the 20th anniversary of the attacks, the Sanitation Foundation — the official non-profit of DSNY — is launching a digital exhibit to tell the story of DSNY’s vital contributions to the recovery effort through interviews, archival footage, and more.
1,500 sanitation employees were deployed to Ground Zero within the first 24 hours after the attacks to aid the recovery effort with debris removal and dust suppression. The primary goal at that point was to secure survivors and protect civilians from ongoing fires and crumbling building parts.
In those early days, DSNY was also tasked with clearing the area surrounding Ground Zero. Their efforts allowed the Stock Exchange to reopen the following Monday, September 17, giving a boost to the city’s economy and to the morale of New Yorkers.
Other unsung but necessary tasks included providing fuel for all the equipment used at the WTC in the first couple of weeks and clearing out rotting food from abandoned homes and businesses. “We were always the unheralded, background agency,” said Dennis Diggins, who retired in 2017 as DSNY’s First Deputy Commissioner after 35 years of service. “We were always there to do the work, and that’s the way we’ve always operated.” DSNY continued to serve at Ground Zero and lower Manhattan for almost nine months.
In the aftermath of the attacks, about 1.4 million tons of material was brought to Freshkills Landfill and sorted by a team of around 200 materials management experts. Processing operations at Freshkills led to the positive identification of more than 300 victims and secured evidence and artifacts. This work took nearly 10 months around the clock to complete. Afterward, the remaining fine debris from the WTC was placed in a 48-acre area that will become the West Mound of Freshkills Park.
While no sanitation employees lost their lives during the attack itself, in the 20 years since approximately 100 DSNY personnel have died of health conditions related to their service.