The Pit and The Pile: Ground Zero Is Gone

N E W  Y O R K, May 30, 2002 -- With the toll of a fire department bell signaling a fallen firefighter, and the solemn rendition of "Taps," work at Ground Zero formally ended today with a tribute to the more than 2,800 people who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

The end of the recovery effort officially came with the start of today's ceremony at 10:29 a.m., the time the north tower collapsed on Sept. 11.

A fire department bell rang the 5-5-5-5 signal for a fallen firefighter, then a stretcher with a folded flag was carried out of the site by an honor guard made up of representatives of all the services and volunteer groups that have been involved in the recovery effort, as a commemoration of the victims whose remains have not been found.

The procession stopped at the edge of the site for a helicopter flyover and "Taps" was played before the stretcher was carried out of the 16-acre site, watched by fire department, New York police and Port Authority police officials who formed a line across the top of the ramp that has been used to get in and out of the pit.

Of the 2,823 people killed in the attack, the remains of just 1,092 have been identified. But nearly 20,000 body parts have been recovered, and the medical examiner will likely continue the work of trying to identify the remains for at least eight more months.

As Ground Zero workers exited the site, their months of cleanup work was marked with applause. Thousands turned out for the ceremony, which was intended for city officials, Ground Zero workers and victims' families.

Some family groups have scheduled their own event for Sunday at Ground Zero to accommodate those who could not attend today.

Not Thinking About the End

Over the course of eight months of backbreaking, gut-wrenching work, it was a subject that almost never came up.

As recovery workers at Ground Zero focused on finding as many victims as they could among the 1.8 million tons of rubble left when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed, they hardly ever talked about the day their efforts would come to an end.

"It really didn't start to hit us till a few weeks ago there," said Lt. John Ryan, the Port Authority Police Department commander of the Recovery Task Force. "I guess it never dawned on everyone that what we have been doing for so long was actually going to end. We've been so focused on it that I guess you really didn't see that coming. And when we started talking about it, there was a silence that you probably only find in a funeral home."

For John Carter, a firefighter who lost his brother in the collapse and has been working at the cleanup site ever since, no ceremony can bring closure.

"The end for me will be when I close my eyes for the last time and open them again in the next life and see my brother," he said.

But for many, there has been a building feeling of the inevitability of the end, as what was once known as "the pile" — an eight- or nine-story heap of ash and debris — turned into "the pit." There is just nothing more to sift through, looking for remains.

But that hasn't necessarily brought peace.

"I would like to be able to look down there and see the pile still high, because that would mean we're still going to find people," said retired New York City firefighter Lee Ielpi, who lost his 29-year-old son Jonathan in the collapse.

Recovery Over, But Hopes Remain

Though the major effort at the World Trade Center site has come to an end, work will continue to identify the remains that have already been recovered, and debris that has been hauled out of the pit is still being searched.

The focus of the attempt to identify victims' remains now shifts to the New York City Medical Examiner's Office, where the as yet unidentified body parts have been taken.

DNA samples taken from victims' families are being used to try to determine the identities of the remains. Some 400 identifications have already been made through this process, according to Dr. Robert Shaler, the director of forensic biology at the medical examiner's office.

"We expect that now that the digging is going to stop and the sample flow is going to stop we wil be concentrating on trying to get more information from these other samples that we weren't successful with the first time around," Shaler said.

The New York office isn't alone in the effort, either. Shaler said dozens of workers in labs across the country are helping out in the process.

"It's the kind of project that will just not allow yourself to walk away from, and in fact it's the kind of project that you are so immersed in emotionally that if you walked away from it you'd have an incredible guilt complex," Shaler said.

Last Beam Cut Down

The beginning of the end of the effort was marked Tuesday evening, when the 36-foot, 58-ton girder that survived the collapse and has since been covered in memorials to the fallen was finally cut down, loaded onto a flatbed truck and then draped with an American flag.

The beam, which had served as part of the anchor for the south tower, will be driven out of the pit today and taken to a hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where it will be stored until it is brought back to the site to be used in a memorial.

It has already begun to serve as a memorial of sorts, painted over with reminders of the lost from the Port Authority Police Department, the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York: "PAPD 37," "NYPD 23" and "FDNY 343."

The beam also served as a kind of beacon of hope for the searchers, because it was nearby that 58 bodies were recovered in a matter of days, long after it seemed few more bodies would be found.

‘Good Days Were When We Found Remains’

The Federal Emergency Management Agency released a videotape Wednesday, detailing month by month the cleanup effort at Ground Zero. The footage of the operation begins on Sept. 13 and ends on May 21. It chronicles the around-the-clock desperation of rescue workers and the enormous job of digging for remains.

For the eight months that they labored in the pit, sifting through the rubble, the crews battled not only the constant reminder of the enormity of their loss, but the seeming futility of their task.

"There were a lot of hard days and we considered good days days when we found remains, and there was a day we could send something back to a family that was always waiting for that phone call," said Ed Benenati, a Port Authority police officer who has been working at the recovery site since October.

"One of the best days — it was actually any day that we found someone — however, one for our department was when we found several Port Authority civilians that were lost, and then one day in particular we found five of our senior officers all together. It was a very hard day, but we knew that we did the best we could that day."

It seemed that the five officers had someone on an emergency safety chair and were trying to get out of the building, he said.

"Perhaps if they had another minute or two they would have been clear enough from the building …" he said.

What If?

"What if?" was perhaps the question that was heard most often at Ground Zero over the past eight months.

"We're starting to deal with the reality that this is it," Ryan said. "The mission that we've been on is actually going to end and the reality that a lot of the people that were lost here may not be recovered."

It is faced with this reality that these workers will leave this site.

"We're going to walk out of here the last day knowing that we did the best we could, and we're all gonna pat each other on the back and try and go on from here," Ryan said. "Rebuild the Trade Center to what it could be. And go on with our lives and hope we never have to go through it again."

PAPD Officer Peter Hernandez used to patrol the World Trade Center, but he was off duty on Sept. 11. He rushed to his post as soon as he heard what happened, and has been there five or six days a week ever since.

"It's been tiring and sometimes it's emotionally grueling, but mainly tiring," he said. "It's taken a lot out of me physically, but we're here, I want to be here, and I can handle it."

One thing Hernandez is not sure about is handling that last day, which has finally come.

"If I think about it now, it's going to be pretty emotional to see this ending," he said. "This has been part of our lives and part of police work that's never happened before in history … you know for eight months now. It's going to be a tough — it's going to be a tough day."

30 Years at the World Trade Center

That last day will be especially tough for Port Authority police Officer Ed Smith, who has been working at the Trade Center in one way or another since September 1969, when as an 18-year-old he took a construction job on the twin towers site.

"I came here to do concrete work," he said. "I was a joist hanger and worked from when Tower One was 12 stories and Tower Two was six stories. And I worked all the way to the top."

Smith eventually became a Port Authority police officer. After 23 years on the job he has spent these last months at Ground Zero.

"It's very hard, because I've always told my kids they're dad's buildings, so besides losing friends, I've lost something that I put my blood and sweat into," he said.

The question of what should be done with the site seems to trouble many New Yorkers, but Smith knows what he wants to see.

"I just hope they come back with something big," he said. "That's my own point of view — everybody has their own, so I'd like to see them come right back again. The Port Authority can do it, New York can do it. … I'd like to set the last piece of steel."