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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoSpring 2009

At Ground Zero

When William Bennett “Benn” Lewis ’84 left the Reed Theatre stage after his thesis production of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Battler,” the erstwhile physics major and former Reed rugby captain could not have foreseen that decades later he would be trying to win over some of New York’s toughest audiences, following a tragedy that has defined the new millennium.

Two days after September 11, 2001, Lewis, vice president and co-owner of Airtek Environmental, went into Ground Zero Center to help measure contaminants for Con Edison, a regulated utility that provides electric, gas, and steam service in New York City and Westchester County, New York. His company has been working on the revival of that section of lower Manhattan ever since. Lewis’ history with the site ranges from multibillion-dollar tussles with the insurance industry to pro bono support of local residents who have found themselves caught in a tangle of government bureaucracy.

William Bennett "Benn" Lewis '84

“It was a good time to be busy,” says Lewis, relaxing over a pint of beer and a dozen Totten Inlet Virginicas in the Oyster Bar under Grand Central Station, a few minutes before catching a commuter train to suburban Pound Ridge, New York, where he grew up and now lives with his family, Maria Manuela Chora Lewis ’88, and daughters Tess, 17, Sarah, 14, and Maddie, 11. “In the aftermath, most of my work was on the ground. By now, though, I’ve had seven years of the various permutations and views of that event, from the ground to the boardroom to the courtroom.”

When the towers fell, Fiterman Hall, a 15-story tower used for classrooms and offices by the Borough of Manhattan Community College, became the nation’s only college building ever to be damaged by a foreign attack. Its fašade was stripped away as 7 World Trade Center, the third major tower destroyed in the airliner attacks, collapsed. Now, Fiterman and the Deutsche Bank building, to the south of Ground Zero, remain as mute reminders of the attacks and testaments to the complications of environmental contamination.

Airtek was hired to help the school, a City University of New York institution, assess whether the ravaged building could be cleaned and re-occupied. Ultimately, saving the building was not advisable, says Lewis, and Airtek has been involved in clearing out the contaminants to allow for its dismantling. “In the uncertain world of post 9/11 toxicological science, the price of sending young people into a building of questionable environmental hygiene was just too high,” he says.

Sorting out the competing tangle of federal, state, city and regional bureaucracies that needed to sign off before Fiterman could be razed was almost an unsolvable Gordian knot. So are the logistics of cleaning out contaminants to make it safe to begin the process. Lewis says his experience with helping demolition proceed on two small buildings near the Deutsche Bank building was invaluable in getting to this point. He says he has had to rely both on his undergraduate theatrical training and the aggressiveness of a Reed rugger.

“You’re having to present fairly technical concepts to lay people, who are already distrustful of the dismissive treatment they’ve gotten from their own government. Your job is to communicate the truth as you know it and help people make progressive decisions,” he says. “And everything was a battle—it was an issue with lots of people who were on different sides, and it still is.”

Lewis recently managed to secure approvals for the decontamination of Fiterman, and remains optimistic that approval for demolition will come soon. Once that happens, Lewis says, the way will be paved for a “soaring learning space of which education dreams are made.” While that’s not quite as close to the realization as he’d like, years of being in the scrum of Ground Zero’s competing politics and paperwork haven’t quashed his company’s hopes that something worthwhile will rise from the ruins.

—Will Swarts ’92

reed magazine logoSpring 2009