The Chief
June 7, 2002

Recovery Effort Over

An End Spurs Regrets, Hope

By Mark Daly

Thousands of people stood at the brink of the vast pit that once was the World Trade Center May 30 and grew quiet as a stretcher carrying an American flag began its long, slow journey up a ramp to a waiting ambulance.

Minutes later, a yellow flatbed truck bearing a shrouded, 36-foot steel column - the last piece of the Twin Towers - followed the ambulance up and out of Ground Zero to signal the end of the 8 1/2-month effort to clear away the ruins of the most devastating terrorist attack in American history.

Brothers Carry On

The empty stretcher, carried by representatives of the agencies that participated in the cleanup, was led by Fire Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer and Emergency Medical Service Deputy Chief Charles Wells, who each lost a brother in the attack. It stood for the 1,721 victims not yet found among the 2,800 people who died in the destruction of the Trade Center on Sept. 11.

As of last week, the missing included 152 firefighters, 16 police officers from the Port Authority and nine from the Police Department.

Every part of the 29-minute ceremony, from the twin buglers echoing "Taps" to the final honor guard that stepped into place and sealed off the ramp, was meant to mark the city's passage from recovery to rebuilding. It was a stand-down call for the hundreds of firefighters and police officers who had labored alongside ironworkers and operating engineers to recover victims - brothers, sons, sisters, wives, friends and colleagues.

For many assigned to the search over the previous 8 1/2 months, the ceremony was a painful reminder of a job left incomplete.

'A Lot Still Missing'

"I don't know if this is happy or this is sad. They tell me it's supposed to be over, but there's a lot of people still missing," said Firefighter Peter D'Ancona, who spent months searching for five co-workers from Ladder Co. 10 and Engine Co. 10, the firehouse that served the Trade Center.

"I look at the families now and I hate to leave it, " said Port Authority Police Officer Ray DeVito, who spent seven months assigned to a steady crew from the authority's Police Department.

In truth, the search for the missing is not over. Detectives will continue sifting through debris at the Fresh Kills landfill for months to come, city officials said, The Medical Examiner's Office is still performing DNA tests to identify the 20,000 body parts stored in its temporary morgues.

Recovery operations will continue even at Ground Zero itself, as remaining piles of debris are uncovered and removed. But much new work has already begun, including the reconstruction of the 1 and 9 subway lines that cut across the eastern edge of the pit, and the rebuilding of the PATH tracks at the very bottom.

Memorial Discussions

This summer, at public meetings convened by a variety of groups, a debate will begin in earnest on what should replace the Twin Towers, and what kind of memorial should be created to honor the dead.

"We're crossing over into a new era now," said Gus Danese, the president of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association. "It's definitely a sorrowful moment, but it's also a moment of anticipation."

For some, the May 30 ceremony did not mark the closing of the site. Hundreds of people attended a June 2 closing ceremony that was organized by relatives who objected to Mayor Bloomberg's decision to schedule the city's event on a weekday.

The city ceremony began at 10:29 a.m., the time on Sept. 11 when the north tower hit the ground. A fire bell pulled by Firefighter James Sorokac rang out 5-5-5-5, the signal for a fallen firefighter

Salute Breaks Silence

There were no speeches, only a spoken command to salute as the stretcher was carried slowly up from the floor of the pit to the waiting ambulance.

A 220-member honor guard lined the ramp, representing 19 groups that came to the city's aid after the terrorist attacks. Among them were State Troopers, Deputy City Sheriffs, and officials from the Department of City-wide Administrative Services, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Greater New York Hospital Association.

As the stretcher was loaded into the ambulance, the combined bagpipe bands of the FDNY, the NYPD and the Port Authority followed up the ramp, leading the last shrouded girder on a funeral march. The harsh rolls of the snare drums echoed across the cavity.

At the top of the ramp, the pipers skirled "America the Beautiful," making a noise more rueful than defiant under a clear blue sky so eerily reminiscent of the terrible day they commemorated.

'We All Lost Something'

Standing at the top of the ramp and gazing up at the empty expanse where the Twin Towers once soared was a moving experience for Police Officer Edward Laviano, a member of the honor guard.

