Coming Full Circle

Read Part 1  Read Part 2

In this final part of our “Remembering 9/11” series, the author describes successfully scanning the debris piles from the World Trade Center so they could be deposited efficiently in a nearby landfill. For the author and us at the magazine, this series facilitates healing during the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. (See the September issue for part 1 about responding to 9/11 in New York City and the October issue for part 2 about scanning the Pentagon and Capitol buildings in Washington, D.C., or use the links above.)

By Frank John Hahnel, III


The landing gear being deployed right below my seat woke me up. It was the day before my 25th birthday in January of 2002, and I was celebrating it by flying into La Guardia, New York, for work.  At least my long-time friend, Scott Masciantoni, was sitting right beside me. We had a large job before us: to map the debris piles that had once been the World Trade Center towers and buildings, now resting at the 2,200-acre Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, named for its location along the banks of the Fresh Kills estuary.

Once we landed, we had to roll three extremely large, gray equipment cases through the airport. I thought we would have attracted unwanted airport police attention, but we didn’t.  I didn’t know whether I felt relieved or scared. 

Scott and I drove to our hotel, checked in for the night, and then met up with the gentleman who would act as our guide for the next few days. His company had been contracted to aid the New York Sanitation Department with moving and placing the debris piles.  The NYPD wanted an exact volume calculation of each pile to determine if they needed to divert incoming debris to a different area of the landfill, and there was much concern that the landfill was quickly running out of room. 


Complex Prepping, Again

The next morning, we located the project’s temporary headquarters and briefed our hosts on our plan: scan everything.  After this short meeting, we were fitted with Tyvek suits and face-masks.  I quickly understood this was no joke. 

To ensure that our gasmask seals were intact against our skin, we had to submit to a test using isoamylacetate (also known as banana oil). I was happy that it was January and we were up North, but wearing that mask was stifling. Noticing my displeasure, the man running the test explained the need for extra precautions. He said that the NYPD and NYFD officers who had worked the Fresh Kills landfill right after the debris had been taken from Ground Zero had all gotten seriously sick.  They had used their bare hands to sift through the debris, looking for human remains.  In doing so, most became exposed to heavy metals (mostly from the lightbulbs) and were poisoned.

Yet, lead and mercury poisoning were only two of many nasty ways we could get injured on the site.  There were also concrete chunks everywhere and steel of all shapes and sizes jutting out of the piles.  Our gas mask tester said they had all learned the hard way and weren’t taking any chances with our safety.

After we were briefed on our safety, we were asked to keep our eyes open for anything that might be used for victim identification, especially driver’s licenses and human remains.  We were told that remains would no longer look like a “normal” human but would be rubbery and black.  Three months had passed since the attacks, and the debris had been exposed to the open air during barge transportation to the site.  We were also instructed to look inside any shoes we came across.  A shoe, we were told, sometimes still had the owner’s foot inside.  The thought was gruesome, but victims’ families needed the closure that DNA provided. The gravity of our duties weighed heavily on our minds as we headed out to begin scanning.


Scanning the Debris

The debris from Towers 1and 2 was in one area of the landfill, while Tower 7 was in another.  The site was huge, and once again there was construction equipment moving all over the place.  Our escort was worried that the vibration of the moving dump trucks might interfere with the scans of the site, but I put his concerns to rest.  That would not be an issue at all. 

What I was most concerned with was moving all of our heavy equipment all over the site.  He had a solution for that.  In lightning-flash speed, he produced a green, four-wheel-drive Gator for our use.  I loaded the tripod, battery case, and scanner into its small pick-up-truck-like bed, and we headed off to the first scan position. At least that problem was solved. 

There would be no easy way to register all of these scans together without targets, so I asked our escort to head to the top of the pile for Towers 1 and 2 to place three targets.  He headed off, and I began to scan, tethered to the scanner with my laptop collecting data.

While I was scanning, Scott called me over.  He had found several shoes on the ground and wanted to know what we should do. I picked one up, held my breath, and looked inside. No foot.  Actually, all the shoes still had the price tags on them.  Thinking back to what I remembered of the World Trade Center, I recalled that there had been several retail stores inside the buildings, one of them a shoe store.  I admit we were both relieved the shoes were empty. 

Once we finished the scan, we fired up the Gator and headed to the next setup.  The piles were jagged, so we were forced to set up scans from different angles and heights in order to capture all sides of the jagged debris. 

Shortly after I commenced the second scan, Scott called me over once again.  He pulled his mask away from his face so I could hear him clearly.

“Frank, look at this.” He kicked a small section of dirt away to reveal a pile of burnt cash.  “What do we do?” 

I told him to mark it with one of the cones nearby, and we would let the NYPD know about it when we got back to the trailers.  I wanted nothing to do with any of the debris there.

We moved several more times in the Gator and ended up with 18 scans total.  Then our escort went back up on the pile to pull the targets. 

