Jiří Boudník – still haunted by experiences at Ground Zero in wake of 9/11 attacks

Jiří Boudník, photo: Ian Willoughby

On September 11, 2001, the Czech-born architect Jiří Boudník was working across the East River from the World Trade Center, on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge. He tried and failed to reach the Twin Towers on 9/11 itself, but returned the following day and spent six months taking part in the clean-up operation at Ground Zero, experiencing horrors that stay with him to this day.

Jiří Boudník
“I saw when they were burning that there would be some kind of collapse. I didn’t know that they would fall down completely, but I knew at least partial collapse would happen. I was concerned about all the fire trucks and police cars rushing towards the towers.

“I have a memory from 1993, when the Towers were bombed. I had a friend working on one of the top floors. I came to pick her up and I saw all those fire trucks parked underneath the towers. That flashback entered my mind.

“I decided to go and warn them. I grabbed my hard hat and walked over the Brooklyn Bridge towards the World Trade Center.”

Is it the case also that you tried phoning people in the building?

“Yes, I did, but I guess everybody tried that. Also the Verizon Building which was just around the corner was hit by some of the debris…For some reason the phones were not working.”

Did you walk across Brooklyn Bridge? I presume most of the traffic was going the other way?

“There were thousands of people walking in the opposite direction, against me, yes.”

What were you hoping to do? Why did you go in that direction, towards the WTC?

“I went to warn the fire and police people not to stand under the towers, that something would be coming down.”

Weren’t you afraid it would come down on you as well?

“I wasn’t thinking about that at that time (laughs).”

I presume there was a lot happening here, of course there was. How did you yourself get through to talk to the rescue workers and fire officers?

“When I finally reached City Hall that’s when the second tower collapsed. There was dust everywhere, so I couldn’t get through to the Center. At that point it was kind of…pointless, it was too late.

“The next morning I went back to my construction site and we got together a group of engineers and construction workers and convinced the police officers who were guarding the bridge to escort us to the WTC. We told them we were coming to help clear the debris and in the rescue effort.”

The fire-fighters and the police are of course rightly regarded as heroes – but I believe also there was a terrible amount of chaos at that time here.

“There was a lot of chaos, yes. I think some of the top ranks of the police and fire people were lost, with the collapse. So the chaos was sort of compounded because the people who came to the rescue after were kind of second-tier people.”

You were involved literally hands on in clearing the debris. Do you mind if I ask you what kind of things you saw?

“Well, I saw the debris, but also I saw body parts and among the debris, and that’s something that still haunts me, whenever I think about it. I have trouble sometimes watching movies where there is a lot of violence and blood, because I always get flashbacks to the images…

“We had to pick up the body parts, we couldn’t just leave them lying among the debris. We had no choice, we just had to get gloves, plastic bags and pick them up. I do have flash-backs to those moments.”

Tell us also Jiří about the 3-D model of the Twin Towers that you created – and why there was a need for it.

“We had daily meetings at the command post. There were some engineers, crane operators, firemen who came from outside of the city. They were part of these meetings and they didn’t know very well the footprint of the towers, they didn’t know the subterranean level. So when they were looking at the plans they were confused.

“Suddenly in one of the meetings a flashbulb kind of lit up and I realised these guys need three-dimensional models, so that they can actually understand and orient themselves visually and also physically, spatially.”

Was your model also used after those initial few days?

“Yes, the first model was a chipboard model, which was followed by a computer, 3-D digital model – it allowed explosion views, sections, walk-throughs, animated views.

“That model was helpful. Obviously it was not instrumental in finding anybody alive, because at that time we knew everybody was dead. But it was helpful in placing some of the heavy equipment, cranes, on columns that were still physically intact.

“In the computer model they were noted as green, whereas the compromised columns, those that were somehow damaged, were in red.

“We were able to rotate the model, and decide what the best location for some of this heavy equipment was.”

What were your feelings in the months and even years after 9/11 about what happened and what you yourself experienced?

“It’s a mixed bag of feelings. I feel bitter, I feel proud, I feel disgusted, I feel honoured. It kind of fluctuates from year to year, especially when it becomes commodified as an…event. There are souvenirs being sold with 9/11 images – I kind of cringe.”

Is there anything else that you’re bitter about regarding the portrayal of 9/11?

“Yes, I think it’s inevitable, because those who make decisions at the government level have the opportunity to use it for their benefit. So I’m bitter about the fact that it’s being misused and somehow cheapened.”

In what way, do you mean?

“At the government level…I think the idea of patriotism and pride is being exploited. Because this is first and foremost a tragedy. These were civilians who didn’t ask to be killed and died horrible deaths. I saw people jumping out of the windows and I realised what heat they had to…they had to decide, OK, I’m going to jump…So this kind of tragedy should not be exploited as it is now.”

How did all of those experiences change you? Or did they change you?

“I guess my views became more jaded, I’m more cynical. And I seek optimism and happiness in other things.”

Finally, what do you feel when you come here today to Ground Zero, and you look around at all this building work and all these people?

“I feel out of place. I feel like this is not where I was six years ago. It’s very strange to see all the tourists. Everybody’s walking around like it’s just another day.”