Michael Burton

Engineer and

Award of Excellence Winner - Ground Zero


AWARD OF EXCELLENCE

Award of Excellence Winner: Michael Burton
Creating order from chaos in leading the public-private construction team that responded to the Sept. 11 devastation at Ground Zero
By By Debra K. Rubin at Ground Zero

Maybe it was fate that brought Michael Burton not to his Queens, N.Y., office early on Sept. 11, but to lower Manhattan for a meeting at City Hall–just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Or maybe it was destiny that the scrawny kid from Rockland County, N.Y., whose parents toughened him up with karate lessons in seventh grade, would grow up to manage the largest peacetime mobilization of construction forces in the wake of the most unprecedented act of terror the world had ever seen.

The calm of a sunny late summer morning was shattered that Tuesday by the horrific sight of two jet airplanes crashing into each of the two 110-story WTC towers, 18 minutes apart. In less than two hours, both buildings would collapse in a maelstrom of fire, smoke, choking dust and debris. The hysteria that gripped New York was compounded by rumors of another attack at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C, and of a mysterious plane crash in rural Pennsylvania.

At first, Burton, executive deputy commissioner of the city's Dept. of Design and Construction (DDC), figured he'd round up netting and sidewalk bridging to protect pedestrians from falling debris. "Little did I know what was ahead of me," he says. "I thought I had ordered 10 times what I needed. It turned out to be just one-millionth of what we would end up ordering."

That first phone call to the city's largest scaffolding firm was soon followed by scores of others across the breadth of New York's construction universe. From those first post-Sept. 11 days assisting firefighters, police and emergency service workers in frantic rescue of anyone who might have survived the catastrophe, Burton marshalled scores of engineers to assess the safety of surrounding buildings and WTC's unique foundation, the slurry wall "bathtub" that has kept the Hudson River at bay since the complex was built 30 years ago. He called in New York-savvy contractors with resources and connections to get critical equipment and skilled managers and labor downtown fast. But thousands didn't need to be asked. They had already come running, emptying jobsites throughout the New York region, and beyond.

There was no time to prepare specs, bids or permit applications; no time to negotiate fees, contracts or labor agreements; no time to develop management plans or critical paths. Lives were at stake, property was at risk and the reputation of New York's construction community, public and private, was on the line. Michael Burton knew that.

Seven months later, Ground Zero is no longer the nightmare it once was. The pain of Sept. 11 still lingers for the families, friends and colleagues of the more than 2,800 WTC victims, as well as for those at the Pentagon and on United Flight 93. The landmark towers are gone but the wound they left at the 16-acre WTC site is healing. More than 1.6 million tons of debris has been removed. Cleanup, site stabilization, infrastructure repair and reconstruction preparation are nearly finished, and redevelopment plans are emerging, if slowly.

Burton's skilled leadership of Ground Zero's sometimes fractious construction troops has transformed them into a unified, focused force now poised to complete work five months and hundreds of millions of dollars ahead of original predictions. An exhausting 24/7 work schedule and help from Mother Nature are certainly key factors, but many would rather credit this mechanical engineer-turned-crisis manager and "go-to" guy. "Mike married this job, at least for three to four months, and gave it complete devotion," says Anthony P. Coles, New York's former deputy mayor. "It is viewed around the world as one of the most extraordinary responses that has ever taken place."

For his grace under fire in carving order from chaos at Ground Zero, for guiding his team to a so-far safe and successful conclusion despite so many obstacles, for being both a tough and compassionate decisionmaker and for allowing the construction industry to prove its mettle, the editors of ENR choose Michael Burton for the 2002 Award of Excellence.
HELLISH Attacks on the World Trade Center towers left a 16-acre smoldring debris field. (Photo by Michael Goodman for ENR)

FROZEN IN TIME. Sept. 11, 2001 is now almost synonymous with the day President John F. Kennedy was shot in terms of shock and horror. Like most Americans, many Ground Zero participants witnessed the unfolding of events on television. Others were frantically called by relatives or colleagues who worked near the WTC complex. James Abadie, senior vice president of Bovis Lend Lease, remembers a phone call from a superintendent at Battery Park City, screaming that the second plane had missed his building by 100 ft. "It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up," he says. George Tamaro, partner in geotechnical firm Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers and a veteran of the towers' foundation construction in the late 1960s, remembers going "intellectually numb."

