Indian City Chases American Dream in WTC Wreckage
MANDI GOBINDGARH, India – On the far edge of town, where the dingy concrete factories suddenly give way to cornfields, thick slabs of twisted metal are piled in a muddy yard.
Here, they say in Mandi Gobindgarh, is where the World Trade Center ended up: 1,000 tons of wreckage rusting under a gray sky in Chandra Mittal's scrapyard.
Thousands more tons are being melted down in foundries across this noisy Indian city of 60,000 people. It's a 16,000-ton fraction of World Trade Center steel that has been scattered to recyclers around the world.
They're chasing the American dream in Mandi Gobindgarh, dragging themselves into the middle class in a nation where one-third of the population remains in poverty. And they're doing it -- or at least they think they are -- with parts of the World Trade Center.
"My wife told me not to purchase this scrap because thousands of people died in it," said Mittal, a baby-faced man wearing sneakers and a polo shirt. "We feel very bad about what happened in New York, but this is my profession. I have to do it."
Mandi Gobindgarh, 165 miles northwest of New Delhi, is where the world sends its industrial castoffs to die. Wrecked trucks and rusted bridges, junked appliances and worn gears are cut into pieces, melted into ingots and sold to buyers who turn them into everything from houses to hair dryers.
Don't expect any talk about the sanctity of Sept. 11 steel. This is a rough town, a place of truckers, prostitutes and posters that practically beg people to get HIV tests.
In the United States, the World Trade Center site is seen as hallowed ground, with wreckage turned into memorials to the Sept. 11 attacks. But here, those tons of scrap are about one thing: money.
"It's just business," said Arshad Bhati, manager of the Shakti Iron Store. "No one sees where it comes from, and no one sees where it's going. They just purchase it and sell it."
The foundries of Mandi Gobindgarh -- there are at least two dozen of them -- have melted all kinds of emotion-laden metal, from Indian train wreckage to Iran-Iraq war refuse.
"Every child from Mandi now knows the scrap has arrived from the World Trade Center," said Bhati, whose office window looks out over stacks of steel bars destined for home construction.
But has Twin Towers steel really arrived?
By all appearances, yes. But probably not as much as they think in Mandi Gobindgarh.
Almost immediately after the towers collapsed, New York City began looking for ways to deal with the 1.6 billion tons of wreckage. After investigators combed through it, more than 350,000 tons of metal were sold for recycling in China, Malaysia, Korea and India.
Tracking it is a hazy matter. Trade Center wreckage was mixed with other steel in the New Jersey scrapyards that handled the shipments before being shipped overseas -- making it difficult to distinguish among the hunks of metal. A businessman familiar with the Mandi Gobindgarh said perhaps half that 16,000-ton load was World Trade Center material.
Certainly, the steel has been through something terribly destructive; metal plates, some nearly a foot thick, are twisted and warped, and many are badly charred.
Chandra Mittal, though, has no doubts.
He's handled plenty of scrap in his 41 years, and has never handled anything like this.
"I've never seen such metal," he said, sounding like a gourmand discussing a rare wine. "This is not good scrap. This is not very good scrap. This is very very good scrap."
In fact, the Trade Center steel was some of the heaviest, thickest steel ever used in construction.
In that steel is where Mittal sees his profits.
Mittal, in many ways, personifies the Indian success story; the stereotypical poor kid who fought his way to the top.
Look around his foundry, and it's obvious that few profits go to his workers. The men labor in heat well over 100 degrees, wearing worn street clothes and plastic flip-flops. The crews that work closest to the heat, manhandling scrap into the furnace under rainfalls of sparks, use burlap rags for a little protection. No one wears hardhats.
They earn about $1.50 a day.
They are friendly men but rough, calloused by difficult lives and hard labor. Like Mittal, they see themselves as on the way up, with scrap as the key.
"At least I'm not working in the fields," said Jagtar Singh, taking a break from cutting metal into chunks.
Mittal's dreams are even further up the economic ladder. He's proud of his roots in small-town poverty, and often sounds like a caricature of the American dreamer.
"When my father was a boy, his family didn't have 2 rupees to have a family photo taken. But we worked hard, and we made something, and we grew," he said. "We're hard workers here. Our profession is everything. It is our life."
Mittal is from the Punjab, the state that includes Mandi Gobindgarh. The Punjab suffered terribly at independence in 1947, when British India was carved into India and Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of people died in communal fighting, and millions were left destitute. Since then, Punjabis have emerged as India's most prominent new money.
The state's business successes are often derided as pushy arrivistes who prefer cash to culture.
Mittal is aware of the stereotype, but he doesn't let it bother him. He has a large house and many cars. Someday, he'll send his children to college.
"Us Punjabis, we know how to make money," he said. (Not that he'll say how much profit the scrap has earned.)
But if the scrap means the chance at a better life in Mandi Gobindgarh, it means something far different in America.
Recycling the wreckage so quickly "was a crime," said Monica Gabrielle, whose insurance broker husband, Richard, died at the World Trade Center. 11. She dismisses official insistence that all the refuse was carefully examined.
"It was not treated like a crime scene," said Gabrielle, chairwoman of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign. "It was sold off and carted away faster than anything I've seen."
Such anger confuses Mandi Gobindgarh residents. They have no sympathy for the Sept. 11 attackers and feel awful for the victims. They are just trying to earn a living.
"Americans have sold this," said Avtar Singh, sitting in his one-room tire store on a recent afternoon. "It's not our fault that we have purchased it."
But after thinking awhile, he said perhaps the wreckage should have been saved.
"If they'd kept it, every generation could see the scrap and imagine what was once there."