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NYTimes.com Article: In Last Piles of Rubble, Fresh Pangs of Loss

  • Subject: [cg] NYTimes.com Article: In Last Piles of Rubble, Fresh Pangs of Loss
  • From: adam.honigman@bowne.com
  • Date: Mon, 18 Mar 2002 17:23:07 -0500 (EST)

This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by adam.honigman@bowne.com.

WTC Update - 

When I was at the Green Thumb Grow Together last Saturday, I touched base with a couple of my lower east side gardener friends whom I thought had been lost while making deliveries at the WTC. NYC Bike Messengers have to be among the most fearless people I know. ( Risk level: think about weaving in and out of traffic on a truck filled freeway in ice or rain, with stops for pedestrian crossings at every 200 - 600 feet and you begin to get the idea of risk. NYC traffic is probably the worst in North America, save perhaps Mexico City.) Two bike messenger/community gardeners haven't showed up yet. Being free spirits, we hope that the idea to visit Katmandu hit them early on the morning of Sept. 11th & they didn't show up for work. The likelihood that they didn't and were in the WTC making deliveries remains good. No parades for these lads, but it might be good to remember them. 

Here's a piece from today's NY Times which sums the situation pretty well. 

The hundreds of thousands Dutch daffodils that we planted in memory of 9/11 last fall are beginning to bloom, even though it's close to freezing rain today.

Adam Honigman


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In Last Piles of Rubble, Fresh Pangs of Loss

March 17, 2002 



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 yet more contorted
steel into flatbed trucks. And in a rush of recent
discoveries, more human remains have been uncovered in the
last several days than in many weeks. 

But the unforgiving truth is, they are running out of dirt
to sift through at the World Trade Center site. The once
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 the cold, clear nights, one not experienced
before during the nonstop work and permanent 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 made the workers,
firefighters and construction bosses feel the sense of loss
fresh and raw once more. 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, and even fragile, no one can
risk letting these feelings become too great a distraction,
as demolition and recovery crews undertake some of the most
dangerous and delicate work they have faced during the
entire job. 

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 still chaotic and ceaseless frenzy of the
heavy equipment, demolition workers and recovery teams at
the site, there is a silent but palpable sense that someday
soon they will walk up the ramp and leave the pit forever.
And it is that which 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." 

Fewer Places to Find Bodies 

A glance upward from the center of the World Trade Center
site reveals an empty blue expanse of sky that is
unnerving, simply too vast for a spot in the heart of Lower
Manhattan. Not only are almost all traces of the trade
center towers now nearly gone, but with the removal of 1.4
million tons of debris in 98,000 truckloads, the work has
shifted to the bottom of a pit that is 70 feet below the

But that open blue carapace hangs over a world of still
incessant activity. Men in cherry pickers are busily
cutting through the last big structural columns left at the
site, the sparks from their spitting, crackling torches
cascading along the angling crossbeams like water. Trucks
heaped with wreckage bellow up the long steel ramp to the
street. Barking dogs still 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 of the
World Trade Center attack have been recovered and
identified, though the remains of many others are still
being analyzed. For the firefighters, only 155 of the 343
who died have been found and identified. With only so much
debris left to comb, each pile sent off for disposal is one
fewer left to look through. 

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, without warning. Firefighters
and other emergency workers had assembled in the wide
lobbies on the east and west sides of the building. Some
who had evacuated to the lower floors, on their way to
safety, may also have been there. Firefighters and their
trucks were stationed outside, ready to assist in the
rescue effort. 

Until two weeks ago, when the steel ramp was installed,
recovery workers could not reach this section of the south
tower, which could contain parts of 30 or more floors that
pancaked and plunged into the basement. Construction crews
were using this debris to support a road that carried
trucks into and out of the pit. Searchers for remains are
working with an intensity unlike any they have displayed
until now. 

"I just want to get him home," said John T. Vigiano, a
retired Fire Department 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. What we are looking for are his

One day this past week, 30 firefighters, with picks, hoes,
shovels and body bags, watched almost motionlessly as a
single yellow grappler, pivoting on its shiny metal treads
and reaching with a 40-foot arm, picked gingerly through
the muck and wildly twisted steel debris of the south
tower. Bit by bit, the grappler dug a trench, slowly moving
toward the building's core. 

The grappler yanked up one end of a wrecked girder; but as
the grappler's big, three-fingered claw pulled, relaxed and
pulled again, the other end of the girder refused to be
tugged free. The grappler came to a stop, the steel girder
now sticking up at a wild angle. The firefighters moved in,
stepping carefully into the trench, directly in the shadow
of the steel. 