Others were eyewitnesses to the attack. Mueser Rutledge engineer Pablo Lopez was across the river at the Hoboken, N.J., train station supervising foundation repairs when he saw the second plane. With the first tower in flames, it was a puzzling sight. "No one signs up for a flight where you fly by a tower on fire," he remembers. Lopez and colleagues later became relief workers for hundreds of dazed refugees evacuated by ferry to the station.
IN CHARGE Burton (left) confers with assistant Santowski (right) and port authority's Rinaldi about the slurry wall. (Photo by Michael Goodman for ENR)

Concern grew over the fate of WTC-based colleagues at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PA), other agencies and industry firms, not to mention hundreds of tradespeople normally working in the complex.

PA Chief Engineer Frank Lombardi was one of the lucky ones. He and others made it down from the agency's engineering offices on Tower 1's 72nd floor only to see the human toll. But it wasn't long before there was a crash. Even then, "we did not know Tower 2 was falling on top of us," says the veteran of WTC's 1993 bombing. "I thought I was a goner and began to question the irony of the whole thing." Calvin Drayton, deputy operations manager of the city's Office of Emergency Management, in WTC 7, went down for coffee and ended up trapped for 30 minutes in a garage at World Financial Center. But others were not so lucky. Among the victims that day were 74 PA staff and police, at least 60 building trades' workers, 13 employees of Washington Group International, two Structure Tone Inc. managers and an assistant at Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, caught in an elevator in burning 90 West St.

Trying to get a handle on the chaos around him, Burton rode on the OEM van closer to the WTC site just as a tower was collapsing "and an incredible whirl of dust and debris came swooping up the street in a hurricane-sized wind," he says. The Manhattan College-trained engineer knew immediately the burning sensation in his eyes was the acidity of pulverized concrete.

That DDC would be in charge of the construction response was never an official charge from Coles or Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The city's Sanitation Dept. normally handles emergency debris removal, site officials say, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were on their way, as was usual in disasters of this magnitude. "In early January, I realized that no one ever asked me to manage the effort at Ground Zero." Burton remembers. "I just did what I thought had to be done, and it just happened." Adds DDC Commissioner Kenneth Holden: "We were there, no one said ‘no,' so we went ahead."

Believing that saving thousands of trapped WTC occupants and hundreds of firefighters was still possible, Burton "knew I had to mobilize a lot of people, equipment and material if there would be a major rescue effort," he says. That was not easy when communications in the area were collapsing. "I finally had to get [Assistant DDC Commissioner] Lou Mendes in Queens and my secretary to make the calls," Burton says.

The industry was ready, just waiting to see who would take charge. "I got a call from Mike Burton at 1 p.m. He said they needed engineering help down there," says Richard Tomasetti, president of structural engineering firm Thornton-Tomasetti Group Inc. "I remember thinking, ‘Is this really happening?'"

It took hours to arrange police escorts in a locked-down city for participants in the first construction tour that day. Besides Burton and Holden, the group included Tomasetti and Abadie, who Burton knew from the firm's past involvement in city emergencies. Others were AMEC Chairman John Cavanagh; Peter Tully, president of Tully Construction Co. Inc., which was already working on an adjacent state road project; executives of Turner Corp., whose corporate office was blocks away from the site; and operating engineers' union Local 14 foreman Bobby Gray, among others. "Of the people I asked to go down there, not one asked if it was dangerous," says Burton.
POLITICS
Ex-Mayor Guliani (left) interacted with Burton. (Photo courtesy of the Burton Family)

MOBILIZE. That visit, conducted in the afternoon of Sept. 11 as WTC 7 was aflame and in danger of collapse, marked the beginning of the construction mobilization that would change Burton's life for the next several months. "I couldn't imagine that this eight-story pile of rubble used to be two 110-story buildings," he says. Burton also worried about the precarious condition of some adjacent damaged high-rises, particularly as light was dwindling. The two weeks he thought necessary to properly assess damage at the Bankers' Trust building on Liberty Street was upended when a fire chief frantically sought permission to enter the structure to tap into its rooftop water supply. Looking at each other, Burton and Tomasetti nervously agreed. "It took the chief a quarter of a second, and his people were in the building," says Burton. "That was the first of a series of decisions I'd make that had the potential to kill someone."

The crisis took its toll. Burton spent the first night trying to sleep in his car, but was "woken up by my radio four times," he says. "The next day started it all over again." He remembers being "completely wiped out, not from lack of sleep but from the criticality of all the decisions being made." Burton made it back to Chappaqua, N.Y., the next night to see wife Julia and son Kyle, and to change clothes. Stripping off his clothes before going inside to avoid contaminating the house, Burton hoped the neighbors weren't looking. It was the beginning of many nights away from home, a grind for his pregnant wife then coping with the peak of morning sickness and an active two-year-old who simply thought daddy was out "golfing."

