Rites of closure at Ground Zero

Thousands gather in N.Y. for ceremony marking end of recovery effort

May 31, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Until yesterday, there was no room for silence at the World Trade Center. In the decades before its collapse, the streets echoed with the wanted bustle of its commerce; in the eight months after, with the haunting roar from the haul of its rubble and the hunt for remains.

But at 10:29 yesterday morning, after the tolling of bells and in the presence of thousands, silence took its proper place. A corner of the city became still, as a stretcher bearing the weight of no body was carried out of the swept-clean pit where the twin towers once stood, followed by a truck carting a 58-ton steel column, the last symbolic remnant of what was. About the only sounds were drums' rolls and an infant's cry.

The ceremony was not perfect because it could not be: not when more than 2,800 people died here in the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, with no trace of more than half the victims yet to be found. Some people chafe at any pomp, while others do not have to visit a 16-acre hole to learn about voids.

But many others, from hard-hat workers in the pit to blue-suit officials in City Hall, wanted to mark the awesome completion of an awful task: the separation of human remains from 1.8 million tons of debris, and the delicate removal of both.

They also sensed the psychological need to distinguish the future from the past, for once that last column left, Ground Zero became a site for construction, not recovery.

Much of this was on the mind of Alan Reiss as he stood at the bottom of the pit, waiting with other stretcher-bearers for the signal to begin the slow march up the ramp.

Six stories up, at ground level, thousands of people were waiting: people who had lost family members, police officers and firefighters who had lost colleagues, Ground Zero workers who had lost the fall, winter and most of the spring.

Reiss had lost as well. He was the Port Authority's point person at the World Trade Center when it was destroyed, killing more than a dozen of his staff.

Now here he was, in the basin that once supported towers that soared a quarter-mile into the sky. Here was where the escalators leading to the PATH commuter trains hummed; there, the entrance ramps to the basement parking garages.

"It seems like yesterday," he said later. "And here we are, and it's the end of May."

For the dead, for the thousands of friends and relatives, for the thousands of rescue and recovery workers, and for a city, the bells tolled. They clanged in four sets of five rings, the traditional signal for a fallen firefighter, at 10:29, the moment when the last tower collapsed 261 days earlier.

The command went out, and right hands everywhere snapped in salute. Then 15 people representing 12 agencies and groups - Fire Department, Police Department, crane operators, families - began carrying the stretcher slowly up a ramp leading out of the pit.

Reiss tried not to make eye contact with any of the firefighters and police officers and family members who formed the honor guard up the ramp: "I did not want to lose it there."

The stretcher, carrying a folded-up American flag, was placed in the hold of a Fire Department ambulance idling near the top of the ramp. Then drums beat against the hush, as a group of bagpipers marched up the ramp, their pipes silent.

Last came the truck: a yellow cab pulling a flatbed, upon which rested Column No. 1,001-B of 2 World Trade Center, draped in black muslin and an American flag. Those covers concealed the spray-painted farewells that decorated the steel column, including the numbers lost by the Fire Department (343), the Port Authority Police Department (37) and the New York Police Department (23).

The truck groaned its way up the ramp as a single police officer, in formal dress, jogged beside it. When it reached the ambulance with no body, the truck paused, "Taps" sounded, and five police helicopters passed overhead through airspace that was not there nine months ago.

The salutes dropped as the procession moved past a group of dignitaries - senators, governors, a cardinal, a mayor, his predecessor.

Then, just after the bagpipers had played "America the Beautiful," the applause began, a sustained, almost defiant applause that sought to fill a rare silence that had lasted nearly a half-hour.

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