Czech architect Jiří Boudník, who aided NYC’s “9/11” rescue effort, created key Ground Zero models
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, Czech-born architect Jiří Boudník was working on a new federal courthouse in Brooklyn, three subway stops from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. After a second airplane hit the Twin Towers, and orders came to evacuate his worksite, Jiří Boudník headed towards Ground Zero, knowing – thanks to his background in civil engineering and architecture and having experienced the 1993 terrorist bombing there – that at least a partial collapse of the Twin Towers was imminent. In the days to come, while organising a volunteer “bucket brigade” to clear debris and retrieve human remains, he developed computer 3D and 4D models of the disaster site that helped firefighters and others safely carry out their grim task.
I spoke to Jiří Boudník ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attacks, and the release of the English-language version of his book “Towers – 9/11 Story”. I began by aksing where he has when he first learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“It was Tuesday morning, and I was at a regular weekly meeting with subcontractors. I was working as a project manager on the construction of a new federal courthouse building on Cadman Plaza, in Brooklyn…
“September 11th absolutely changed everything … I view my life until that day as an absolute walk in the garden, because even though I was a political refugee from Czechoslovakia who came to the U.S. in the spring of ’89 after spending two years in a refugee camp, there was nothing that compared to this trauma caused by the attacks.”
“My phone rang, so I picked it up, and my friend Anne said, ‘Jiří, something terrible happened – a man flew into one of the towers. He probably had a heart attack. It must have been a small plane, a Cessna.’ So, I didn’t consider that so shocking or critical and said I’d call her back.
“And then all the pagers – if you remember, at that time everyone had pagers – they started buzzing on the table, everything was vibrating. So, obviously something was going on but we didn’t pay attention to it, as we had a meeting.
“Then the door busted open and the building superintendent flew in and started yelling. And I’d never seen him in such a state because he was a very composed guy. His eyes were bulging out, and he said he’d seen a second plane fly into the towers.
“He said it must have been some military plane – and ordered everybody out. You know, it was a federal building and we may also be under attack, and this is definitely something other than an accident.
“So, we got out, and when we got out on Cadman Plaza, it was about a mile away, we saw the towers, both of them burning.”
So, you’re in Brooklyn, on the opposite side of the East River, and at some point you decide to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and head towards – you couldn’t have known what was happening at that moment, whether it was a terrorist attack. Could you describe the scene?
“When I realized [that the planes in the air] were our F-16s, I turned back towards Manhattan. When I reached City Hall, the North Tower started collapsing and soon there was dust everywhere, a cloud of dust. I could only recognize the blinking lights of the police cars.”
“Well, it took us some time to actually realise what was going on. We’d heard that other planes were in the air – actually, we might have heard that one plane went down already in Pennsylvania, that the Pentagon was attacked.
“But some 30 minutes from that moment, I recall, I tried calling some friends working at the Towers – I was taking a course there called Landmark Education, so I knew some people who had offices there. But I couldn’t reach anyone.
“Then what hit me, what came to me, was the memory of 1993, eight years earlier, when a bomb exploded in the underground parking lot. I had a friend who was working in one of the Towers, and she called me, saying it was dark there, there’s smoke, and we have to evacuate, you know, walk down the stairs – 100 flights down. And I said to me outside the North Tower, on the north side, by Vesey Street, I think it was.
“So, I went to meet her, and I recall all the fire trucks, ambulances, FDNY [Fire Department of New York], all kinds of vehicles, parked right underneath on tower. Even a helicopter parked there, right on West Street. So, I knew they were going to do it now, in 2001, as well.
“I remember the destroyed fire trucks and ambulances. And everything was grey… It was very monochromatic – black and white; you couldn’t discern any colour. Some cranes were already on site and there were already these chains of people, creating what they called ‘bucket brigades’.
“I did not suspect that the Twin Towers would come down, but I knew that some partial collapse would happen, because I studied not only architecture but also civil engineering – I had a wonderful teacher, Ysrael Seinuk, who built half the Manhattan skyscrapers. So, I was aware of the fact that something would be coming down, and that’s why I decided to go and warn them.”
Can you describe that –I imagine it was chaos, no one knew exactly what was going on. So, did you have to get through cordons of police and firefighters? And if so, how on earth did you convince them that you should be let through?
