May 14, 2002

Sifting the Last Tons of Sept. 11 Debris


Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

In their sad domain at Fresh Kills Landfill, from left, Richard Marx, James Luongo and Bruce Bovino.

At the other place, the place called The Hill, things are winding down. Workers are decontaminating the barges, towing away equipment, spraying the ground with a gray concrete sealant. Soon, the makeshift village of sorrowful duty that sits on a remote landfill will exist only in the memory of a few.

Every now and then, another person from another museum climbs the southwestern slopes of Fresh Kills to bring the mixed message of impermanence and posterity. Sometimes they want one of the destroyed vehicles that are stacked like rust-metal bricks: a police car, maybe, or one of the fire engines. Other times all they want is a poster or a sign, like the hastily drawn site map hanging on an office-trailer's wall.

These requests are important, the people from the museums explain, so that future generations can understand what happened there, in Lower Manhattan, and what was done here, on this Staten Island landfill.

The men who built The Hill understand, reluctantly. Over the last eight months, their operation, created in the genius of desperation, has sorted through 1.6 million tons of material removed from the World Trade Center disaster site. That work has uncovered more than 4,100 body parts, helping to identify more than 150 victims.

Now, there are only 25,000 tons to be carted to the landfill from Lower Manhattan, a small fraction of what was. In the next few weeks their mission will be completed, their future certain only to the extent that it will be nothing like what they have just gone through.

It will be hard to let go, said Richard Marx, a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Time has stood still for us up here."

The place called The Pile, or ground zero, has become a part of the reality of the city. It is in Lower Manhattan after all; the dismantling of the debris from the terrorist attack of Sept. 11 has occurred on a public stage, attracting hundreds of thousands of mourners and tourists.

But the place called The Hill seems at times to have existed only in imagination. It is at the edge of the city, past a police checkpoint, on top of a closed and infamous landfill. And it is where the remains of the vast World Trade Center complex were taken, truckload after truckload, more than 107,000 in all.

There, teams of government workers, most of them New York City police officers, disappear into white protective suits and respirator masks to search for body parts, jewelry or any object that might identify one of the more than 2,800 victims. Some of them rake through the rectangular fields of rubble laid out by bulldozers. Others stand before sifting machines and try not to get dizzy as they watch the rocky, gray debris tumble past on conveyor belts.

Anything that might be something is placed in a black bucket. Jewelry and other items are photographed, cataloged, and stored away by the property clerk's office of the Police Department. Human remains are kept in a refrigerated trailer, then driven to the medical examiner's office. Many body parts have been found, the workers say, but the most heartbreaking discoveries and often the most rewarding are the hands and feet with manicured nails. It means somebody's mother, or wife, or sister, or daughter.

The essence of the work being done at The Hill, day in and day out, is so gruesome that mind games are played to make it tolerable. The site's supervisor, Deputy Inspector James Luongo, said that he remembered what his father, a former police detective and ex-marine who fought in the Korean War, once told him: "You have to be able to look at something and not see it."

Inspector Luongo was the commander of the Fugitive Enforcement Division in Brooklyn when, on Sept. 13, he was hurriedly dispatched to the landfill with instructions to put together a recovery operation. Since then, he and two other men Agent Marx of the F.B.I. and Lt. Bruce Bovino of the police have used government money, private donations and street smarts to carve an efficient, tightknit community out of 175 acres with nothing more to recommend it than commanding views of Manhattan and New Jersey.

At the peak of its operations last fall, The Hill was a nightmarish hamlet nestled against an ever-shifting mountain range of debris. Methane gas rose from the garbage-packed ground, while officers from the federal Department of Agriculture patrolled the perimeter, shooting off screeching fireworks to scare away the sea gulls and the turkey vultures.

"I remember coming up here and thinking, How the heck are we ever going to get out of here?" Inspector Luongo said. "The debris was so high you couldn't see the bridges; you couldn't see Jersey."

The managers of The Hill constantly had to dispel the rumors born of distance, miscommunication and grief's distrust. There was the blood-boiling story that hundreds of recovered firefighters' boots were being tossed in a pile to be thrown out. Not true: those boots were brand new, and for the use of workers at the site.

Then there was the job itself. Just as the garbage below the village is layered like the rings of a tree, so, too, was the World Trade Center debris above: a cache of Gap bags; a batch of Fossil wristwatches; animal bones from restaurants; blank insurance cards from Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield. They were all pieces of what Agent Marx called "life interrupted."

But for all the emotional wear and tear, the supervisors of The Hill are extremely proud of what they put together: a clockwork operation that, at $10 million a month, costs about half of what had been expected. Only one person suffered a serious injury a crushed hand out of the thousands of workers passing through, from dozens of government agencies and private contractors.

There are several sifting machines; air-testing equipment; a supply tent; a mess hall; shower stalls; bathrooms; electricity; and a trailer where people can talk with a counselor if they feel an urge. To keep morale high, there are visits by celebrities and cable television in the mess hall. A couple of weeks ago, some volunteers from Texas put on a Southern-style barbecue.

But reality is always a glance away. A few weeks ago, a relative of a victim was touring the site, watching how the sifting machines work, when a human thighbone came tumbling down the conveyor belt. According to Lieutenant Bovino, the woman said she was actually glad to know that after so many months "the system was still working, and the guys were still dedicated."

One rainy morning last week as puddles bubbled with gas and bird-chasing fireworks sounded in the distance Inspector Luongo, Lieutenant Bovino and Agent Marx took another walk through their shrinking village.

They passed a bouquet of wilted flowers, sitting in a black bucket next to the refrigerated trailer. A couple from Japan placed the flowers there several weeks ago, acknowledgment that this was where the identifying remains of their son had been found.

The men walked through the supply tent, where three workers slept on benches, then through the mess tent's cafeteria, which features a salad bar, and then outside, past the trailer reserved for counseling, which was empty.

They headed over to the white-suited workers monitoring the sifting machines. The first thing they did was peer into the black buckets. At the bottom of one sat a charred collection of photograph slides; at the bottom of another, a clump of human hair.

Then the men walked to the wall of ruined vehicles: hundreds of late-model sedans, police vans, fire engines, all spray-painted with a number for the operation's record-keeping. The sight reminded Agent Marx of the first days, when the radio in a crushed police cruiser was still broadcasting, and no one could summon the nerve to turn it off.

Some of these items have already been earmarked for the Smithsonian and other museums a concept that the three men seemed to have trouble grasping. Everything was so immense and out of context, like the large item resting beside them in the mud: one of the motors that once powered the elevators of the twin towers.

"It's intense," Lieutenant Bovino said. "It's the same as Pearl Harbor, in 50 years. But we don't see it yet."

Of course, one part of The Hill cannot be moved for posterity's sake: the hundreds of thousands of tons of dirt and ash taken from Lower Manhattan. The final resting spot of the World Trade Center and, in a way, many of its inhabitants is a bank at the edge of a landfill in Staten Island.

Inspector Luongo said it would be nice if a memorial of some kind could one day mark the spot.

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company

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