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Duty calls ironworker from idyll in the forest: A volunteer confronts the pain at WTC

Thursday, September 27, 2001

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As deliberately as if he were walking a 20th-story girder, ironworker James Large searches for the right words. How can anyone capture the hell that he witnessed at the burned, crushed and twisted remains of the World Trade Center?

 
  Aftershock: How lives have changed

This is the first in an occasional series on how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have affected ordinary Americans.

   
 

At the same time, words fail when he tries to describe the generosity and brotherhood that rose out of those ashes.

The devastation of murderous hatred. The balm of human kindness. Large experienced both during four days of cutting and removing tons of steel at ground zero -- and finding teddy bears, family photos, purses and human remains.

James Large at work with a cutting torch within the twisted remains of the World Trade Center.

Before New York, a friend told him he would never be the same. "I didn't understand what she meant then." He paused. "I do now."

Now, having never been to New York before his brief, emotional volunteer stint there, having toiled at what he described as "Armageddon," Large feels a need to return as quickly as possible.

Today, Large, 47, who lives in the small town named for his family, will board a plane and return to New York for who knows how long. Three months? Six months? He doesn't know, but plans to stay as long as he's needed -- or as long as he can take it. It's now a paid position, but he'd be there even if it weren't. To have a needed skill and not help out would be morally wrong, he said.

Like thousands of ordinary Americans, Large, an ironworker for 27 years, has been thrust by the events of Sept. 11 into extraordinary circumstances.

His friends consider him a hero. Firefighters, police officers and others at the site say the same. But Large doesn't see it that way.

"I don't feel like a hero when I'm sitting there crying," he said. "Do heroes sit there and cry? I don't know. I'm just doing what I think is right.

"God's gotten into my life a lot lately. Somehow, he put me there and that's where I'm supposed to be."

His route to New York began in the serenity of the Laurel Highlands. Seeking solitude and reflection, Large embarked on a solo nine-day hiking/camping trip five days before the attacks. He was carrying a cell phone but it was turned off. As he sat eating his lunch one day, Large asked a passing hiker, "Am I missing anything out there?" The hiker told him of the attacks, which had happened two days before, and kept on walking.

It was so unbelievable that Large dismissed it. But when he checked his messages and stopped at a ranger station, the absurd became the real. He still didn't believe it until he ran into somebody on the trail with a New York Times. At that moment, he made a decision.

 
 

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Schedule Of Events


   
 

"I knew I would be going."

The next day, Sept. 14, he made it home and called his union hall, but there hadn't been a national call for ironworkers. Large had planned to go to New York anyway to help a friend pick up furniture from storage. The union business agent told him to take his tools and he would call the New York union hall and clear him for work.

Large arrived in New York on Sept. 19. At the union hall, he found 25 other ironworkers from all over the country, signing up as volunteers. Five minutes later, he was put in a gang of ironworkers from New York and Chicago. They headed to ground zero for the 4-to-midnight shift.

There, the gang found "organized chaos." Thousands of workers. Cranes, bulldozers, wrecking machines. Demolished buildings. Twisted steel. Broken glass. Fires and smoke. The smell of death.

"I've never seen anything like it," Large said. "I hope I never do again."

The ironworkers' job was to cut the steel into "small" pieces -- a ton or two -- and then hook the pieces to cranes for removal. Once a site is cleared, firefighters and other rescue workers look for survivors and collect human remains.

Not long after his first shift began, he found a body part in the wreckage of a 187-year-old Greek Orthodox church. It wouldn't be the last time he would make such a discovery.

After his shift ended, Large left the site, his heart full of sadness, his head full of confusion. Eight blocks outside the security area, he noticed a crowd of people, on the streets at 12:30 a.m., holding signs and cheering the construction workers.

Tears flood Large's eyes as he recalls the scene. "It was very moving," he said in a voice not much louder than a whisper. "It's hard for me to talk about."

The down time got to Large. That's when he had time to stop and think and absorb and process what had happened, what was happening.

"I started doubting myself. Why am I here? Why would I come to this? Why? ... But I feel as if I have a duty. I have a skill that is needed."

When it all became too much on the job, he'd drop his head into his hands. "Oh, God," he would say.

"It's all right, man," the others in his gang would tell him. "Come on. You'll be OK. Sit down over there for a minute."

Large would sit, take a deep breath, then jump up and get back to work. In turn, Large would find himself comforting his co-workers.

The kindness of strangers has sustained him. Those who have not only told him which subway to get on, but have also walked him there to make sure he got on the right one. The hundreds who have thanked him for helping out. The volunteers cooking food, delivering water, providing counseling. Everyone, everywhere in a city that three weeks ago had a reputation for being cold.

Now, where the remnants of the World Trade Center are testament to the worst acts of humanity, Large can also see the best of mankind.

"I never thought people could be this good. To pull together like they are. ... Usually, everyone's 'Me. Me. Me. Where's mine?' That's not the case here. It's given me a different outlook."

Now that he is to return, Large wonders how much more he can feel. He hopes to simply do his job. And he hopes to become numb to all the death and destruction and loss the rubble represents as he cuts through steel.

But that, he knows, may be the toughest job of all.



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