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Richard Hanner Lodian recalls helping build World Trade Center towers

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Richard Hanner

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2001 10:00 pm

Over and over again, we have all seen images of the huge buildings explode with smoke and then collapse.

The destruction of the World Trade Center towers Sept. 11 shocked and sickened the nation.

But Giuseppe "Jo Jo" Cusumano of Lodi felt uniquely affronted.

As a young immigrant from Italy, Cusumano helped build the glistening skyscrapers that graced the New York skyline. Their creation brought him good wages and a start in a new country. It was while working on the buildings that he met and fell in love with his wife, Phyliss.

Now, having seen the buildings compressed into a pit of smoke and rubble by a terrorist attack, he feels many emotions, mainly anger.

"I do not say we turn the other cheek now that we have been slapped in the face," he said. "I say it is eye for eye, tooth for tooth."

Richard Hanner

Cusumano operated an Italian restaurant and pizzeria in Lodi for many years. He now works as a custodian for Lodi Unified School. He is an affable, energetic fellow whose speech still reflects his youth in Sicily.

Cusumano worked as a mason in Italy and in Switzerland, where wages were sometimes twice those being paid in his native country.

In 1969, at the age of 26, Cusumano came to

America. He joined relatives who had already become established in the New York construction trades.

"I had family connections," he said. "I came to New York on a Friday. On Monday, I was on the job."

It was no ordinary job.

Giuseppe

Giuseppe "Jo Jo" Cusumano

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were building what would be the tallest buildings on earth. The towers would soar more than 1,300 feet over Manhattan. They would cost $400 million, each would include 110 stories, and together they would be hailed as wonders of the modern world.

Cusumano joined Local 20 of the Cement and Concrete Construction Workers Union. He worked a shift of midnight to 8 a.m.

His hourly wage was $7.25, but because it was a graveyard shift he pulled down overtime that made his pay nearly $11 an hour.

For a young immigrant living with relatives, it was very, very good money.

"Oh, I bought a leather coat, a leather jacket," he said. "You should have seen the three-piece suits."

He met and married, Phyliss, a young woman working at an insurance firm near the bustling construction site.

He joined the army of workers when Tower One, the first to rise, was merely a steel framework standing 80 stories tall.

Even at that early stage, he said, the building was magnificent.

"I had seen the Eiffel Tower and the coliseum in Rome," he said. "To me, the tower was even more majestic."

A few days after starting work, he was able to take a construction elevator to the top of the site. The view was stunning. He looked down at the street and saw trucks and cars as small as toys.

The towers were built on a six-acre site that had been a landfill. The foundation of each tower extended 70 feet below ground to bedrock. Exterior skins of steel would embrace a total of 21,800 windows. There would be 104 elevators in each building.

Cusumano's job was to remove construction debris from the site. Each night, after the building crews had finished, he loaded empty paint buckets, pieces of lumber and sheetrock into containers and onto the construction elevators. Then he would unload the material and return for another trip.

A modest role, perhaps, but for Cusumano, it was energizing, even glamorous.

All of New York watched the progress of the rising buildings. A little city of cafes, restaurants and saloons emerged to serve the workers, the gawking tourists and the many sidewalk superintendents.

Workers from throughout the world labored to build the towers, including Native Americans who placed the steel beams and girders at the exposed peak of the structures.

"They were up there because they were fearless of heights," Cusumano said.

There was a giddiness to it all, but also a grimness. Several workers lost their lives in the project, including a man from Cusumano's hometown in Sicily who fell 20 floors to his death in an elevator shaft.

Cusumano was on the job for two years. He left the project to start his own pizzeria on Staten Island.

Tower One was finished in 1972, Tower Two in 1973.

Cusumano often took visiting relatives to the top of Tower Two, with its observation deck, where the view extended for 45 miles in each direction.

He was proud of his contribution to the project, a monumental team effort that demanded both brawn and genius.

The shining towers in the sky are gone now.

There is much talk about what should be done at the site of the towers. A memorial? A new building? A combination of the two?

"They should be built again," Cusumano believes. "Bigger and even better than before."

If the towers are rebuilt, and construction bosses need help, they can find it in Lodi.

He is 57 now, but Cusumano is ready.

Contact editor Rich Hanner at richardh@lodinews.com.

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