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Untangling a hell of twisted steel

By Francie Latour, Globe Staff, 9/8/2002

On Dec. 11, 1995, Mark Baldwin was driving home from a friend's house when he saw what looked like a city on fire.

Over the hill, in Methuen, Malden Mills was burning. The textile complex had exploded, setting off fireballs that rolled through brick buildings and 50 feet skyward. That night, as the flames sent hundreds of workers and neighbors fleeing, they drew Baldwin closer.

Along the roadside, onlookers watched the destruction of one of the city's biggest employers. But Baldwin, an apprentice in his family's crane-operating business, could already see its most immediate aftermath: 625 tons of steel, brick, and ash that would need to be cleared, quickly and safely.

''There was just an intense glow,'' Baldwin said of the mill fire. ''The smoke just poured and poured.'' He was 28 years old, and as he approached the smoldering industrial park to offer help for a massive cleanup effort, he decided it was the most devastating sight he might ever see.

Now, at age 34, Baldwin knows he was wrong. On Sept. 18, 2001, the apprentice-turned-manager of Baldwin Crane and Equipment Corp. found himself driving through the heart of New York's downtown, past onlookers stricken and sobered by the explosions of terrorists. Behind him, 13 tractor trailers hauled the parts of a Manitowoc 888, a 232-ton machine that, once assembled, would begin picking and crawling amid the debris of the World Trade Center.

Baldwin's Wilmington company would become one of only two from outside New York state allowed to enter a job site watched by the nation: the wreckage from Twin Towers, whose rubble demanded the heaviest available tools and whose early rescue hours required an almost military efficiency.

''We've been on job accidents, demolitions; I had been to some local airports during hurricanes when airplanes had flipped over,'' Baldwin said. ''But when you rounded the corner and ultimately got to ground zero, you just couldn't believe you were still in the United States. I had never seen beams twisted and compressed and sprung like these were.... Steel had been compacted beyond what we had even dreamed about.''

For Baldwin - who spent childhood summers sanding and painting his father's cranes - it was a job that brought work, family, and country into sudden focus. Like thousands of Americans, he felt drawn to the site, carrying a camera and a new, unwelcome sense of what terror could mean. But as many mouthed the words ''ground zero'' for the first time, Baldwin found himself waved past the mourners and the posters of the mourned, into New York's protected and burning cocoon.

Almost a year later, asked about the conversations that unfolded amid the debris, Baldwin sat for several moments before answering. Between the minutiae of crane assembly and the makings of war, he said, there was mostly silence.

''We really didn't talk a lot,'' he said finally, speaking of his time with co-workers Robert Witkum, an engineer, and John Swenson, the company's lead driver. ''There were problems regarding schedules and making adjustments. There was coordination, working with the other companies, the truckers.

''While this was all going on, you knew the stakes of the project, what was under the rubble. You knew all that. But the main realization was, there was an immediate crisis and we had to ensure this crane would get assembled and be working as quickly as possible. That was the only real conversation.''

A family business

On the morning of Sept. 11, Baldwin got to work at his usual time, 7 a.m., for a day of ordinary duties. Estimates, sales ready for review. A crane that had been scheduled to install air-conditioning systems looked as if it would be a possible headache.

That day, 26 Baldwin cranes were at work, in and outside of New England. One of them carried a boom stretching 520 feet into the air over Jersey City, N.J., at Harbor Side Financial Plaza 10.

From that crane, one of the tallest along the harbor, Swenson had a clear view of downtown New York's signature landmark: the World Trade Center.

Days earlier, Swenson had snapped a photo of the Twin Towers with a disposable camera. Once the planes had struck and the towers had crumbled, the crane's swinging arm would double as a flag pole, with stars and stripes standing watch.

In Wilmington, Baldwin was on the phone with a New York crane company that was planning to clear the scene. If Baldwin got word to send a crane, he would need Swenson and the rest of his crew to load and transport the machines.

''Almost immediately after I saw the second tower get hit, I knew we would probably be called to bring in equipment, and I got on the phone with Mark,'' said William Baldwin, Mark's father and Baldwin Crane's 67-year-old president.

It was William Baldwin who had coaxed his own father to steer the family business away from steel and into cranes. He bought the company's first, a 30-ton Linkbelt, in the 1960s. Eventually, the family would provide the cranes used to build Logan Airport's control tower and the FleetCenter.

Disaster had called the elder Baldwins in their day: On Sept. 10, 1973, an overloaded rig slammed into the Tobin Bridge, killing the driver and causing a section to collapse. With rivets popping and the span threatening to buckle, two of Baldwin's cranes began the slow work of righting the enormous bridge, lifting it about an inch every hour.

