- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

NEW YORK Firefighters, police officers and rescue workers walked out of the pit known as ground zero yesterday, carrying the stark memories of the United States' worst disaster and the still-raw heartaches it left behind.

After 8½ months of searching and sifting the rubble first for bodies, then for human remains all that was left yesterday was the dust and the frail hope that science, DNA, might offer some small comfort to the thousands of relatives left behind by the terrorist attack. It was time to close ground zero.

A wordless 30-minute ceremony that spoke volumes through its symbols began at 10:29 a.m. to mark the collapse of tower No. 2 into a burning mass of rubble.

A New York Fire Department bell sounded the 5-5-5-5 fire code four sets of five rings invoking the memory of the 343 firefighters who died trying to rescue their brothers and fellow citizens from the doomed World Trade Center.

Survivors of the dead, such as Tanya Villaneuva, whose husband died in the blast, clutched pictures of loved ones to their chests.

"There's a big rush for everybody to move on. But how? We can't move on," she said.

Scores of television reporters talked of "closure" and "healing," but the firefighters who have been searching the rubble every day for their colleagues, and in some cases family members, did not see it quite that way.

Lee Ielpi , who lost his son, Jonathan, said he hoped there would be a fitting memorial at the site. "If I can be a part of that, well, I'm going to go for it. It'll help me, keep me going."

Albert Petrocelli said of his son's death: "Our lives, as nature will have it, will go on. If we feel we can't go [on], the morning comes and we wake up."

A burly man with sad eyes, George Reilly, a retired firefighter, said of son Kevin's death: "I have to try to keep my faith and just go on. That's all we can do."

Standing at attention under a hazy morning sky, an honor guard of 220 representing various agencies involved in the cleanup lined a 500-foot ramp and saluted as 12 pallbearers carried an empty stretcher draped in an American flag up from the seven-story pit.

The stretcher was loaded into a waiting ambulance, its emptiness recalling those victims who disappeared in the incineration of the towers. Following the stretcher was the last steel beam to survive the blast, a 30-foot column wrapped in black bunting and the stars and stripes and decorated with a bouquet. The beam was driven slowly up the ramp on a flatbed truck.

Police and fire department buglers sounded taps; drummers beat a dirge and bagpipers played a mournful "America the Beautiful."

Five police helicopters flew over the site as many recalled how futile their efforts were on the day they hovered over the burning towers. Thousands looked on in silence at the 16-acre open wound that was once the basement of the World Trade Center; others shook their heads in disbelief. Among the scores of officials was former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who shepherded New Yorkers through September 11 and its numbing aftermath.

Applause rang out from the thousands watching as rescue workers paraded up the ramp on their way out of the pit. Left behind, hanging on the empty Banker's Trust building next to the site, was the pit's banner and motto: "We Will Never Forget." The procession filed into West Street to a strip of highway called "Point Thank You" where people held up signs saying "thank you" to the passing fire, police and emergency trucks.

Since September 11, 2001 the day Muslim militants flew two airliners into the twin towers thousands from the rescue and recovery services have toiled around the clock. As of Wednesday afternoon, 1.8 million tons of steel and debris had been removed from the site.

On a discordant note, some relatives complained about not being able to view the memorial because honor guards obstructed their line of sight. There will be another ceremony on Sunday for families who could not attend yesterday's official closing of the site.

Barbara Monahan, whose brother worked for the investment house Cantor Fitzgerald on the top floors of the World Trade Center, has come to the pit regularly since the tragedy. She was here yesterday, too.

"This is where they spent their last moments," she said after the ceremony. "So many of our thoughts went across to them and where they were at that moment and what they were thinking and feeling."

The recovery effort in lower Manhattan was completed three months ahead of schedule. Of the 2,813 people reported missing, 1,102 have been identified. But while yesterday's commemorations signaled the closing of the site, the search for the identities of the 1,711 missing will continue at a laboratory in Fresh Kills, Staten Island, and at the Medical Examiner's Office. So far, about 19,000 body parts have been catalogued.

For firefighter Dennis Oberg, who still waits for his son's remains to be identified, the ceremony did not ease his mourning.

"We're going to have to wait for the medical examiner to call," he said. "There's not going to be any closure for me and my family. This this just broke our hearts."


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