MIRACLES. The swarms of volunteers and equipment performed miracles on site when firefighters were still hand-digging for survivors, but they also created huge logistical nightmares. Many workers never left the site, afraid they'd not be let back in. Burton could not tell who was part of the DDC effort and who wasn't. "I think every contractor in America had my cell phone number," adds Abadie. Newspaper ads implored workers to return to their old jobs. After that, OEM and DDC turned to color-coded badges that changed constantly. "It could take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours to get someone badged," says Local 14's Gray.

David H. Griffin Jr., a Greensboro, N.C., demolition contractor, was determined to get on site, driving nine hours to New York with wife and kids in tow. Bluffing his way past the National Guard, he was there just two hours on Sept. 13 when he suggested that a dangerous 60-ft-high piece of steel debris be cut at the bottom and dropped, rather than in tedious 2-ft pieces. That allowed the job to be finished in an hour rather than three days, pleasing harried firefighters and earning Griffin a job as Bovis' demolition consultant. Soon after, fate intervened to elevate Griffin to the same role sitewide. "I was the kid here, and an outsider," says the 33-year-old Griffin. "But Mike [Burton] put a lot of faith in me to make the right decisions."

While Holden handled DDC political issues, Burton ran Ground Zero. But he was no stranger to City Hall. With press access tightly controlled by Giuliani and rumors rampant about the imminent collapse of the 1 Liberty Plaza building, Burton was summoned to defend its structural integrity to the mayor as New York tabloids were already reporting a failure. "I thought I just lost every ounce of credibility I ever had," says Burton. But in the end, his instincts and the advice of his engineers proved correct.
DECISION MAKERS Burton, Holden (center) and top aide Cote first ran operations from a public school near Ground Zero. (Photo by Michael Goodman for ENR)

QUARDRANTS. The chaos of the first two days transitioned into some order when Burton and four contractors–AMEC, Bovis, Tully and Turner (joint-ventured with Plaza Construction)–divided the site into quadrants that each would manage. Engineers and subcontractors would be assigned to the sectors. "He let the experts do the expert work, inspired consensus, made a decision and we all followed it," says Peter Davoren, Turner senior vice president. "He didn't come in like General Patton." But

Burton intervened in occasional contractor turf disputes, says AMEC's Cavanagh, and in impasses between engineers and contractors over the safety of equipment placement. "These kinds of ‘polite threats' kept the job going," Tully adds. While some firms felt he was suspicious of them "and just viewed us as some contractor trying to get our foot in the door," says one executive, "you can't be everyone's best friend and accomplish what you need to."

The operation also grew to include removal of WTC's massive debris, including huge steel beams clogging streets around the site. With permits gained in record time, Weeks Marine Inc. set up a waterfront barging operation to transport debris to the city's Fresh Kills landfill and to recycling sites, all scrutinized by the Corps of Engineers. By then, it was clear the Corps would not be running Ground Zero. "We backed up into a technical assistance role to the city," says Allen Morse, the Corps' Mobile, Ala.-based debris expert. "We were a sounding board."

It was then that the infamous Ground Zero meetings began, led by Burton at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day. The agenda was to prioritize operations, settle disputes and deal with growing issues from city, state and federal agencies, particularly over health and safety concerns, and building and major utility owners. All were staking a claim in Ground Zero. An October 2001 list of the city's environmental health and safety task force showed members from 20 different organizations. The relocation of the DDC-led operation to a nearby evacuated public school offered new challenges. "It was something to see the major players in New York sitting on first-grade chairs," says Tamaro. "Mike would come in and sit on the back of one chair. That was his throne." The cleanup crew graduated to adult-size furniture several months later when it moved to plusher space in World Financial Center's evacuated American Express building.

Participants marvel at Burton's ability to stay in control and focus on issues when meetings grew to as many as 100 participants, "many with major-league egos," says one contractor executive. But participants looked to him for guidance on key issues, and when he said, "Let's move on," discussion was over. "Mike was calm, collected and made the right decisions that were needed at the time," says Peter Rinaldi, PA's lead engineer who became an inner circle advisor.

Meetings could range from lengthy discussion among senior executives over how to accommodate site access and debris removal for the then-looming PATH and subway reconstruction projects to concern over a gas main 4 ft below grade. "I have sleepless nights over that gas main," said an executive at one meeting. Over time, Burton delegated meeting control to key assistants. "Mike let people run with what they could do," says Richard Santowski, who is one. "If I had to use one word to describe him, I'd use Machiavellian. But it's not a bad thing here."

