New York Daily News

May 31, 2002

Solemn, Poignant, Wordless Tribute

The recovery ends after 247 long days

GREG GITTRICH and DAVID SALTONSTALL
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS

Not a word was uttered.

It was a day of quiet dignity and somber pageantry as New York marked the symbolic end of the biggest, most wrenching recovery effort in the nation's history yesterday with a simple 29-minute ceremony at Ground Zero.

Nearly nine months after terrorists slammed fuel-laden jets into the World Trade Center - murdering more than 2,800 - a solemn honor guard carried a single, flag-draped stretcher out of the yawning pit to mark the 1,730 never found.

Behind this sad procession, strapped to a rumbling flatbed with black chains, came a single, 36-foot-long girder - the last of some 1.6 million tons of twisted steel and concrete removed from the once towering debris field.

Among those leading the way was Joseph Pfeifer, the first FDNY chief on the scene after the hijacked planes knifed into the twin towers on Sept. 11. His brother, Kevin, an FDNY lieutenant, passed him as he climbed the tower's stairs, but he never came back down.

His body was not found until February.

"Four months ago, I carried my brother out," said Pfeifer. "Today, I had the same feeling."

In Washington, President Bush started his morning cabinet meeting with a prayer for those lost.

"On behalf of a grateful nation, I want to thank all those who participated in the cleanup of that deadly site," the President said.

But yesterday mostly was about the victims' families, who came bearing what tokens they had - wedding photos, a tattered fire helmet or banners like the one written in a child's hand that said, "I love you Daddy sooo much and miss you sooo much."

They brought their memories and the uncertain hope that - somehow, some way - this day would get them past the grief of the last 261 days and nights. Staking out spots Some arrived before dawn on the hazy, muggy morning to stake out the best viewing spots. Others, such as Dennis O'Berg, 65, whose firefighter son, also named Dennis, was not found, came just to commune with his lost boy.

"I wanted to get over here and think about things, and to look at it without being hectic," he said as he stared into The Pit.

Yesterday's ceremony began at 10:29 a.m., the moment the second tower collapsed, with the symbolic ringing of the Fire Department's call sign for a fallen firefighter - five bells, repeated four times. VIPs arrive Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Pataki had arrived at the top of the ramp at Ground Zero about 20 minutes earlier, where they were joined by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"Today is a day to remember those we lost, and honor those who worked so hard," said Bloomberg, who organized yesterday's ceremony and insisted that silence, not speeches, would be the order of the day.

"We will make sure that people, not just in New York, but in America, never forget what happened here," Pataki said.

After the bells tolled, the stretcher began its long march from the far side of Ground Zero, the silence broken only by the whir of a distant helicopter. The girder, led by the mournful thumps of a pipe and drum unit, followed.

A huge wreath of red, white and blue flowers - as big around as one of the truck's tires - lay atop the beam as it was borne up the 515-foot ramp leading from the base of The Pit. Some 220 firefighters, police officers and other city and Port Authority workers - many of whom wore purple leis, a gift from Hawaii - lined the ramp and snapped to attention as the massive girder went by.

Taps was played. Five Police Department helicopters, in a V- formation, flew diagonally across the site. Then bagpipers skirled "America the Beautiful" as the last of the workers headed up the ramp.

The procession then rolled out of The Pit and turned onto West St., into the loving arms of a waiting city.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, two to three deep, about 12,500 people lined the 15-block route. Some bowed their heads. Others cried. Then everyone began to applaud as the procession eased by.

Not everyone was happy with the brevity of the event, or the lack of speeches.

"It was a nice ceremony," said Gloria Bakmezian, who lost two friends. "But I wish they would have had something else."

Everybody cheered, however, for the heroes in their midst.

In the end, an ambulance carrying the stretcher and the truck bearing the beam turned the corner onto Canal St. and drove toward Kennedy Airport, where the final piece of the twin towers will be kept until a memorial is created.

"We have to move on now," said Pia Hofmann, a grapple operator who unearthed many bodies and was chosen to walk the route beside the ambulance. "Is it going to be easy? No. But we have to."

With Michael Saul, Kenneth R. Bazinet and Ralph R. Ortega