“Well, that morning, when I was about half way over the Brooklyn Bridge, connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, the first tower started collapsing. Then I heard on a portable radio that other planes were in the air and bridges and tunnels would be the next target. So, for the first time, actually, I got scared. I turned back and walked towards Brooklyn.
“But when I realized these were our F-16s, I turned back towards Manhattan. When I reached City Hall, the North Tower started collapsing and soon there was dust everywhere, a cloud of dust. I could only recognize the blinking lights of the police cars – that’s where the barricades were. So, on that morning, I didn’t make it to Ground Zero.
“It was on the next morning, when we organized a group of 6 to 8 workers with shovels, some ropes and buckets. We had decided to join the team of volunteers working there, looking for survivors and removing the debris – whatever was possible by hand.
“I did not suspect that the Twin Towers would come down, but I knew that some partial collapse would happen, because I studied not only architecture but also civil engineering – I had a wonderful teacher, Ysrael Seinuk, who built half the Manhattan skyscrapers.”
“So, I went to the bridge, which was obviously closed. There was a police barricade, and I convinced them to escort us to Ground Zero. They loaded us in a police van and took us there. So, I was there from the next morning.”
And this group of 6 to 8 volunteers, like you did they have some background in engineering, building structures?
“No, these were mostly iron workers or labourers – they were not architects or civil engineers. But they were willing to help.
But they were colleagues from the federal building site – the Federal Court Building [in Brooklyn]?
“Yes. The company at that time was JA Jones, a large construction company in New York that doesn’t exist anymore.”
So, you get to Ground Zero, to the scene. Where do you even begin to help – can you remember the first thing you physically picked up or did?
“The first thing I noticed was the amount of water that was in the streets around the site, I guess because firemen were hosing down the pile [of debris] all night, so we were up to our knees in mud and water.
“Then I remember the destroyed fire trucks and ambulances. And everything was grey and… It was very monochromatic – black and white, you couldn’t discern any colour. Some of the cranes were already on site and there were already these chains of people, creating what they called ‘bucket brigades’.
“During the visit of President George W Bush, there was meeting where some firemen were saying, ‘There’s Liberty Street, Liberty Plaza, Liberty Place – I don’t really know what is what’. They really couldn’t read some of the floor plans. So, the idea was born to build them a 3-D model, which took the whole following weekend.”
“So, we formed a bucket brigade. But after a while, I realised it was not the most effective way to spend the time there and I realised that someone needed plans so that they could orient themselves in that twisted pile of steel.
“I guess this idea came from some of the reactions of the firemen. They didn’t know where was North, South… They didn’t know which tower was which. It had to do with the fact that the firemen who maybe knew the Twin Towers had died there, and so these were firemen from say Long Island, or New Jersey, or younger firemen.
“And also, since the Twin Towers were under the auspices of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority organisation, so it wasn’t part of the building department, and the plans couldn’t be found there.”
So, normally the Building Department of New York City would have blueprints, plans of every building, but in this case…
“In this case, they didn’t. And the plans were buried. I found that morning – I was looking for them – I found one set of plans in a mobile command centre of the PAPD, the Port Authority Police Department, so I convinced them to give them to me.
“They sent an officer with me, and I went to the offices of Turner Construction, on Canal Street and Hudson, which had power – otherwise, there was no power within the vicinity.
“So, I made seven copies of these plans – I was more concerned about the underground plans since the buildings had seven subterranean levels, and those I distributed among all the different organisations, like the FBI, the FDNY, the CIA, that were forming in a newly established command post.”
And you were concerned that there could be additional carnage – that the underground parts of the buildings were structurally unsound, of course, and that’s why you focused on them?
“Well, since the… I guess it was very good, this volunteer effort to remove the debris, but it took a while before it was organised somehow and structured – I was afraid that there could be partial collapse. So, these plans would help especially the firemen, who were absolutely not minding their health or safety because they wanted to find their ‘brothers’ buried there. So, for that, these plans were meant to help in the orientation.
“And later, I remember, I think it was on a Thursday, during the visit of President George W Bush, there was meeting where some of the firemen were saying, ‘There’s Liberty Street, Liberty Plaza, Liberty Place – I don’t really know what is what’. They really couldn’t read some of the floor plans.
