The last steel beam is leaving ground zero.
Tomorrow, this last girder along with an ambulance bearing an empty, flag-draped stretcher will mark a symbolic end to one of the greatest recovery efforts in the nation's history.
In under nine months, the city's ironworkers and firefighters have removed more than 100,000 truckloads of twisted metal, burnt wires, and concrete dust. At any given time 24 hours a day, 600 to 700 people have combed through what was left of the twin towers and identified 1,081 of the 2,823 people who died Sept 11. They have cleared all but a few piles out of the pit, now 70 feet below ground level.
The herculean effort has come to symbolize how determined the city is to recover from the attack. Working in the pit has been a way for the firefighters who lost 343 fellow members to help ease the pain. And, for many people from all over the world, viewing the gigantic hole has become one way to pay homage to the men and women who lost their lives.
"As a result of the long dig-out process, we have gotten used to a relatively new form of communal bereavement," says Kathleen Hulser of the New York Historical Society. "And the communal bereavement has been very secular pilgrims putting hats, T-shirts, signs on the fences, ramps, anything to show we care about the missing."
Just the sheer scale of the job has become part of the city's mythology.
Immediately after the attack, the nation's largest city was faced with 16 acres of devastation in the world's most important financial district. There was more than 1.6 million tons of debris an amount equal to all the paper products, such as roofing and wallboard, used in the US during an entire year. The site smoldered for months. Rescue workers had to wear special equipment because of the potential for hazardous chemicals and fibers.
"Most importantly, our first and foremost effort in this recovery effort was to do it safely and, God willing, we will get to May 30 with our record intact of not having one single serious injury," says Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
One of the reasons the city could get to the bottom of ground zero quickly has been the dedication of the workforce. Typical is Joe Dadabo, who's been at the wheel of a big yellow Volvo dump truck nicknamed Axle King 12 hours a day, seven days a week, since Sept. 12. "We have to show everyone we have a big heart," he says, "that we care."
That's what has also driven John Misha, a fire-department retiree who has worked more than 90 12-hour shifts, getting up at 5 a.m. every morning. He's looking for neighbors and old friends who lost their lives. "This has been part of my life," he says.
In his wallet, he carries a photo of a cross made of heavy-duty chain. Shortly after he began working at the site, he built the cross at home and placed it near a fire department's hut. Religious leaders stopped and left 19 crosses on it. Now, the relic become part of history at the New York City Fire Museum.
Perhaps it's a museum quality that attracts so many visitors from out of town. About 7,000 people per day view the site from a raised observation deck. Among them is Ann Forbes-Cockell, a visitor from England, who has made two trips to view the site. She first came last November, when it was still a mass of tangled steel. On her second visit, almost all the debris is gone. "This is closure. There comes a time when you have to turn the page," she says as she dabs her eyes with a tissue.
For many young visitors, the destruction is hard to fathom. That's the case for 16 fourth-graders from the Kalfas Magnet School in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Soon after the attack, the inner-city children began a Nickels for New York program. They "adopted" the families of three New York Supreme Court officers who worked near the World Trade Center and lost their lives trying to help in the aftermath of the attack. By saving their ice-cream money and even taking pennies from their piggy banks, the children raised $800 for the families. Then, they raised enough money to get on a bus for New York and see ground zero.
"They felt angry about what happened, and they were sad for the families," says Diane Bianco, one of the teachers on the trip. "They just couldn't understand why someone would do such a horrible thing."
Even though the city has had countless memorial services for those lost, New Yorkers continue to mourn. Last week, for example, a small fountain was dedicated across the street from the brick theater-district firehouse that lost 15 men in the attack. "The ceremonies do help, even if it relieves the pain for a minute," says Mary Anne Regan, the wife of a firefighter, who sang at the dedication.
But for some, there will be very little closure as this chapter of ground zero is closed and the city debates how to use the site next.
Because only 192 of its members have been identified, the firefighters feel the job has not been completed. "We have not brought all our men home," says Nicholas Scopetta. "It was not quite what we wanted to do."
That's true of the Supreme Court officers as well. Only one of the three lost officers has been identified. "For the families, I know they are going to all these benefits and they are trying to find closure," says Donald Simeone, first vice president of the Supreme Court Officers Association. "But I don't think they will find it until they get a positive ID."