Garbage Dump Now Home to 'God's Work'

Law enforcement officers are scouring through mountains of debris to find remains and mementoes of the Sept. 11 victims. Logan Airport is trying out a new high-tech tool to boost security. A public defender's office worker fired after assisting the FBI's anthrax investigation won't get his job back.

‘God’s Work’ in a Garbage Dump

N E W Y O R K, Jan. 15 — Atop a man-made hill 14 miles from Manhattan's truncated skyline, an army of 300 police officers, FBI agents, and sanitation and construction workers sifts through dirt, rock, steel and concrete left from the World Trade Center.

Twenty hours a day, the work goes on at Fresh Kills, the 175-acre landfill on Staten Island. Shut down by the city last year, the landfill was reopened after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Four months later, more than 1 million tons of debris have been trucked and barged in for systematic sifting and analysis. When human remains are found, they are put in plastic bags, tagged and sent to the medical examiner's office for DNA typing.

"This is not a garbage dump; it's a special place," Chief of Detectives William Allee said. "It is sacred ground to all of us. We're doing God's work and I feel honored to be here."

The work has an assembly-line routine. Grappling derricks heft twisted steel and chunks of concrete from the barges. In 6-ton loads, the debris is carted by truck to five sorting centers where it is sifted by size.

Then, with a practiced precision that can identify quarter-inch-diameter scraps, FBI agents and forensic specialists in protective white uniforms and respirators scan the flotsam rolling past on conveyor belts. They hit the "panic button" to interrupt the flow when they spot something important — such as a bit of human remains.

Fresh Kills, its name taken from the Dutch words for fresh stream, opened in 1948 as a "temporary" site. The dump took in 2 billion tons of refuse over its lifetime and was called on again after the tragedy.

Among the 649 victims identified so far, about 50 were identified from remains retrieved at Fresh Kills, said Allee, who is in charge of daily operations. Most of the 3,000 remains are fragmentary; two partial bodies have been recovered there.

At another location, detectives wearing face masks decontaminate personal property to be returned to victims' families. Baskets arranged alphabetically on a long table contain identification cards, credit cards, drivers licenses and other documents.

Hundreds of shoes, books, wallets, pieces of jewelry and clothing are catalogued and shelved. Other debris includes a tennis racket, a stuffed animal and a scooter.

Detective Ed Galanek said he wants to believe the owners lost them while escaping to safety. "That's the trick we tell ourselves," he said.

Nearby, police experts pry apart the wreckage of a smashed car — one of more than 1,000 in the vast junkyard of vehicles retrieved from the streets around the twin towers.

Cars, taxicabs, police cruisers and ambulances are stacked two and three deep. Not far away are some 90 ladder trucks and fire engines — scorched and battered monuments to the 343 firefighters killed that day.

The devastation of the trade center was so vast that almost no furniture from within the towers survived. "In four months here I have yet to see a desk, a chair or a filing cabinet," Allee said.

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