"You look for anything that resembles human," one
firefighter said, with understandable awkwardness.
"Anybody, anything. Could be clothes, could be bone, a

A tight cluster of firefighters is a sign of another find.
The small shovels come out. And then a dark body bag
appears. Two firefighters heft the bag up to a waiting
stretcher. A firefighter who has been waiting with a folded
flag unrolls it and covers the bag, carefully tucking in
the ends of the flag so that it does not hang over the

Again and again, this sequence has been repeated in recent
days. But with each recovery, the pile shrinks slightly. 

Torch-cutters are slicing through some of the last
structural steel remaining on what had been the southern
face of the south tower. A backhoe drives over and pulls on
the top of a three-column section, 35 feet high. It seems
reluctant to fall, staggering and thumping forward on its
severed base for several seconds before tipping over and
striking the mucky base of the pit with a tremendous thud. 

Precarious Underground World 

As dark and disturbing as
those scenes are, no place at ground zero is more alien
than the subterranean universe where laborers are now
drilling deep holes in the earth beneath Vesey Street, in
the buried northern fringe of the pit. 

Like the search for remains, the work to shore up a
70-foot-high retaining wall that encompasses the site is
nearing its final stages. To the south, the east and the
west, rows of long cables have been threaded through the
wall, called the bathtub, and deep into the bedrock below
to keep it from caving inward and letting groundwater, fed
by the Hudson River, seep through. 

But on the northern edge of the site, the job has turned
out to be much more complex. The wall is held up mainly by
a series of precarious and partly smashed basement floors
and a towering mound of steel debris. The debris cannot be
removed until the wall is supported. But the wall cannot be
directly reached with the debris there. So the workers have
been sent underground. 

The only way into that dim world is along the PATH rail
line that once ran along the very bottom of the pit,
through the basement of the Custom House, which was partly
smashed by debris that fell when the north tower collapsed.

A sentry at the ragged mouth of the tunnel checks that
everyone who enters is wearing a respirator, goggles, a
hard hat and a reflecting vest, and explains that if the
opening collapses, there are two escape routes. "Three
blasts of the horn, that means get out," says Mike
Sturdevant, the contractor at the entry checkpoint whose
makeshift desk sits on the crumbling, abandoned PATH

Sunlight soon disappears on the journey down, replaced by
harsh bluish spotlights that illuminate the cavern,
although many workers have flashlights mounted on their
helmets, just in case. A riot of heavy equipment rumbles,
whines, beeps and shrieks. Four-foot fans blow incessantly.
"This is dead air here," says Peter Rinaldi, an engineer
with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which
owns the site. 

What time of day it is, what the weather is like outside,
even what day of the week it is - it is all hard to track
for the men working through the unvarying day and night to
drill the support cables, called tiebacks, through the
streaked, eroded wall of the bathtub, through the sodden
soil beneath Vesey Street and into the Manhattan schist

Without notice, water backs up from one of the 12,000-pound
drilling machines and a plastic pipe swings wildly, spewing
mud, sand and water into the air. Elsewhere, water streams
in from incomplete tieback holes, fresh evidence of why the
bathtub wall is so critical. 

The men working down here, in most cases, have been at the
job for months, first working above ground installing
tiebacks and now here on the once busy PATH tracks. It is
an exhausting assignment, one that at many times has seemed
as if it would go on forever. 

"I don't like it down here one bit," said Matt Lenio, of
Northport, on Long Island, whose earlier career was mostly
spent driving marine pilings. "Who knows what is going to

But here too, at last, there is an end in sight. By
tomorrow, the last of the tiebacks needed at this basement
level should be installed. Already workers from Nicholson
Construction Company, which is installing the tiebacks, can
sense they are nearing the job's end. But like the
firefighters working at the other end of the pit, they so
far have shown no hints that their dedication is waning. 

"We know where the end is now," said Paul D. Martin, the
project engineer from Nicholson. "We see it coming." 

And to many, that is the oddly discomfiting part. The last
load of debris will probably not be carried away until late
May or early June. But already, the army of workers is
shrinking as they are detailed to new, more routine tasks.
Police Officer Michael Lopez, working a checkpoint at West
and Liberty Streets, said: "It won't be easy to walk away.
It will be inside you forever, always." 

Darrell Sampson, a construction worker who has worked
12-hour shifts for more than 90 days now, said, "I just
have a feeling like I belong here, I need to be here." 

Kenneth Holden, commissioner of the city agency overseeing
the job, the Department of Design and Construction, said,
"I've got to force people to take days off." 

Battalion Chief James Campbell said that the recent finds
have kindled new hope, but added that "there will be
sadness, no doubt; you wish you could find more." 

The Rev. John W. Moody, who led the honor guard escorting
the remains of most of the 11 firefighters recovered on
Tuesday, worries that some firefighters are not ready for
the day when the wake that somehow lasted six months will
finally come to an end. "When they can no longer rescue the
remains of their brothers, the whole impact of this event
is going to have to be dealt with anew," he said. "It is
going to be extra tough on the Fire Department when they go
back to their station houses and the guys are really gone."


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