Aside from the physical challenges at Ground Zero, Burton had to develop a payment system. While no one spoke of money during the outset, costs were mounting. Bovis Senior Vice President Paul Ashlin estimates the firm was spending $4 to $5 million a week in the first few months. Burton worked out a system to provide checks to contractors 48 hours after invoices were received, even as official contracts remained unsigned because of controversy over long-term indemnification. About $1 billion will be paid to prime contractors at Ground Zero, with each earning a 2.75% fee.

Federal reimbursement has come with strings attached and initial skepticism on FEMA's part. "Debris is notorious for being a difficult area in which to track costs and contractors," says Sean Dowling, FEMA's first site manager. Since then, the agency has waived its rules limiting time-and-materials reimbursement to the first 70 hour after a disaster because of Ground Zero's extraordinary conditions "Here, every time you found a body or a fire, you'd have to shut down operations," says Morse. "It would be a claims-rich environment if they went any other way." While FEMA has pressed DDC to bid out more activities such as trucking and slurry wall tiebacks, "there was not a lot of questioning of the decisions," says Dowling.

The FEMA relationship was aided by Dowling's membership in the Manhattan College alumni club, a group that also includes Bill Cote, ex-chief operating officer of York Hunter, named by Burton as his unofficial deputy. The two were college roommates and have remained good friends. "I knew Mike would be up to the task of making the tough decisions," says Cote. "But he'd also have huddles with people he trusted." Those "huddles" often included late night meetings at restaurants, bars and on the "bachelor floor" in a Battery Park apartment building.
TIED IN About 1,000 tiebacks will be in place by next month to secure slurry wall. (Photo by Michael Goodman for ENR)

Relationships with rescuers, particularly the Fire Dept., have been a tougher management task. The transition from Fire Dept. to DDC control last fall was bumpy at first but has stabilized. "The firefighters' concerns are incredibly valid but the end goal is to make sure they are safe," says Burton. With many still unaccounted for, firefighters say they still have a job to do. "We understand that we can't drag this on, but we can't speed it up to the point where we're not giving the families something to take home," says firefighter Sam Melisi, a trained operating engineer and DDC liaison. "But Mike's an intelligent man. He listens to both sides."

Work at Ground Zero became personal for workers as well. Pia Hofmann, one of the few women operating engineers at the site, was initially rejected because of her sex. Working conditions have been worse than anything the six-year Local 14 member had ever seen. "It was very overwhelming at first, the smoke, the smell," says Hofmann. "But I have a mission. I'm not leaving until the last body is out of here. That's a promise I made to the firefighters." The challenges have also sparked technical ingenuity on site, says Tomasetti, and a respect for each other's missions. Tamaro recalls that books of site drawings developed by Mueser Rutledge became hot commodities for emergency personnel. Adds Melisi: "We're all a team out there."

As such, the construction "team" got upset last fall when the city considered naming San Francisco-based Bechtel Group Inc. as Ground Zero program manager. The contractor, which initially managed some health and safety at the site, soon began mounting a full-court press to take over the job, submitting a proposal to City Hall and lobbying contractors and union officials. "I did not think this was in the best interests of New York City, and I said so in writing," says Edward Malloy, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. Rumors abounded about Bechtel's motivations and purported political connections, which the company has denied and which Coles calls "completely fictional."

Burton declines to speculate on the Bechtel controversy, but project sources say he supported participants' strong opposition to the change and was already making plans to transition to a single contractor with DDC in more of an oversight role. "Mike was very adamant about doing the right thing on this project from the beginning," says one official. The switchover to Bovis-AMEC-led construction management occurred in January.

The controversy ended in November 2001 with a memo from the Corps' Morse, who did not "recommend use of a new separate construction and/or project management contractor." He said "continuity is key at this juncture to retain corporate knowledge, lessons learned and strategic relationships."

WORK ETHIC. Staying on track is something that Burton, who will turn 40 in August, has done for most of his life. "He gives it his all," says mother Pat Burton, a retired nurse in New City, N.Y., where her son grew up. "He has a fantastic work ethic and loves challenges." She recalls his high-school all-nighters working on old cars or helping family members with construction projects. Jim Burton, who retired from the NYPD in 1979, believes his son inherited his self-control. "Mike can handle little stressful things with no problem," says his father.
GENERATIONS Burton was an engineering grad and grease monkey in his early years but now relishes being Kyle's father (below). (Photos courtesy of the Burton Family)

Burton's penchant for math and science made engineering an easy decision for a major and a 40-minute commute made Manhattan College his school of choice. "I met a lot of people whose friendships will last a lifetime," he says. One "friend" was wife Julia, also a mechanical engineer. They married in 1988. In fact, there are so many Manhattan graduates in key positions at Ground Zero that engineer Tamaro posted a signup sheet for awhile. "We're very proud of that," says Brother Thomas Scanlan, college president. "It reflects our graduates' commitment to service." Graduating in 1984, Burton, Julia and Cote all took jobs at New York City's Dept. of General Services' construction bureau. "There were some good opportunities there, especially if you showed any initiative," says Cote.