Now, as a result of the company's Northeast expansion, a third generation of Baldwins found itself readying 232 tons of machine to pull apart the remains of one of the great feats of modern engineering.

On this project, there would be no eight-hour shifts or permits or weigh stations. Loading in Boston began on a Saturday, and by Monday, as he and the others got on the road, Mark Baldwin already doubted anyone would be found alive. Still, in his mind, a long inventory list began running in a constant loop. Baldwin wasn't sure which of the many interchangeable crane attachments he would need. But he knew that a missing part could delay the crane's assembly for an hour, or an entire day. If even one person still breathed beneath the rubble, every moment counted.

A conventional truck crane had fewer parts, minimizing assembly time. But a crawling crane, with steel tracks, could move like a tank, responding to a light signal or a voice.

''If we suddenly needed to move 10 feet closer to the actual debris, we could just crawl ahead,'' Baldwin said. The decision to use the crawling crane had come from New York.

Other important variables weren't known, and wouldn't be until the crane picked its first beams. Would the crane boom be tall enough? Would it be too tall? Would the hooks at the crane's end match the weight of the objects they would have to carry?

''Cranes are very capable of picking a lot of weight,'' Baldwin said. ''The problem here was in the unknown. You didn't know the weights of what you would have to carry. Some of the steel had been so twisted, it would be difficult to know what it was going to do once it was picked.

''You couldn't determine where the center points were on each pick, so once the steel was hoisted, you couldn't know how it would spin in the air.''

Construction projects are exercises in predetermined values, beams hoisted in clean pieces from the ground. There was nothing clean about a recovery effort. In recovery, beams get stuck. With the wrong kind of pressure, they spring.

''You have people working under and around you, and you don't know what the beams are hung on, Baldwin said. ''Nothing is straight, everything is interconnected, and you can't know how the iron is going to behave.''

The cleanup scene

Baldwin had never been to New York City. But from behind the wheel, as he took in the skyline, he could already see something missing. He would not arrive at ground zero for another day, but as he circled the city's edge, one thought grated on him: ''You just wanted to immediately start doing something.''

The team arrived in Yonkers Monday night. Inside his hotel room, Baldwin turned on the television news. After 10 minutes, he turned it off.

Most of the trucks had stayed back, timing their departure to converge with Baldwin's team before dawn inside the city limits. But the crane's 42-ton superstructure - the cab, the engine, and all its main functions - sat parked outside his hotel.

That night, Baldwin said, a lot went through his mind. Even today, he worries about saying some of those things out loud, for fear of giving terrorists an idea.

''What if something had been planted on the crane?'' he said, revisiting that night. ''I knew there was no way terrorists were going to get through the security at ground zero, but what if they did something to our equipment overnight? You've got a crane superstructure parked at a hotel in Yonkers - it's pretty obvious it's going to be going to ground zero. You just wanted to make sure you were doing everything to protect what's around you.''

At 3 the next morning, on the corner of 3d Avenue and 23d Street, the 13 truckloads of crane lined up for the last leg, through Lower Manhattan. As he passed the searching eyes and phone-booth vigils choking St. Vincent's Hospital, Baldwin tried hard to both absorb the experience and wall it off. Then, approaching the first security post, he made out one of a series of posterboard signs: a group from Melrose, thanking the company of rescue workers Baldwin was about to join.

That would be Baldwin's last adrenaline lift before military personnel waved him through a series of checkpoints to Tower 5, where the work would begin. There, five standing stories of rubble seemed like a miracle beside Towers 1 and 2, which had collapsed to their ground floors.

In the alley where ironworkers met up with Baldwin, a maze of hoses and wires had already claimed the corner designated for crane assembly. Above them, swinging man-baskets sprayed water. Below them, Verizon workers tried to fashion a communications system. Smoke burned the newcomers' eyes, yet most workers kept protection to a minimum, not wanting the added gear to interfere with the hand signals essential to putting a crane together.

In about eight hours, the assembly was done, a real accomplishment given the conditions, Baldwin said. Still, when the city's office for emergency management began predicting a six-month time frame for the cleanup, Baldwin was incredulous. In the car on the way back to Massachusetts, he multiplied the figure by two, and three.

''It wasn't just the buildings that got hit, or the buildings immediately surrounding them,'' Baldwin said. ''For blocks out from that, there were windows out of office buildings, and you could see where once people had been working, everything was abandoned. You'd see a building that looked intact on three sides, and then one face was completely crushed in.''

Rescue workers had proved Baldwin wrong in the first few days after 9/11, defying his worst doubts about finding survivors. Recovery workers would do the same for his predictions for the cleanup. Six months after it arrived, the crane was finished with its work, and a stunned Baldwin learned that his Manitowoc 888 was headed home.

This story ran on page E5 of the Boston Globe on 9/8/2002.
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