In mountain of debris, signs of lives lost

Workers scour rubble of World Trade Center for evidence of victims

War On Terrorism


NEW YORK - It gets cold up here. When the wind shifts, it smells like what it is, a half-century's worth of trash. When it rains, the ground bubbles with methane gas rising to the surface. And every now and then, above the groan of dump trucks and backhoes, fireworks ring out to scare off the turkey vultures.

The mind blurs from the monotony, while the muscles ache from raking, or digging, or just standing still for hours at a stretch.

On top of all this, there is the task: to look for telltale bits and pieces among thousands of tons of dull-gray debris that have been carted from the World Trade Center disaster site and brought here, the recently closed Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. A warped credit card. A charred photograph. A human bone protruding from torn fabric. Anything that will identify one of the 5,000 dead; anything that will give a distraught family the material proof of a life now lost.

But the New York City police detectives and other law enforcement officials who scour this raised lunarscape say that the hassles and nightmares are worth it for just one of those needle-in-a-haystack moments. These rare finds, they say, bring a sense of accomplishment, and even joy.

That hunt for the solitary item - the possible key to an unknown family's peace - energizes the likes of Efram Negron, a narcotics detective. He normally works in the South Bronx, but Friday he was sitting on a concrete block, waiting for a backhoe to lay out another pile of debris to be raked. "I'll come up here for a year, or two years, it doesn't matter," he said

Sitting a few yards away, Joseph Pirrello, a 68-year-old retired police lieutenant who would normally be playing golf on a Friday morning, agreed. Arrayed before him were rakes and shovels, and beyond those tools, tons of unexamined rubble: piping and plastic and concrete and steel and paper, all improbably fused together and coated with the gray powder of pulverized concrete. He repeated the message that superiors on this assignment use to rally their troops:

"Somebody's got to do it."

Without precedent to guide them, through trial and error, the Police Department and other government agencies have developed a fairly sophisticated process to refine crudely jumbled debris. On a 135-acre, waste-made plateau rising 180 feet in central Staten Island they have built a village to sort the evidence of a singular crime.

As many as 300 detectives at a time, working 12-hour shifts, have pored over nearly two-thirds of the 300,000 tons of rubble brought to the site.

They have found 1,766 body parts and about 1,600 items - from jewelry to credit cards - that might lead to the identification of one of the more than 5,000 people listed as missing. And in the building where the investigators suit up, there is a display bearing five names, a few photographs and the inscription: "The following people were identified by our effort through the recovery operation."

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