It was time for lunch, and luckily for us the Red Cross had set up a kitchen on the site.  First we checked in with the NYPD and told them about the pile of burnt bills.  Finally, we tore off our protective gear, washed up, and headed over to the mess hall.  The food smelled wonderful.  I had worked up a hunger, and this time I was able to eat.  Between bites of food, I worked on registering the scan data using the three targets on the hill.  I got a great registration, and I proceeded to run my volumetric calculation on the pile. 


Assessing the Scanner’s Accuracy

I had been told that the company we were scanning for had an employee who had been working on graders longer than I had been on the planet.  He could look at a site from the air and guesstimate how much volume was present almost accurately; he was that good.  Now I knew that the equipment and my findings were up against the best, and any volumetric number not close to his could cause doubts about the effectiveness of the equipment.  I knew the scanners worked, but I needed to prove it to the contractor. 

After lunch we headed over to their trailer where several of the company’s employees had assembled to seethe scan data and find out the volumetric result.  Unbeknownst to me, the contractor had written down his estimation on a small piece of paper and handed it to one of his friends.  He demanded that I write my final number on the white board for all to see.

As I did, there was a huge gasp from the group of employees.  The guy with the paper unrolled it and read his number aloud.  I was wrong!  My mind raced.  What had I done wrong?  Was my registration incorrect?  I reran the registration.  Same number.  Maybe I did the volume wrong? 

Then the group began laughing.  They were playing a joke on me!  I took a deep breath.  The numbers, in fact, matched.  They matched so closely that the contractor couldn’t believe it.  Neither could the company’s president. 

That was it.  I had done it.  The technology was proven, and our success garnered a request to return the next day to work on the Tower 7 debris pile.  Exhausted and emotionally drained, we packed up and headed back to our hotel.


A Respite

That night, Scott, our guide, and I ate like kings at a nearby Italian restaurant.  It was a family-run restaurant, and they definitely treated us like family after we explained why we were working in the area.   The manager thanked us and offered us anything we wanted, even if it wasn’t listed on the menu. 

When we got back to the hotel, we all headed to our guide’s room to have a cigar.  I enjoyed one from time to time at the end of the day, and it was nice to find out that he was an occasional cigar smoker, too.  The volume of smoke billowing from his hotel room was tremendous, and we joked darkly about it the next morning at breakfast.   It had been a brief respite from the horrors we had seen—full of irony, but a fond memory for all of us to this day.

Day two found us back onsite to scan the Tower 7 pile.  Since that building hadn’t been as tall as Towers 1 and 2, scanning didn’t take nearly as long, and we collected an additional eight scans.  Sadly, we couldn’t find our Gator, so we had to haul the scanner around by hand, which took more time than the actual scanning. 

Upon completion, we registered the data and reported our findings. Then we were given a tour of the NYPD’s on-site crime lab, and through talking with several detectives I got an inside glimpse of that tragic day in September.


Searching for Closure

Heading home the next day brought an end to many months of working in the aftermath of September 11.  I spent the next several years trying to forget about everything I had seen and done.

For one thing, I had to deal with rumors about a chemical or biological agent having been onboard the airplanes that had hit the towers, with smoke from the explosions having supposedly sent the poison into the air. Because I had been walking around Ground Zero just days after the attacks, I was convinced I would soon be dead.  I promised myself that if I survived, I would start a family.

Routinely, I woke up to abed soaked with sweat.  I had horrible nightmares.  It wasn’t until a dinner several years later that a close friend suggested I talk to someone about my experiences.  I took his advice, found some sense of peace, and renewed my promise to myself to start a family. 

Unfortunately, my wife didn’t see things the same way I did, and in 2008 we separated.  In 2009 we were officially divorced.  But God had a plan for me.  In 2010, I fell in love with an incredible woman who also works with law enforcement. Through her love and support, I was able to find the strength to move forward and celebrate life once again.  Later that year, my promise to myself was fulfilled with the birth of my daughter. 

As fate would have it, I wasn’t quite done with the World Trade Center site.  I received a request from the New York and New Jersey Port Authority to take our latest scanning equipment to their site for evaluation.  The Port Authority was an existing client, and they were interested in using the latest technology in their accident investigations.  The higher-ups suggested that the most efficient place to perform a demonstration was on one of the floors in the new World Trade Center Tower 1. 

On a wet and rainy day, exactly 9 years and 11 months from when I had last walked around the World Trade Center site, I was standing on the 70th floor, set up to scan.  I had come full circle. 

Even knowing everything I would encounter, I would do it all over again without hesitation.  As my friend and former NYPD sergeant once wrote to me, “Never Forget Those Who Died. Never Forget Who Killed Them.” God bless the United States of America.

Frank John Hahnel, III, was born and raised in Winter Park, Florida, and has worked in the laser scanning industry for 12 years. His background is in land surveying. He is currently accident investigations account manager for Leica Geosystems, Inc., working with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the military and private firms, in accident investigation and reconstruction.

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