Rebuilding New York: Women at Ground Zero

(WOMENSENEWS)–Ironworker Rosemarie George is at home in the heights of some of the city’s tallest buildings. Her current habitat is a makeshift office in a 26-story midtown construction site that looks uninhabitable with exposed metal beams, naked wires, and the film of gray concrete dust surrounding the building site.

For now, she is helping coordinate a construction crew rushing to complete a new high-rise building that may replace some of what was lost on Sept. 11. She also is one of the blue-collar heroes who dug through the rubble during the days immediately after, searching madly for survivors and beginning the process of clearing the site of debris.

George has been an ironworker on construction sites for the past 16 years. She is muscular, with broad shoulders and wide hips. She smiles readily, and her voice is steady and direct during an interview last week.

"The day the towers fell, I was here," explains George, a 45-year-old African American mother of four and grandmother helping to raise her daughter’s children.

Within hours, she responded to the call of Local 580 of the Ironworkers Union for all who could assist in the huge effort to search for survivors and clear the site of debris.

The danger of additional collapses remained constant during those three days, and George and other construction workers were in danger as they cleared debris one bucket at a time–large machinery could have set off dangerous vibrations.

George Cleared Debris With Her Hands

George says she was prepared to help because she had her own respirator and own gas mask and had worked on large-scale demolitions before.

Ironworker Rosemarie GeorgeHer most vivid memories of the destruction are those of a person familiar with steel and who had used a welding torch to change its shape.

"When I saw the way the steel was bent around, I knew that it was caused by the heat from the airplanes. It was worse than a furnace. I’m a construction and ironworker–I know about heat. None of us were really prepared for what we saw," she adds.

"The devastation that I saw down there was enough to make anyone drop to their knees and pray to the Lord."

George had worked in that area before at nearby office buildings. But she did not recognize the area when she got down there.

"We started clearing debris, with our hands; we did anything we were asked to do. My years of experience helped me to learn to expect the unexpected, so I wasn’t scared of it all." Yet she adds, "It could have been me."

Put Herself Through Welding School at Night, Did Odd Jobs by Day

Born in Harlem, George lived with her parents and a brother and sister on 116th Street and Manhattan Avenue. After graduating from Washington Irving High School, she worked all over the city at fried chicken chain restaurants, lingerie shops and as a home health aid.

During the early 1980s, she put herself through a technical school in Manhattan at night while she worked odd jobs during the day. The school put her in touch with Non-Traditional Employment for Women, an organization that helped her find uses for her newly acquired welding skills.

"That organization worked with me, and I was the first one out of that class that got offered a job in 1985," she says proudly. She was enlisted as a welding apprentice and received her license after she began working with the union.

Soon she was working all over the city in a wide variety of jobs. She loves working construction–the rough and tumble of iron working–and chafes at being assigned to her current duties, acting as clerk for the work crews.

"I’d rather be out in the field working than in here in the office. … You work where you are needed," George sighs. "I love the men who work in construction and iron work, and I love to take my grandchildren with me to the site," she says.

George says safety concerns in the union and among workers are suddenly becoming bigger issues. "Everyone tries to be more careful, more watchful," she says. "We’re all being more cautious on site. The situation really changed the world we live in."

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Maya Dollarhide is a free-lance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.