NEW YORK -- Marking a painful but necessary transition, New York
officially ended the search Thursday for bodies and human remains at
the World Trade Center. On a warm, sunny morning, much like Sept.
11, the city said goodbye to 1,721 people who have never been found.
The solemn ceremony, which included victims' families, rescue workers and thousands of others still grieving, featured an honor guard carrying an empty stretcher out of the site, symbolically saluting the missing.
Then bagpipes wailed and a truck ferried out the last piece of wreckage standing--a 58-ton steel beam draped in bunting and an American flag. There were no speeches during the hushed 20-minute service. "This is a tough, sad day," said Jimmy Nolan, a carpenter and recovery worker who raced to the World Trade Center site minutes after the terrorist attacks and has been working there ever since. "Nobody wants to admit that we'll never find these people, but we have to turn a corner. We have to go on."
Of 2,823 people killed in the attacks here, 1,102 victims have been identified and 291 intact bodies were recovered. While efforts to clean up the area have accelerated, the discovery of new remains has slowed to a trickle in recent weeks, with little more than piles of ash left behind.
It was time, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg noted recently, "to move on and rebuild, to start the next phase." But it is far from clear what the new site will look like. Fierce debates have erupted over how much of the 16-acre area in lower Manhattan should be rebuilt, and how much should be a memorial.
There was even a clash over the timing of Thursday's event, with some families planning to hold a separate observance Sunday near the World Trade Center site. They said Bloomberg and other city officials who planned the ceremony should have chosen another date, because work and other conflicts made it impossible for them to attend a weekday memorial.
Yet all these differences appeared to subside on a somber day when New York quietly acknowledged the passing--and disappearance--of so many. Although Thursday's event signaled a shifting of focus, the search for remains will continue in truckloads of twisted steel and other debris that have yet to be sifted at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. And the city's medical examiner continues to conduct DNA tests on thousands of body parts, a task that will take eight more months.
"We always knew that this day, the end of the search, was coming," said Marian Fontana, whose husband, Dave, died here along with 11 other members of Squad One, an elite Fire Department rescue unit. "And I was truly lucky, because they found my husband's body. We have a place to go now where his spirit still lives on. But it's heartbreaking to look at the site and realize that, for other families, it will always be a mass graveyard."
By the Numbers
The ceremony began at
10:59 a.m., the exact moment the second tower collapsed. As the
crowd fell silent, a fire department bell began ringing to
commemorate the 343 firefighters who perished at ground zero, the
site of the twin towers.
As the event concluded, a line of rescue workers filed out of the vast, seven-story pit, following the stretcher and steel girder. They were followed by a host of dignitaries, including Bloomberg, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki and the state's junior U.S. senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
For many, the sight of departing rescue workers brought a finality that was too much to bear. Yet others broke the silence with emotional cheers, applauding the workers who had labored for more than eight months to retrieve the dead, remove more than 1.8 billion tons of rubble and clean up the site.
"This is sacred ground and America must not forget that. It's more important to memorialize this area than throw up a big office building in a hurry," said Monika Iken, whose husband, Michael, died at the site. "This is a human burial ground. We have to treat it with special care."
But for others, like Nolan, the empty lot is an affront--a vacuum that must be filled. When he learned of the attacks, the hulking young carpenter volunteered to help. He spent three days and nights burning steel with a blowtorch. He was desperate for sleep, but couldn't tear himself away.
"I've broken down emotionally a lot, and I've found things in the debris, like coffee cups with lipstick on them and men's shoes," he said, his voice trailing off. "I've seen bodies and body parts, the kind of things you'd never really expect to see. At night, I hug my kids more than ever."
Some participants had to console their children, who were weeping as the ceremony drew to a close. Mary Dolan, whose son Brendan was killed in the attacks but his body never found, gazed sadly at a line of police officers leaving the dusty site. She dabbed her eyes with a white handkerchief and looked into the hazy, blue sky, where jets streaked over Manhattan.
"I still can't really believe it," Dolan said. Then she put her arms around her daughter Ann. "We feel all of this so deeply."
For all their grief, however, many participants felt they had become part of a large, heartfelt family. One block away, at St. Paul's Chapel, Elsie Lloyd prepared to say goodbye to recovery workers she has been helping since the attacks.
The small church became a refuge for them, offering solitude, ministry, massages and other aid when the recovery work became too grim.
Lloyd, an insurance official, drove 200 miles round-trip from her Pennsylvania home to the church four times a week. She wanted to do more than send care packages after the attacks. "I think I know more about this city and what makes it so great than a lot of people who live here," she said. "It's changed me forever."
When the ceremony ended, hordes of tourists gathered in front of St. Paul's to catch a glimpse of the site. Some scrawled messages on the plywood walls leading up to a viewing platform for the former World Trade Center.
"From England to New York, with love," read one message. "Daddy, it's your first birthday in heaven," read another, from a child to a missing father. And on a wall near the site: "To all the souls lost in the falling of the towers--may your souls stand as tall as the towers in heaven."