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Opinion The Irish handprints on the world's most symbolic site – One World Trade Centre

Many Irish and Kerry men spent more than five years working at the resurrected World Trade Centre site.

THIRTEEN YEARS AFTER the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the resurrected World Trade Centre opened for business this month.

The 104 storey $3.9bn skyscraper dominates the Manhattan skyline. Nestled in front of the towers sits the 9/11 memorial – its twin reflecting pools are each nearly an acre in size and feature the largest man-made waterfalls in America. The pools sit in the footprints of where the twin towers once stood and the memorials are voids that sink down into the earth; a place for remembrance for the families and friends of the 3,000 people who were killed.

The Irish connection to One World 

A Kerry company, Navillus construction, bid for the largest contract in the memorial and were successful. Many Irish and Kerry men spent more than five years working at the most symbolic site in the world, not only working on the towers but also the plaza and the memorial. In fact, at one point there were so many from Kerry working in the World Trade Centre it was nicknamed the ‘Kerry Tower’.

Donal Sullivan, who owns, Navillus (an anagram of his surname) left Ballinskelligs in South Kerry 30 years ago and went to New York working in construction. Today, Navillus employs up to 1,000 people in the construction and concrete industry, many of them from his home county. Donal, like many other millions, was in New York on 9/11 and describes it as being ‘like Beiruit’:

Everyone has a different memory from that day, those who were there speak of the white clouds of dust, some the scattered realms of paper from the office block… but ingrained in my memory are the thousands of floppy discs from PCs everywhere on the site, and shoes, women’s high heels scattered across the debris.

Like thousands of others, he spent months down at the site, searching for the lost.

When Navillus got the contract for the memorial, Donal found that he and his workers had a great passion for the job, more so than any other. Everyone they knew had known someone who had died in 9/11.

The enormity of the task ahead never daunted. The site itself consists of seven different areas and the memorial is located where the two towers stood, all of the new buildings are placed outside of that. Navillus took the memorial from 90ft underground up to ground level – a job that took six years – and the workers knew they were building something that would become an iconic symbol the world over.

Paudie Spillane from the Spa, Killarney, now works in Tower 3 but worked on Tower 4 for three years. The structure of the buildings he’s been working on measure four foot wide and he believes they will never be brought down again. Paudie and his fellow Irish men have also left a personal mark on Tower 4 by inscribing their names on the last piece of steel that was erected there. “I knew that we were working on something special and now we have left our handprint there, a record of the Irish contribution to the rebuild,” he says.

Security is tight in the area nowadays; eye scanners allow only approved people to access to the thousands working there on a daily basis. Since he arrived on site Paudie has documented the rebuild, taken photographs of every stage – it’s a snap shot in time, something he can show his kids and grandkids. He says there is dust still in the basement of some of the towers and has no doubt but that human remains are still on the site, a reminder of lives lost.

Coming from a small farm in Ballymacelltgott outside of Tralee, Assistant Project Manager, Conor Leen can’t describe the enormity of working on a project this size. At home, he says, the biggest undertaking is a slated house; here there are thousands of yards of rebar and concrete and the logistics are another huge undertaking. But he has found that the long hours working on the project have been ‘a home away from home’ at times because of the huge numbers from Kerry working on the site. Like many others, he has no plans to return home yet, New York has given him too many opportunities.

In the months after 9/11, Detective Tony Curtin, from the Major Crimes Unit of the NYPD spent his time out on Staten Island sifting through the debris for body parts in the hope of reuniting those lost with their loved ones. He says he as glad to have been able to reunite some families with their loved ones, but knows that “the memorial for some remains a sacred place – a graveyard, if you like, of remains of those who perished”. Tony says New York now is alot more security conscious now:

New York as always a prime target but now security has heightened, any big events at any of the major targets get attention from our highly trained Hercules Units. They are like our SWAT team, they go from the Tower 1 to the Empire State Building to Grand Central station, patrolling daily. There s also a lot of intelligence gathering now which wasn’t there before, so we have certainly stepped-up our brief post 9/11.

Tony, from Clounmacon, a small town land outside of Listowel in north Kerry is quick to point out the Irish contribution to the rebuilding of the towers and 9/11 memorial. “They built New York many years ago and are now doing the same at ground zero”.

The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the memorial pools, a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history.

To be able to see it all come together, to touch the names of those who perished, is poignant. The glorious memorials where the buildings once stood, and the 400 oak trees planted there since, provide a sense of life to the plaza. It’s a simple but meaningful tribute to what happened here – and embedded on a beam high up on Tower 4 are the Irish handprints of those who helped New York to rise once more.

Audrey Galvin is a broadcast journalist with Radio Kerry and is researching a PhD proposal on Media Ethics. She was in New York researching a radio documentary called Kingdom Rising with the support of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Sound and Vision Fund. The documentary will be broadcast on Radio Kerry next year.

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