“So, there was born an idea to build them a 3-D model, which took the whole following weekend, so on Monday, I think September 18th, I delivered the model to the command post.”
Now, bearing in mind that this was 20 years ago when the technology was quite different, what did that involve, actually, building a 3-D model?
“Well, the very first one was a crude paper model – a ‘chipboard’ model, it’s called. It was in 1:16 scale and included all the surrounding streets. But, actually, I couldn’t get those plans, so I had to wake up the president of Cooper Union, which was my alma mater, in Manhattan.
That’s where you studied architecture?
“Correct. And I had to wake him up because they wouldn’t let me into the school library, and I knew we had a copy of the Sanborn map of New York, which included all the buildings – not in great detail, but it would help. So, he went to open the library for me, and I contacted two of my colleagues, former classmates, Kenneth Francis and Sandra Donner, and we spent the whole weekend building the model.
“But it was very crude – it was the first one. And when Mike Burton, one of the people at the DDC, the Department of Design and Construction, was put in change of all operations at Ground Zero. When he saw it, he said it was great and asked if I could stay – and whatever else you can think of, we’ll give you access to photos of the floors. And I said that was great because I actually thought that there should be a computer model.
“There’s a programme that allows 4th dimension, meaning animation – there’s movement, time. So, a 4D model of the site, of the collapsed towers, would have been helpful to create certain sections, exploded views, and could help the firemen to safely pass through certain areas that were already under the dismantling process.”
So, to identify priority areas for clearing rubble, to preserve the integrity of what was left, and to do it quickly – and what else did it help them with?
“Well, for one, I think it helped in that there was no casualty in those 6 or 8 months of dismantling of the debris because we were able to say, look, right now AMEC [a construction company] is working on this part of the building, and it you walk there, it’s going to be dangerous. So, in these day to day operations it probably was helpful.”
At some point, were you given this work in an official capacity? Or was it always volunteer?
“It was always volunteer – there was an official pass [to the site]. Actually, I stopped working at J.A. Jones and had my own side business designing houses on Long Island, and that paid the bills. But this was all on a volunteer basis.
And so for 6 months, you really dedicated your waking hours to Ground Zero.
“Correct. And obviously one thing led to the other, so when the engineers who were working at Ground Zero realised that we were building this model, they said it could help them, because they were forming a team.
We were hired by Larry Silverstein, owner of the World Trade Center, in his fight against the reinsurance companies – 22 reinsurance companies – because he had it in his contract to rebuild the World Trade Center, 1:1, as soon as possible.
“I think he was paying $10 million a month, which was the rent. So, then in the spring of 2002 we formed a company, an LLC, called Brain Storm, for computer animated design, and started focusing on creating computer models, 3-D, 4-D models of construction projects.”
Is this something that you continued to do? Have they been used at other disaster sites?
“We started working with FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency), but unfortunately, a realisation of other projects did not materialise.”
I’d like to go back a bit – after those 6 months of volunteer work, you fell into a depression, and wrote the Czech version of the story ahead of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and that it was kind of a cathartic act, which helped you get over the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Could you describe what was in your head [at the time]?
“I started taking notes – I like keeping a record of everything. So, there was material to work with and base it on, but I started working on the book in about 2003. Actually, the original manuscript was in English, and only then it was translated into Czech, and on the 10th anniversary, I published the Czech version.
“But the English version was always there, and as you know in the U.S. it’s hard to find a publishing agent, so I self-published the English version. But now, for the 20th anniversary, I decided to publish also the English version as well as an audiobook version, read by Daniel Hauck.
“And the reason was that it was very cathartic to get all the thoughts and fears out of me and put down on paper. But it took many years – many, many years – to craft it and hone it down into a coherent work, a book.”
I imagine it’s much easier to do that in the written word than to talk about it. But could you share with us some of your feelings, and how the event has maybe shaped your view of the world, and life?
“It absolutely changed everything. I think September 11th … I view my life until that day as an absolute walk in the garden, because even though I was a political refugee from Czechoslovakia who came to the U.S. in the spring of ’89 after spending two years in a refugee camp, there was nothing that compared to this trauma caused by the attacks. Also, what I had seen there, expired bodies in the following days, it was necessary to write myself out of this PTSD, as you would call it.”
