From a Hilltop Cemetery, A Gravedigger’s View of Tragedy

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A decade later, Anthony Manero remembers watching the planes destroy the Twin Towers and burying five victims

Headstones at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn (Photo: Adrienne Berard/ The Brooklyn Ink)

 

Anthony Manero doesn’t go up to the Mountain much anymore. Between the brambles and the craggy dirt road, he can usually find an excuse to avoid the trek. When he does go up, it’s only to dump something, like mulch, from the back of his flatbed truck and that doesn’t take very long. He says being up there makes him think about the void in the Mountain’s vista of Lower Manhattan. Growing up, he used to look out at the Twin Towers from his parents’ kitchen window in Queens. On Sept. 11, 2001, he watched the towers fall as he stood atop the Mountain, a manmade peak in Cypress Hills Cemetery, the highest point in Brooklyn.

Manero is a gravedigger. He started working at the cemetery in 2000 and has been there ever since.  His shift begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. Each day he is in charge of marking all new gravesites for excavation. He maps out where the concrete and curbing will go and he attends every funeral. He is the first one to plan the location of a burial and the last one to cover the casket.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Manero made his 15-minute drive to work knowing he would spend most of the day on the Mountain. It was a Tuesday, which was “Disinterment Day.” Every Tuesday and Thursday, the cemetery’s maintenance staff was responsible for removing caskets from their gravesites on the Mountain. The hill was deemed an unfit burial place in 1998, because the mound, built from debris, had become unstable. Manero said he and his crew were responsible for digging up nearly 1,000 graves that covered the Mountain. The task was grueling and he was grateful for the cool air that day.

“They’re not easy. Well, some of them are easy. Most of them are real, you know…” Manero trailed off. He started to laugh, taking a minute to recollect what it was like pulling bodies from the Mountain. “Up there, the sun just beats. There’s no shade, there’s nothing. So, you know, if the temperature is 100 degrees down below, up there it’s 10, 15 times hotter. You feel like you’re sitting on the sun basically. That’s how hot it is up there.”

Backhoe operators digging a grave in Cypress Hills Cemetery (Photo: Adrienne Berard/ The Brooklyn Ink)

Manero ran his fingers through his crew cut. The hairs stuck together in slick spikes, a crown of sweat. On the cool, dry September morning when the Twin Towers fell, Manero was reassigned from disinterment to tree removal. He still had to work on the Mountain, but the first two hours of his day were spent surveying the slope, charting the trees to chop for rest of his day’s work.

At 8:46 a.m., the World Trade Center’s North Tower was hit. A hijacked plane, originally en route to San Francisco from Logan International Airport in Boston, crashed into the tower, sending a pillar of smoke into the air above Lower Manhattan. Manero remembers watching the smoke with his crew on their way down the Mountain for coffee. He did not know that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

“Once the first building was hit, we didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “We walked to the deli to get our coffee for the morning. That’s how we knew what was really going on.”

Manero ordered his coffee to go. He said he didn’t stay at the deli for more than a few minutes. He never took his break that morning. He returned to work to call his family. His cell phone wasn’t getting any signal. None of his co-workers could reach their families with the phones they carried. One of the men in Manero’s crew started running, no one knew where. He never returned to work that day.

On his way back up the Mountain, Manero heard a voice crackle over his radio. Another plane had hit the World Trade Center. Men pruning trees in cherry-pickers witnessed firsthand as United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. They radioed the rest of the staff. One by one, men climbed the Mountain. Manero tried to continue cutting trees. The South Tower collapsed to the ground at 9:59 a.m. Manero stopped cutting. Thirty minutes later, the North Tower fell. Manero and his crew stood on the Mountain, gazing out at the wreckage.

View of Manhattan skyline from a mulch pile at the top of the Mountain (Photo: Adrienne Berard/ The Brooklyn Ink)

“They say grown men don’t cry,” he said. “But they cried that day. I watched them cry.”

Manero wanted to go home, but he had to oversee two funerals that afternoon. He left the Mountain shortly after the North Tower fell to begin preparations for the first funeral.

“We still had burials. We still had a job to do,” he said. “I know some stuff wasn’t finished, whatever arterial work we had, you know, grass cutting, that stuff wasn’t finished, but when we have burials that has to get done.”

At 1 p.m. Manero, finished his last burial and headed home to Queens. It took him an hour. He said even the side streets were stopped with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Over the next few weeks, Manero removed five sections of earth for five victims from the attack on the World Trade Center. He said that it was usually just a body part, a small fraction of the victim, all that remained. He tried not to think about the lives they led or the families they left behind.

“People say, ‘Oh, you’re a gravedigger. You gotta be immune ‘cause you see this,’” Manero said. “But people saying we’re immune to it, it’s not true. To an extent we are, but, you know, we have family at home. Sometimes it bothers you. It’s not easy. But you gotta do it, it’s your job.”

There is an iron gate that blocks the road to the Mountain now. Manero said he pulled the last casket out in 2006. He hasn’t gone up there in over a month. At the top of the Mountain there is a trash heap.  It is filled with ribbons and wilted flowers, sacred offerings turned refuse.

“Whenever you go to the Mountain, you look into that area and there’s nothing there,” Manero said. “You used to be able to see the towers, now there’s nothing there.”

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3 Responses to “From a Hilltop Cemetery, A Gravedigger’s View of Tragedy”

  1. Eric Rubury
    August 31, 2011 at 11:35 AM #

    Unbelievably moving. Ms. Berard has a knack for taking the small, quiet, and off-beat, and giving it the larger meaning it deserves.

  2. Richard Newman
    August 31, 2011 at 12:43 PM #

    Mr. Manero heart-holds the indescribable emptiness of those who lost loved ones in the inferno. His feelings are well expressed in Adriennes’ article. Somehow the emptiness is never over for many of us. It just lists along as eternal gray strands in our memory. Thank you Mr. Manero for your noble work.

  3. Penny Schultz and Jody Nishman
    September 2, 2011 at 8:47 PM #

    Thank you Adrienne Berard for capturing Mr Manero’s words and feelings so simply and eloquently. You brought us thoroughly into his world. The connection between him and The World Trade Center tragedy moved us deeply. You had us in tears.

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