The fire bells' mournful tone echoed through the dusty 16-acre pit, marking the formal end, and a new beginning, for the devastated World Trade Center site.
The tribute, which replays itself every time a firefighter is lost, opened the mostly silent, 19-minute ceremony at ground zero. An empty stretcher carrying a flag, and the last beam, covered in black and draped with the Stars and Stripes, were brought slowly up a long ramp lined with an honor guard of firefighters, police, and rescue workers.
Taps played. Bagpipes struck up "America the Beautiful." Then the honor guard fell one by one into formation. Cheers rose as they marched past victims' families, public officials, and thousands of their white-gloved comrades.
The simplicity of the event spoke more than any person could about New York's painful recovery and powerful resilience.
"In some ways, it represents the end of mourning and the beginning of the focus on rebuilding the city," says Kenneth Jackson, of the New York Historical Society. "Although not for people who lost family members the mourning won't end for them."
Indeed, for the victims' families, Thursday's ceremony marking the end of cleanup at ground zero is just another difficult milestone in a year of agonizing turning points the end of rescue efforts, the one-month anniversary, the three-month and the six-month observances. There have been holidays and birthdays, all celebrated with their loved one's absence an aching presence. And now this, the formal letting go of that last vestige of hope that something, even just a chip of bone, will be found at the site.
"This is a milestone in the fact that there won't be anyone there looking for my father anymore, and that's really tough," says Cathy Miller, whose father, Robert Kennedy, died in the inferno.
The medical examiner will continue working to identify the remains that have been recovered at the site over the last 8-1/2 months. Only 1,102 of the more than 2,800 people killed have been identified so far.
For Amy Wallin and the thousands of volunteers who worked days, weeks, and months at the site, today marks a different kind of ending and loss, as well as hope. A ballet dancer and choreographer, she lives just seven blocks from the site and spent the first two months after the attacks setting up emergency lighting, fueling generators doing anything and everything that anyone needed.
The experience transformed her and her whole neighborhood, bringing out a deep caring and camaraderie. "I really hope that people don't go back to business as usual, life as usual, but they carry some of that care with them," says Ms. Wallin. "This is a chance for people to look within themselves and find love for others."
With the emotional ceremonies over, the city is moving ahead with plans to develop the site. Last week, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) selected an architectural firm to manage a study of how to use the 16 acres and improve transportation around it. By mid-July, the firm hopes to narrow the options to six and by December to a single plan.
"The consensus is to restore the site to human size and to reconnect neighborhoods," says Nancy Poderycki, a spokeswoman for the LMDC.
Although nothing has been decided, she says there is also an emerging consensus that a substantial portion of the site perhaps seven acres of it should be dedicated to a memorial.
Over the short term, the city and state are trying to reinvigorate lower Manhattan, which still is missing about 60,000 jobs. Through the summer, there is the River to River Festival, which includes performers such as singer Sheryl Crow, touring Chinese Acrobats, and jazzman Wynton Marsalis. The state Legislature is expected to approve some tax-free shopping days to help the downtown merchants.
And, last week, the city expanded its grant program to include up to $1,750 for residents of Little Italy and Chinatown. "Some merchants are still suffering, but there has been drastic improvement since 9/11," says Bryan Evans, a spokesman for the Downtown Alliance, public-private partnership.
As difficult as today was for family members, they too want to look forward. "You have to be appreciative that people have done the most they can" in the most awful situation, says Ms. Miller. "You have to come from a good place in this. I have to live my father's legacy and be grateful, a better person. That's what I want people to get out of this."