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Mike O'Reilly at work on the Freedom Tower

Rebuilding the Skyline

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Mike O'Reilly at work on the Freedom Tower

Honoring the Past

There’s Irish-born Tony Kearney, who supervises some 500 construction workers. There are ironworkers Tommy Hickey and Mike O’Reilly, both of whose fathers were also ironworkers, and who trust each other with their lives hundreds of feet above the bustling streets of Manhattan. And another superintendent named Georgie Fitzgerald, whose uncle worked on the original Twin Towers.

And there’s plumber Jimmy Walsh, whose own mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks, and who is now working on the memorial to those who perished in the attacks 10 years ago.

These Irish Americans were among the laborers, planners, supervisors and architects recently profiled in a fascinating Discovery Channel documentary called Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero. The six-part series chronicled the planning, problems and pride which have gone into building the Freedom Tower, which reached 1,000 feet tall on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

A constant theme throughout the documentary – one echoed by the Irish American ironworkers and supervisors, as well as former New York Governor George Pataki and master planner Daniel Liebskind – is that the work currently being done at the former Ground Zero honors the past but also looks forward to the future.

“We’re going to show what this nation is all about,” says supervisor Tony Kearney, who came to the U.S. from Ireland in 1985. “This nation is a nation of immigrants … a nation of people who want to succeed and persevere.”

As the documentary makes clear, the workers at the Trade Center ran into many problems over the past decade, as the memorial was planned and skyscrapers finally began to rise into the skyline. Often, the project simply seemed too daunting.

But, as plumber Jimmy Walsh, put it: “Failure was not an option here.”

“He’s Like My Brother”

In some ways, the heart and soul of the Rising documentary are ironworkers Tommy Hickey and Mike O’Reilly. They combine pride in their work with a sense of humor, not to mention an appropriate sense of awe at the fact that they are literally building history from the ground up.

“Tommy, he’s like my brother. Every thing I do affects him and everything he does affects me,” says O’Reilly.

Hickey adds: “We’ll probably see each other 20 years from now and talk about this job.”

The Irish American duo come from a long line of ironworkers, which is no
surprise.

Ironworkers unions such as Local 40 and Local 361 in New York City have long had a strong Irish presence, not to mention family bonds.

“It was in my blood, it was in my family,” Tommy Hickey says about ironwork, at one point during the Discovery Channel special.

Hickey’s partner Mike O’Reilly had not initially planned to follow his father into the trade.

O’Reilly’s father was working as a connector on 7 World Trade Center when young Mike was just 11.

One day, Mike’s dad slid down a column of steel – “like we do every day,” O’Reilly notes.

But O’Reilly’s father sustained a serious injury, one that left him paralyzed from the waist down. It did not, however, rob him of his sense of humor.

“The first thing he said after he fell was: ‘Can I have a cigarette?’ And ‘Let’s get back to work.’”

Answering a “Call”

Then, on 9/11, Mike O’Reilly saw the collapse of the north and south towers and later that afternoon, the collapse of 7 World Trade Center. To go along with all the other pain and suffering brought on by the events of that day, Mike saw the tower that his father worked on crumble to the ground.

Soon, Mike quit his bartending job and discussed becoming an ironworker with his father.
“It’s been like a calling to me,” says O’Reilly. “Ever since 9/11 all I ever wanted to do was help rebuild. What else are you thinking about other than rebuilding your nation, your city?”

He now understands the passion his father, who passed away in 2007, felt for the job. He feels it too.
Ironworkers such as Hickey and O’Reilly set the pace of the World Trade Center project. They lead the charge into the sky, constructing the iron column at the center of the building – the core – as well as the floors. This is the building’s skeleton, and makes all of the other necessary work possible.

As the tenth anniversary of the attack approached, Trade Center workers were building a new floor every week, something that had never been done on a skyscraper this large and complex.

“Ironworkers, in short, set the pace. If not, a domino effect takes place. The project can only go as fast as the ironworkers go,” the Discovery Channel narrator notes.

“An Honor”

A times, the pace and scale of the Trade Center construction worried even experienced supervisors, such as concrete superintendent Georgie Fitzgerald, whose uncle worked on the original towers.

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