With an MBA from Fordham University, Burton eventually landed in the private sector, joining Kaiser Engineers and then O'Brien-Kreitzberg, which was expanding in New York. "I perceived him as a young, bright guy with a good grip on things," says former boss Howard Sackel, now an engineering advisor to the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Assigned by the MTA board to scrutinize a mammoth changeover to a new farecard system, Burton impressed his bosses. "The board would ask a lot of tough questions," says Sackel. "Mike was not afraid to make decisions–right, wrong or indifferent." Despite signs of his own budding ego, Burton followed Sackel's advice to work on his writing skills after an evaluation pointed out flaws. "He paid attention after that and it helped," says his former mentor.
CHALLENGE. Always ready for a new challenge, Burton accepted an offer to return to the city in 1996 just as the Giuliani administration was merging all municipal construction projects into a new agency–DDC. Then-commissioner Luis Tormenta offered Burton an assistant commissioner post, but Julia tried to dissuade him. "She said I'd quit in six months," says Burton.

Six years later, the WTC challenge is the capstone of a DDC career that has provided Burton a number of crisis management roles–including repairs to Yankee Stadium in 1998 after a large chunk of concrete fell from an upper deck to stands below. "Mike got great press on that. He threw out the first ball," says Tormenta, now vice chairman of The LiRo Group, a Syosset, N.Y., engineer. "But he'd done a lot of work on it day in and day out." Tormenta says Burton's DDC tenure has honed positive skills. "People felt Mike was someone they could depend on and who would defend them," he says. Burton's former boss also speaks of other traits. "At times, his stubbornness worked for him and at times, it got him in a lot of trouble–with me," Tormenta adds. "But the stubborn part has made him as successful as he's been. His drive is contagious."

Others agree. "I'm not sure anyone else would have had the skillset or the understanding of how city government and construction works in an operation as big as this," says OEM's Drayton "And no one could have done this as well on a 24/7 basis." Interpersonal relationships have helped as Ground Zero now shares its footprint with major PATH and subway line rebuilding projects. "He put aside the bureaucracy," says Mysore Nagaraja, MTA chief engineer, who Burton has long known.

Insiders say the WTC experience has been exhilarating for DDC staff as well. "The people here were field guys doing their thing. There was no notoriety for them. No one knew they were here," says Mendes. "But when I saw the West Side Highway stripe, I thought we had done a hell of a job."

That sentiment is felt in other quarters, particularly as many participants lament the lack of attention to the construction mission at Ground Zero and note lingering industry stereotypes. "It's the first time our industry ever got a pat on the back because we're normally perceived as mob figures," says Turner's Davoren. "The city, primes, subs, unions, everyone put their best foot forward, and it should enhance the perception of New York's construction industry."

Adds Burton: "Everyone has grown one level and performed one level higher than they ever have before. The problems we faced here were unprecedented and the fact that people had unique solutions will help them again and again no matter where their careers take them." Whether Burton remains at DDC and for how long is something on which he declines to elaborate. But as he and the rest of the Ground Zero forces still toil each day in the pit, in jobsite trailers or in their cubicles, the end of the cleanup is in sight. Work could end by the end of next month. More than 1,000 slurry wall tiebacks will be in place by then, says Burton. Another 100 will await future construction.
IN THE FIELD Keeping work on track is a nonstop challenge. (Photo courtesy of the Burton Family)

FUTURE. The question now is what the future holds for the site and its work force. Redevelopment ia a political football in New York, with politicians, developers, residents and others pushing their own agendas. At a New York Building Congress luncheon last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city doesn't "want to make the mistake of rushing," But Ground Zero workers and neighbors still remain concerned about possible health effects for exposures there. While the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration praised the site safety record, announcing April 11 only 35 lost workdays so far among 1,500 site workers, union chief Malloy is seeking $10 million from the city's redevelopment fund for more extensive health testing of members.

When the Tower of Light memorial went dark April 14, people wondered what the permanent tribute would eventually be. But for many, the site will still have an impact. PA's Lombardi notes an e-mail he recently received from the daughter of a former staff member who toured the site. "More than the wreckage, I noticed people working. More than the death, I felt the purposeful energy of lives dedicated to rising to this challenge," she wrote. "The wound is huge, but today I saw that the healing effort is just as big."

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