Silent tributes mark end of search at ground zero; empty stretcher symbolizes the missing

Thursday, May 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ With the peal of a Fire Department bell and the departure of an empty stretcher, the victims of the World Trade Center's unspeakable horror were remembered Thursday in a ceremony without words.

The solemn service marking the end of 8 1/2 months of cleanup began with a bell sounding out the 5-5-5-5 fire code _ four sets of five rings, in memory of 343 fallen firefighters lost at ground zero.

The first bell rang at precisely 10:29 a.m., the time that the second tower collapsed in a screech of twisting steel and falling concrete Sept. 11.

The empty, flag-draped stretcher symbolizing the missing was carried up a 500-foot ramp from the pit where workers labored around the clock.

The stretcher was loaded into an FDNY ambulance as a dozen pallbearers saluted. As the ambulance and a truck carrying the last beam from the site drove up the ramp, only the wind and the rumble of vehicles was audible at times.

The crowd, including people watching from neighboring buildings, stood mutely during the grim procession.

The sounds of taps, played by police and fire buglers, floated across the warm May morning before bagpipers played ``America the Beautiful.''

``This is the closest point I guess I can get to being with him again,'' said David Bauer III, whose father _ a Cantor Fitzgerald worker _ was one of the more than 1,700 victims for whom no remains have been identified.

Thousands gathered at the site, now a seven-story pit and once the basement of the twin skyscrapers that anchored lower Manhattan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, were among the many public officials at the event.

``It was tough to come here every day and now it's tough to leave,'' firefighter John Keating said.

As the ceremony concluded, the crowd burst into spontaneous applause for the parade of police officers, firefighters and construction workers exiting ground zero. Some tossed flowers into the void where the towers once stood.

``We will never forget,'' a banner read. In the crowd, family members held photographs of their loved ones pressed over their hearts.

Of the more than 2,800 people killed in the terrorist attack, remains of 1,102 have been identified. Nearly 20,000 body parts have been recovered.

City officials said the sifting for body parts in a landfill and the identification process will go on for months. Those human remains that cannot be identified will be retained, in case new technology someday makes it possible.

``It's hard to remember on 9/11 with all of the twisted steel and concrete ...,'' Bloomberg said earlier on NBC's ``Today'' show. ``But the fact of the matter is the people that survived are the ones that we have to go on. We have to make sure they do not forget and that they build for the future.''

At the ceremony, a flatbed truck carrying the trade center's last steel beam followed the ambulance. The beam stood until Tuesday night, when it was cut down during a ceremony for ground zero workers.

The 30-foot column survived when the towers collapsed into a mountain of 1.8 million tons of rubble. For months it was buried in debris, but it was revealed as the rubble disappeared, still standing where it was planted when the south tower was built. The beam, set on the truck and draped with a black cloth, American flag and bouquet of flowers, was being taken to a Kennedy Airport hangar for storage.

The unprecedented cleanup effort finished several months earlier than originally anticipated and at a fraction of the estimated cost. But while many victims have been identified, the end of the operation leaves numerous others without their family members' remains.

Several family groups had asked Bloomberg to schedule Thursday's service on a weekend, so that work and school schedules would not be disrupted. The mayor said the city avoided the weekend so it would not conflict with religious observances. He also said May 30 was the traditional date for Memorial Day.

To accommodate those who could not attend the ceremony, the family groups have planned their own service at ground zero on Sunday.

What to do with the site next is under discussion. Control of the site will revert from the city to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land.

Last week, the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. announced the choice of architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle as the urban planning consultant. A final plan is supposed to be chosen by Dec. 1.