"It really makes me wonder what it was like to be on the upper floors. You pray for yourself and you pray for everyone that was lost," said Officer Laviano, who usually patrols the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.

It didn't make a difference that he didn't know any of the victims. "I think we all lost something. We all lost a part of the city when that happened," He said.

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch stood in the front row of the NYPD's commanders as the ambulance passed by. Sept. 11 was particularly wrenching for the department, he later said, because "police officers like to be in control of the situation. The tragedy of the World Trade Center is when those buildings started coming down; we knew we could not control the situation. We tried to bring back everyone we could and in the end we were unable to do that." For the police, he said, "it's not over."

'There's Nothing Left'

Firefighter D'Ancona avoided the May 30 ceremony, along with many others who lost a loved one on Sept. 11. Two days prior to the ceremony, he joined a small crowd of firefighters and volunteer rescuers and watched ironworkers cut down the last beam from its place near the center of the footprint left by the south tower.

"This is gonna be rough, because this is it, there's nothing left. It's a construction site now," the Firefighter said, gripping the chain-link fence that separated him from the activity at the bottom of the pit.

Firefighter Jeffrey Olsen, one of the men lost from the "10-10" house at Liberty Street across from the Trade Center, was substituting for Mr. Dancona on the morning of Sept. 11. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of Jeff's wife and their kids," the firefighter said.

Mr. D'Ancona began his search for survivors on the afternoon of Sept. 11, carrying off debris from the smoking ruins and poking among the nooks and crannies of the 10-story pile of twisted metal and pulverized concrete. His hours of exposure to the smoke and dust led to a lung infection that required surgery.

'Gave All I Could'

"I think I did the best I can," he said, gazing into the pit. "I gave you the best I can, and I think everybody else did, too."

Officer DeVito, the member of the Port Authority crew, said the search became more trying as the months went on. "On a good day, you recovered someone," he said. "When you didn't, you'd get worried about it. Our families made enormous sacrifices, because when you do a recovery, you don't go home. There were times I would go to work at 6 p.m. and left at noon the next day."

Port Authority Detective Thomas G. McHale Jr., a former ironworker, for months divided his time between the recovery effort at Ground Zero and his official posting, the joint terrorism task force organized by the U.S. Justice Department.

"None of us actually had time to mourn our losses," the Detective said following the May 30 ceremony. "Yeah, we went to the service when someone was recovered, but we always knew that afterward we had to go back to work."

'Invaded' Afghanistan

In March, the Detective traveled to Afghanistan to join the task force's hunt for suspects. He brought with him the handcuffs of PAPD Officer Donald J. McIntyre, one of the 37 killed on Sept. 11, and used them to hand a suspect over to authorities in Pakistan.

"I can't tell you all that we did, but there are Port Authority stickers all over Afghanistan now," he said with a grin.

On May 28, at the construction workers' ceremony, Detective McHale was hoisted by a cherry-picker crane to the top of the last remaining girder, where he used a welding torch to remove the flagpole that had been attached there.

"When I removed the flag, I had to wave it," he later said. His display prompted sustained applause and chants of "USA! USA!" from the hard-hat crowd in the pit.

Moved by Applause

The crowd that gathered on May 30 broke into applause at the end of the closing ceremony, as the recovery workers walked off the ramp and headed down West Street to Canal Street. "When we were walking down West Street and everybody lining the streets was applauding - that's when I started losing it," said Officer DeVito. "It's like, you didn't beat us. You hurt us, but we're not going down."

Mr. Danese, the Port Authority PBA leader, went down to the site a few days before the closing ceremony and reflected on his 29-year career with the agency.

"When I first came on, one of my first assignments in 1974 was a command post at the top of the Twin Towers," he recalled. "They were putting up the antenna. The towers were still wrapped in tarpaulin, and I distinctly remember how cold it was.

"Now, to stare at that site, all that empty space - it's an eerie feeling," said Mr. Danese, who counted many friends among the uniformed and civilian Port Authority employees killed on Sept. 11. "The only thing that keeps popping into my head is, for the next generation, I'm looking at the foundation for a new and greater World Trade Center.