You mentioned the narrator of the audiobook, and I understand that the cover back of a firefighter who rescued some 13 people from the debris. Since this is radio, could you describe the picture and what it meant to the firefighter?
“The picture is the back, physical back of a fireman, Tiernach Cassidy. He was a fireman in a Manhattan firehouse that day and on light duty. So, he wasn’t one of the first responders when the call came in to respond to events at the World Trade Center. He was on a second or third truck, I think, and that actually saved his life.
“But five of his ‘brothers’, his colleagues, died that day. And he was feeling the survival guilt. ‘Why me? Why did I survived? I have no kids, my friends have fathers how died there.’ So, he somehow wanted to make up for this pain, and chose physical pain, on his back. Over one year, he had tattooed on his back a beautiful picture.
“On his back are the Twin Towers burning, over them are two angels with a shroud, and on it are five names of his firemen ‘brothers’. And in words it says, ‘All gave some, some gave all’. It’s a beautiful tattoo – I haven’t seen a better one.
“Everybody was getting tattoos somehow commemorating what happened or their work at Ground Zero, but this was the most beautiful. So, I asked him if I could use it for the cover and he agreed.”
And he [the firefighter Tiernach Cassidy] also speaks in the audiobook edition, is that right?
“It’s amazing – it’s almost like life imitates art. I asked him if he could speak his words that are in the book, in chapter 45, I believe. So, that worked out, and I’m very happy for that.”
I want to also ask you a bit about the structure of the book. In an earlier interview, I heard you describe it as having three layers: one from the point of view of an architect who came to the U.S. as a refugee and loves New York City – the people, the architecture; what actually happened on 9/11 and its aftermath, as you experienced it; and then a layer of ‘dreams’. Could you expand on those a bit?
“Yes. First of all, the baseline is a love letter to New York and its architecture, as you said. I love skyscrapers, and the Chrysler Building I guess is the top. And the second thing is the day to day story of what has happening at Ground Zero, the people I was meeting there. But the third I chose to explore the idea of ghosts. Because we all felt we were meeting ghosts at Ground Zero.
“Maybe it was out of fatigue or adrenalin pumping through our blood, but there was some other dimension that existed there. So, I explored the idea … If [your listeners] chose to read the book, they will find out why. In the end, it comes out as this surprise.”
Okay, so no spoiler alerts [are needed]…
“We don’t want to spoil it.”
Almost immediately, there were these wild conspiracy theories – do you encounter people from time to time who try to convince you of an alternative reality, and how do you explain to them, as someone who studied engineering and architecture, what happened?
“Yes. I think that’s one reason I continue talking about 9/11, the World Trade Center, and how it happened, because once in a while I do meet these people. I don’t respond to some comments on the Internet, but there’s obviously a large group of people who believe, like with the [assassination of JFK] or in other conspiracy theories, that it was all a set-up.
“The simplest explanation is that there was a lot of [jet] fuel in the wings of the planes that compromised the structure of the Twin Towers – it wasn’t the impact of the planes. Obviously, the planes each damaged one of the four sides of each tower, but the buildings would have stood, and been repaired and still stand today.”
“But what caused the damage and the following collapse was the fuel. It’s for a longer explanation, but if someone feels there were ‘nano bombs’ [controlled demolition], for example… Any secret held by more than one person is no longer a secret. We would definitely find out by now.”
I understand that on the anniversary of 9/11, you are going to be sharing your experiences and talking about the book with [the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in New York (SVU), part of] the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, and you’ll be doing that from your home, in Pilsen…
“Correct. It’s going be digital, through Zoom, and it’s organised through the New York chapter of the Association. People from around the world will be able to join in the conversation. We’re going to be talking about the book but also about other things, like how we commemorate or remember the events of September 11.”
Is that something you do yourself, on the actual anniversary? Is there some kind of ritual that you have, or is it so present with you that…
“It’s conflicting. Because on one hand, I would love to do nothing. I always take a day off from work or from whatever I do, and want to keep to myself and be free of any distractions. But on the other hand, I do talk about it as well.”
One last question. Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you would really like to convey to our listeners?
“Come to New York – it’s a great city.”