Sept. 11, 2001: California ironworker Paul Pursley spent 10 weeks at 'ground zero'

Sept. 11, 2001: California ironworker Paul Pursley spent 10 weeks at 'ground zero'

San Marcos : CA : USA | Sep 11, 2012 at 12:06 AM PDT
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Pursley compared to Velazquez's Mars

Sept. 11, 2001: California ironworker Paul Pursley spent 10 weeks at 'ground zero'

"Ironworkers worked every day," Pursley said. "We went on 12-hour shifts starting at 6 (a.m.) or 7 (a.m.) The more iron we cut up, the more firemen we could find. But we only found parts; a hand, a leg, a torso, never a complete body. We found parts from 650 people. You thought you would find somebody alive at first, but we never did...

"...I never cut so much steel in my entire life. I hope I never have to again."

SAN MARCOS, Calif. ---- Ground zero.

That's where San Marcos ironworker Paul Pursley found himself Sept. 17, 2001 on a first-ever visit to New York.

For the next 10 weeks, in a city reeling with shock, Pursley helped cut away the massive wreckage of the World Trade Center, allowing relief workers to recover some of the 2,992 people killed on Sept. 11.

Pursley flew home on Dec. 6. Later, sitting in his quiet San Marcos kitchen, he told of the horror of body parts, the sad daily trek through crowds of people anxiously searching for missing loved ones, the kindness of Salvation Army workers and of being able to touch President Bush.

"You never found a whole piece, whole people," said Pursley, who worked as part of an ironworkers' union contingent attached to a Yonkers, N.Y., wreckage excavation crew. Twenty men worked the day shift and 20 worked the night shift, he said.

"The first few weeks there was nothing really stationary to walk on," Pursley said. "There was so much energy in the pile that stuff would get catapulted 200 to 300 feet in the air. We were cutting through 50-ton pieces of iron. Stuff was all over the place. But the more iron you could cut, the faster firemen could get part of somebody out.

"I've never seen anything like that in my life," Pursley said. "The ground was so hot I went through three pairs of boots in the 2-1/2 months I was there."

But the heat, the dirt, the smoke, even the horribly acrid smell and danger of ground zero were nothing compared to the emotional toll, Pursley said.

"I was working one day and we found a fireman and a civilian trapped in Tower Two," Pursley continued. "They survived the plane crash, made it down to the lobby but they couldn't get out. That was hard.

"It was hard seeing the little kids in town," Pursley said. "Hundreds of people used to line the gates at night when we got off work. They asked: 'Did you see my daddy?' They all were holding pictures.

"There was nothing you could tell them," Pursley said. "That was the hardest part. What do you tell them?"

Marine to ironworker

Pursley was 41 years old at the time. An Allentown, Pa., native and former Camp Pendleton Marine, Pursley said he was "fascinated" with walking on steel beams as a child. So after receiving an honorable discharge from the Marines with the rank of sergeant he became an ironworker in 1985. He lived in Oceanside before moving to San Marcos in 1998.

Pursley's odyssey to ground zero began in Hartford, Conn.

A member of San Diego Ironworkers Local 229, Pursley was on a job for Lewis Equipment of Grand Prairie, Texas. The crew was finishing installing beams with tower cranes for the huge Mohegan Sun Casino around Hartford "the day it happened," he said.

"We had a rented van and another job to go to in Washington, D.C.," continued Pursley, a strapping man with a soft voice. "We saw both buildings smoking as we were going by New York on the way. We were in D.C. a day-and-a-half finishing up a job at the convention center. They didn't need our help at the Pentagon but when we finished we asked Kyle Lewis, the owner of Lewis Construction, if we could go to New York and he said, 'Sure, you guys can volunteer there.'

"I had never been to New York," Pursley said. "My partner, Rusty Henry from Stillwater, Okla., and myself went there on the (Sept.) 17th, right down to the job site. As long as you were an ironworker you had carte' blanche.

Worked non-stop the first day

"It was pretty much disorganized with guys everywhere trying to volunteer in the chaos. We went to the union hall the next day," he said.

While plenty of police and fire personnel swarmed across the dust-filled, chaotic scene, they couldn't do much without help from skilled ironworkers who cut through the mangled iron and steel with cranes, torches, and big tools, not to mention sweat and desire.

Pursley said he and Henry were the only two out-of-town ironworkers at the scene. For 10 long weeks, the steel burners cut up towering beams and iron.

"Ironworkers worked every day," Pursley said. "We went on 12-hour shifts starting at 6 (a.m.) or 7 (a.m.) The more iron we cut up, the more firemen we could find. But we only found parts; a hand, a leg, a torso, never a complete body. We found parts from 650 people. You thought you would find somebody alive at first, but we never did."

Pursley added: "With all that debris and elevator cables pulling the pile, guys were getting fingers and hands smashed. Lots of accidents. Lots of guys hurt. I thought we were going to be there for a year."

Pursley said he and his partner were paid through the union but ended up renting a hotel room in lower Manhattan, then a motel room in Secaucus, N.J., that cost them $6,000 to $8,000. Salvation Army workers brought them food at the site.

