NEW YORK — The World Trade Center plaza is a smoldering mess that will require a monumental cleanup effort. What makes the removal far more complex than the typical demolition project is the fact that ground zero is also the site of a crime scene.
Several thousand tons of rubble have been pulled away, but the mountains of I-beams, concrete, and broken glass still stand several stories tall.
The entire plaza was built with 200,000 tons of steel, 425,000 cubic yards of concrete, and 600,000 square feet of glass.
Working behind the machines digging into layers of debris, hard-hat workers, firefighters, police officers, and volunteers proceed cautiously to avoid collapsing gaps in the 150-foot heap of rubble where survivors might be trapped.
The crews must also preserve potential evidence for FBI investigators, such as debris from the two jetliners that hijackers crashed into the 1,300-foot twin towers Sept. 11.
Workers use power saws, crowbars, and their hands to slice and pry at the wreckage.
At night, powerful floodlights, some borrowed from a film studio in Queens, illuminate the scene, silhouetting other financial-district buildings in an eerie tableau, visible from the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, up to five miles away.
Dump trucks take the rubble to Staten Island, where it is spread out in a field near the city's recently closed Fresh Kills landfill. There, teams of FBI agents and New York City detectives sort through the debris by hand, seeking anything that might add to the file of criminal evidence.
The debris was being moved at a rate of about 3,000 cubic yards a day. Exactly how long it will take to clear the estimated 2 million cubic yards is unknown, but estimates suggest a year or more.
To Tom Rowe, a New Jersey firefighter working as a volunteer, the material collected by the bucket brigades seemed insignificant. "It's like if you filled your back yard with sand, and you tried to empty it with a teaspoon."