Bittersweet emotions at Ground Zero

Work crews experience renewed sense of loss as task nears its end


NEW YORK - They are reaching the end of the line at Ground Zero. Picks still clang against rusted steel, spades still dig into pulverized concrete, backhoes still pour contorted steel into flatbed trucks. And in a rush of recent discoveries, more human remains have been uncovered in the past several days than in many weeks.

But the unforgiving truth is that they are running out of dirt to sift through at the World Trade Center site. The monstrous task of debris removal and body recovery has come down to little more than a hill or two.

And so a remarkable mood has taken hold through the bright mornings and cold, clear nights - one not previously experienced during the nonstop work and fatigue. It is the feel of something at once depressing and darkly beautiful, and of a kind of twofold regret.

The discoveries of the bodies have renewed the sense of loss for the workers, firefighters and construction bosses. But as the shovels start to scrape the naked bedrock, there is the odd sensation, despite the exhaustion, of not wanting to let go - an awkward apprehension that the battlefield community of the pit will soon break up.

"It's not over, but it's definitely winding down," said firefighter Keith J. Dillon, who has been helping search for human remains. "You've got a great number of people that you want to find, and you've got a certain amount of dirt that's left. And there's a gap. That gap is going to be a sorrowful one. But we can't make more dirt."

But if emotions are intense, even fragile, no one can risk letting them become too great a distraction. Demolition and recovery crews are about to undertake some of the most dangerous and delicate work of the cleanup.

Firefighters are only now excavating portions of the south tower's lobby and basement floors that amount to a buried morgue containing many of their own, accounting for the raft of recoveries in recent days. Crews working like coal miners at another corner of the site are toiling six stories underground in a dark, wet cavern that was once a PATH rail line, drilling critical supports into bedrock. Other workers scamper across the site's last, precariously standing structure while picking it apart with screaming circular saws and robotic jackhammers.

But despite the chaotic and ceaseless frenzy at the site, the workers have a palpable sense that someday soon they will walk up the ramp and leave the pit forever. And that is strangely disturbing.

"I am a part of something here, something we are all going through together," said Jimmy Horan of Staten Island, a construction worker who has put in 10-hour shifts at the site, often seven days a week, for three months now. "We have all gotten close down here. You almost don't want the job to end."

A glance upward from the center of the World Trade Center site reveals an expanse of sky that is unnerving, simply too vast for a spot in the heart of Lower Manhattan. Almost all traces of the World Trade Center towers are nearly gone, with the removal of 1.4 million tons of debris in 98,000 truckloads, and the work has shifted to the bottom of a pit that is 70 feet below the streets.

But that open blue sky hangs over a world of still incessant activity below. Men in cherry pickers are busily cutting through the last big structural columns at the site, the sparks from their spitting, crackling torches cascading along the angling crossbeams like water. Trucks heaped with wreckage roar up the long steel ramp to the street. Barking dogs sniff for remains.

This jumble of activity must continue until the last of the debris, still probably several hundred thousand tons, is removed. But as the final mounds of wreckage are attacked, the pace has noticeably slowed and the search has become much more meticulous.

A cold fact weighs on the minds of many workers at the site: Only 773 of the approximately 2,830 victims have been recovered and identified, though the remains of many others are being analyzed. Only 155 of the 343 firefighters who died have been found and identified. With only so much debris left to comb, hope of finding remains is fading.

And there is another equally wrenching fact: One of the last spots left to dig out is the base of the south tower, where the firefighters know many people died. That tower was the first to collapse.

"I just want to get him home," said John T. Vigiano, a retired fire captain and volunteer at the site, who lost two sons - John, 36, a firefighter, and Joseph, 34, a police detective. Only Joseph's remains have been found.

"I am so tired coming down here smelling death, standing on honor guards," he said. "What we are looking for are his remains."

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