At the end of a grueling day's shift, the ironworkers would hike a mile to get beyond the crime scene, maybe grab a snack, head out through the Port Authority Terminal on a bus to New Jersey, finally collapsing from exhaustion into motel beds.

"People would sit by you on the bus and you were so filthy," Pursley said. "Not even like being dirty, such a weird odor. I'd wash my clothes three times and still they were dirty."

Several close calls

One of Pursley's closest calls came on Oct. 23, according to a notification filed with construction contractors.

Police believed they had cleared out some of the estimated 1.7 million .38 caliber rounds from a destroyed U.S. Customs arsenal at the World Trade Center and directed Pursley to burn iron at one of the swept areas. A loud pop and painful burning of his cheek later, he found himself taken to St. Vincent's Hospital emergency room for treatment. He still has the scar on his face.

Alert and in good spirits, Pursley returned to the scene the next day and kept on working. On Nov. 13, a large excavator swung across a debris pile near where Pursley was burning through steel. The pile collapsed and Pursley fell down the 25-foot pile, injuring his left wrist. Medical workers had to use 18 stitches to close the wound, according to an accident report filed with city of New York Department of Design and Construction.

When celebrities descended on ground zero to lend support, Pursley took pictures with a disposable camera he bought. He has a picture with actress Susan Sarandon and with Jason Alexander, who played George in "Seinfeld."

And President Bush. Pursley said he went up to the President when he toured ground zero and "pulled on his shirt sleeve."

"I told him, 'I didn't vote for you, but I'm going to touch you.' " He then took a picture of the surprised president.

Thank you letters meant a lot

Pursley said he got a lift from schoolchildren's thank you letters forwarded by Salvation Army workers. He said he planned to answer all of the dozen or so letters he brought back to San Marcos. A lot of them shared sentiments like those expressed by Ryan Moran, a sixth grader at Pearson Elementary of Poulsbo, Wash.

Addressed to Iron Workers, ground zero, N.Y., N.Y., Moran's letter began, "Dear Savers of Helpless Citizens," and continued: "You guys are really brave and your heroic actions during the tragedy will remain in our hearts forever. We know we can count on heroes like you. You've changed everyone's lives."

Salvation Army workers also gave Pursley a red-white-and-blue hard-hat signed by many of them with inspirational sayings as a parting gift. "It's our house ---- never forget," one aid worker said.

But in the end, the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime, and a fulfilling one, Pursley said.

"All the people I met there were fantastic to me," Pursley said. "It was incredible. It was weird leaving and coming home. Hopefully there is closure for the victims and their families."

Despite local contractors wanting him to resume work as a foreman, Pursley said at the time he wanted to relax for a month.

"I have never seen so much iron in my life. I never cut so much steel in my entire life. I hope I never have to again," he said.


Well-known New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz took seminal images at Ground Zero, many of which were displayed at a groundbreaking exhibit titled "Echoes of Ground Zero" in 2003.

Lawrence Weschler in conversation with photographer Joel Meyerowitz in the living room of the latter’s New York City home, 7 April 2003 is available at the pdf file posted here.

This portion of the interview dealt with Pursley, and his iconic image that Meyerowitz displayed next to another iconic...c. 1650 image by the Spanish painter Velazquez.

LW: Well, this.

JM: Amazing. What a guy. He was a welder, commonly called a burner down there. His job was to go through the site and as each level was exposed, he would walk through with a torch and burn all the small standing steel so that men could walk through and do their search.

LW: Do you know his name?

JM: I do know his name . . . Paul Pursley.

LW: What is fascinating to me here is that we’re playing off the Velázquez of Mars with his tool and his helmet and his mustache. I don’t want to suggest or insist that you had this specific thing in your head, but you too are treating this worker as a kind of god or a personage of great nobility.

JM: I was just going to say that he was noble. The reason I saw him as noble was that he came up the road bend here, and I saw him, and we had just heard a bugler playing Taps, and there were eight of us standing around and we were all in tears and as he came to me I saw this little glint of a tear in his eye – you can see it in the photograph, he’s slightly dewy-eyed. And as he came forward, I just felt the power of this man and his nobility, and I stepped in front of him and just made a photograph. We didn’t have much of an interaction. He really didn’t even pose for me, he just stopped walking. And then I asked him something and he laughed and he said, “I was just wounded today. I was burning the steel and I exploded some ammunition that was buried.” He said, “A piece of bullet shell hit me in the face and I got five stitches under here.” He laughed. He laughed. And then he just stood there and I made this picture and I realized he is heroic.

LW: One of the things that’s amazing about Velázquez is how when he chooses to do a god, for perhaps one of the first times in history the god is just some mill worker. I mean, this is clearly some guy who worked as some smithy or something, who knows who he is. This is some guy who is a working-class guy, patently not a nobleman, you don’t think?

JM: No, not a nobleman.

LW: And yet a god. So, that’s kind of interesting.


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Ironworker Paul Pursley remembers 9/11
9/11 ironworker Paul Pursley looking at the famous image taken by New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz at Ground Zro (Photo: Dan Weisman)
dweisman is based in Rancho Santa Fe, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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