Anguished search a grim task at landfill

Aftermath: Airplane components, crushed vehicles, personal items of victims and body parts turn up among the billions of pieces of debris from the World Trade Center disaster.

January 20, 2002|By Richard T. Pienciak | Richard T. Pienciak,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - Standing amid the transplanted ruins of Sept. 11, the immensity of the task underway at this makeshift City on the Hill is difficult to comprehend. Death and its aftermath are spread out everywhere.

The 175-acre encampment, born of the World Trade Center attacks, ultimately will serve as the final resting place for the countless tiny pieces of humanity that will prove to be unretrievable from the 1.2 million tons of World Trade Center debris.

Any failure to decipher completely the minute fragments of human flesh entombed in the mounds of waste will not be for lack of effort, though.

Billions of pieces of debris are being scrutinized meticulously at the reopened Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island in the hope of finding a victim's body part or a personal belonging that can help give a heartbroken family a bit of solace.

`Work of mercy'

"It's a corporal work of mercy," said New York Police Department Deputy Inspector James Luongo, who heads the sifting and retrieval effort. "We're helping to bury the dead."

The site has a second mission, although the importance of that has diminished over time: The search continues for a chunk of incriminating evidence and for the black boxes from the jetliners that hit the twin towers, killing nearly 3,000 people.

Already 900,000 tons have been processed in this arduous effort, including heavy steel that has been recycled. At the center of the operation are several work areas, each equipped with three large conveyor belts: one for fine soil and particles, one for solid pieces as tiny as one-quarter inch, and one for larger chunks.

5 a.m. to midnight

Working daily from 5 a.m. to midnight, hundreds of Police Department detectives and federal agents dressed in protective gear stand watch along the conveyor belts - as many as eight to a belt - searching through every fragment. When warranted, a piece of debris is picked up and given closer scrutiny.

Items such as a ripped woman's shoe are examined carefully, but usually are put back on the line because they lack any identifying feature.

Possible body parts are placed in plastic buckets, which are handed over to the Police Department's Crime Scene Unit. Stored in freezers, the body parts are quickly passed on to the medical examiner's office.

A forensic anthropologist is often on site. Because there were many restaurants in the World Trade Center complex, investigators have been finding animal bones among the debris.

So far, 2,900 human body parts have been recovered at the landfill, an average of about 30 a day - and an average of about one per victim, and 46 victims have been identified from remains retrieved here, some by fingerprints, some by dental charts and some by DNA. Many more human parts are being tested for DNA. Special Agent Richard Marx, the FBI's lead representative here, said one victim was identified recently from a 4-inch piece of bone.

Compelling reminders

The most compelling reminder of the terrorist attacks is the collection of burned-out and crushed vehicles - row upon row of civilian cars, Police Department vans, patrol cars and a wide variety of fire apparatus. There are more than 1,200 wrecked vehicles here already, with another 800 expected when crews at the disaster site get to the Trade Center's subterranean garages.

The cars are stacked up to four high. Alongside, there's a Con Ed truck, a Verizon van, a sport-utility vehicle that was used by a Police Department undercover team. In between are mangled motorcycles and police scooters.

The graveyard of fire trucks is a sobering and humbling sight. Several of the trucks are so squished they are barely recognizable. The long ladders of several trucks had been softened by the intense heat of the fires in the ruins, then reshaped into half circles.

The contents of car trunks and back seats reveal clues about their former owners: a Wilson Hammer 5.0 tennis racket cover, tattered pages from a Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys Super Mystery paperback (Murder on the Fourth of July), a child's two-wheel scooter, stuffed animals, a shopping bag from Saks Fifth Avenue, a VCR tape of Seinfeld, cell phone bills, a jumpsuit, exercise equipment, a hair dryer, a box of wedding invitations.

One day the searchers found hundreds of shopping bags from a Gap store. Another day, they found a large selection of Gap clothing, with the price tags still attached.

Engine parts from American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower, sit outside the FBI trailer, next to several landing-gear tires.

Searchers have found several box cutters, though they don't know for certain if these were among the ones used by the hijackers.

While the larger pieces of debris "bring the message home," Luongo said, the retrieval operation is the heart of the City on the Hill - the reason for its being.

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