A Tribute to Freedom and Memory: Tom O’Connor ’80, Jason Tirri ’00 Help Rebuild the World Trade Center

10/2/2012

Tom O’Connor knows he’s making history, from 105 floors above Manhattan to deep into the earth, on this hallowed ground that once held the Twin Towers.

On a perfect July morning, O’Connor ’80, M.Eng. ’82, and colleague Jason Tirri ’00 offered a tour of their job of a lifetime — the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site.

O’Connor, a 27-year veteran of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is Assistant Director of the PA’s World Trade Center Construction Department. Tirri works as a program manager with the Louis Berger Group, a major contractor that provides program management services.

O’Connor is the man on the ground responsible for the site’s five major projects, the 105-floor One World Trade Center its crowning jewel and the National 9/11 Memorial Plaza and Museum its soul.

It’s an enormous job, with up to 3,500 workers from 60 unions on site daily and the world watching. But O’Connor, a married father of three from Rockaway Beach in Queens, N.Y., who’s funny, talkative, thoughtful, and Tirri, who lives with his wife and toddler daughter in Hoboken and is quieter and more serious, have endured challenging callings before.

Looking down from One WTC’s 64th floor toward the future transportation hub, O’Connor recalls the 18-hour days he worked to reopen the PATH after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Reminders are everywhere. O’Connor worked at Ground Zero starting on Sept. 13, 2001, and has been the PA’s lead on reconstruction ever since. He rescued people after the ’93 bombing and also led that reconstruction. Many of his colleagues who worked alongside him during the ’93 reconstruction died on 9/11.

During the 9/11 recovery, O’Connor arrived at Ground Zero by 4 a.m. and worked until 10 p.m. – seven days a week.

“I spent everything on that, I gave it my all,” he says.

Around Christmas 2001, O’Connor took a break from Ground Zero. Soon, he returned.

“I don’t know why I came back,” O’Connor says, pausing.

“Yes I do. I came back – I’m an American. I’m a patriot.”

He also knew that the chance to work on such a challenging job happens once in a lifetime.

“Read the books. The Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn Bridge — the World Trade Center is right up there,” he says.

This July 9, 2012, tour included several floors of One WTC, the ground-level construction near the Memorial Plaza and the Museum. The museum is underground and will display artifacts and the very few remains of the original Trade Center.

Tirri has spent three years working at the site for Berger and also worked on the 9/11 clean-up from 2001 to 2005 with Tishman Construction, which built the Twin  Towers.

“Being part of such an historic project with so much global significance has truly been an honor,” he says. 

Tirri credits O’Connor for the Memorial Plaza opening in time for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

“Tom was the driving force in getting the Memorial Plaza open on Sept. 11,” he says. “He delivered on that.”

People flow through the Memorial Plaza, an 8-acre park with scattered oak trees that will become a small forest. Two giant reflecting pools rest on the footprints of where the Twin Towers stood. Water flows constantly as people pray among the 2,981 names of those who died here on 9/11 and on Feb. 26, 1993, all inscribed in bronze.

“That’s why we’re here,” O’Connor says of the Memorial. “People fought for that.”

O’Connor can point toward many accomplishments. The Memorial is open. They’re seeing real progress on One WTC and expect to complete construction by 2013. The major projects right now are the transportation hub, which will serve more than 100,000 commuters daily, and the Vehicle Security Center, the police and security screening area for vehicles. O’Connor is also leading the new expansion of Greenwich Street and Fulton Street through the WTC site.

Erecting One WTC’s antenna is full of challenges, O’Connor says; his team is still planning exactly how they will do it. The 408-ft. antenna will be brought by barge from Canada and will allow the tower to reach 1,776 feet, making it the world’s third tallest building.  To erect the antenna, O’Connor’s team may build platforms off of the building to set the cranes on.

O’Connor and Tirri lead the way toward One WTC’s concrete building core, constructed to help the tower withstand an airplane’s impact. Lessons learned on 9/11 are included in this design, including wider stairwells and landings at the core, increased sprinkler systems that are buried behind concrete and pressurized stairs to combat smoky conditions. A separate stairwell has been built solely for emergency responders.

“We have good survivability,” O’Connor says.

The Museum is the tour’s last stop. Upon entering, two “tridents”— two huge steel structures from the original Trade Center — are visible. The entrance also includes the “Survivor’s Staircase,” the staircase leading to Vesey Street that was a pathway to safety for so many on 9/11. This day, it is shrouded in a protective covering, as are all of the artifacts, among them a fire truck, a smashed taxi and the last steel beam removed from Ground Zero, carrying messages from rescue and recovery workers. Here also is the St. Peter’s Cross, twisted beams in the shape of a cross that workers found in the debris. O’Connor helped recover this and other WTC artifacts.

The museum’s completion date is unclear during a July 2012 visit, as funding issues are unresolved. This quiet space will be a place of reflection and remembrance. Corridors will display nearly 3,000 images of the victims as loved ones share their oral histories.

O’Connor and Tirri have their own 9/11 stories. O’Connor had a meeting that day in the North Tower. But the babysitter was on vacation and his wife needed a day in the office at the World Financial Center. So he stayed home.

Walking his youngest son to preschool, he saw the Towers burning. His wife left a message on their answering machine, telling him that something was happening at the Trade Center, then her voice cut off. He worried like crazy until she made it home around 5 p.m., covered in gray dust.

Tirri was working at Tishman in Midtown when he learned of the attacks. He and his co-workers scrambled to find the plans for the Trade Center, to get a sense of which floors were affected. As they searched, the first Tower fell.

These days, O’Connor, after years of personal sacrifices to work the Trade Center site, is usually home by about 5 p.m. His Blackberry is always with him.

O’Connor announces with a big smile that his daughter Rebecca will attend Stevens in the fall to study biomedical engineering. Both he and Tirri praised their Stevens education.

“If it wasn’t for Stevens, I wouldn’t be here,” O’Connor says.

When asked why they love their job, Tirri mentions the dynamic nature of construction and development work.

“The fact that we do it in New York City, in one of the most complex and intense atmospheres, only adds to the excitement,” he says.

O’Connor makes it a point to “walk the job” every day and has engineering in his blood, like his mechanical engineer father.

But his perspective has changed. 

“After two terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, I love the end of the work day, just so I can go home to my wife and kids,” he says.