May 31, 2002

Where Twin Towers Stood, a Silent Goodbye


Until yesterday, there was little room for silence at the World Trade Center. In the decades before its collapse, the streets echoed with the wanted bustle of its commerce; in the eight months after, with the haunting roar from the haul of its rubble and the hunt for remains.

But at 10:29 yesterday morning, after the tolling of bells and in the presence of thousands, silence took its proper place. A corner of the city became still, as a stretcher bearing the weight of no body was carried out of the swept-clean pit where the twin towers once stood, followed by a truck carting a 58-ton steel column the last symbolic remnant of what was. About the only sounds were a drum's roll and an infant's cry.

The ceremony was not perfect because no ceremony for this could be: not when more than 2,800 people died here in the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, with no trace of more than half the victims yet found. Some people chafe at any pomp, no matter how well intentioned, while others do not have to visit a 16-acre hole to learn about voids.

But many other people, from hard-hatted workers in the pit to blue-suited officials in City Hall, wanted to mark the awesome completion of an awful task: the separation of human remains from 1.8 million tons of debris, and the delicate removal of both. They also sensed the psychological need to distinguish the future from the past, for once that last column left, ground zero became a site for construction, not recovery.

Much of this was on the mind of Alan Reiss as he stood at the bottom of the pit, waiting with 11 other stretcher bearers for the signal to begin the slow march up the ramp. Six stories up, at ground level, thousands of people were waiting: people who had lost family members, police officers and firefighters who had lost colleagues, ground zero workers who had lost the fall, winter and most of the spring.

Mr. Reiss had lost as well. He was the Port Authority's operations liaison at the World Trade Center when it was destroyed, killing more than a dozen of his staff members. Now here he was, in the basin that once supported towers that soared a quarter-mile into the sky. Here was where the escalators leading to the PATH trains hummed; there, the entrance ramps to the basement parking garages. Was, all was.

"It seems like yesterday," he said later. "And here we are, and it's the end of May."

While Mr. Reiss waited, Lower Manhattan prepared. People pressed against a stretch of West Street that had to be rebuilt after Sept. 11. Bagpipers tested their instruments beside 90 West Street, a landmark so damaged that it remains under protective netting. Reporters hustled down boarded-up Liberty Street, past closed storefronts that include the place where a makeshift mess hall once fed recovery workers round the clock.

Without context, the pre-ceremony hubbub could have been for a happy parade; there were flags and cameras and souvenir hawkers. But with context found best in memory the mood seemed awkward, as though teetering between sorrow and relief.

"I came here when the pile was 12 stories high, and now it's swept and I'm glad it's over," said Brian Lyons, a superintendent for Tully Construction Company, whose brother, Firefighter Michael Lyons, died in the attack. Although it aches him to know that the remains of many have not been found, he said: "I feel satisfied that we got every nook and cranny. When the trucks go out, that's closure for me."

But the fallout of Sept. 11 continues to run the emotional gamut. Some fire companies attended yesterday's ceremony; others, like Engine 235 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, chose a more private commemoration. The widows of the six men lost from their firehouse, including Battalion Chief Dennis Cross, came to the firehouse for breakfast and a prayer service.

Then there are those fed up with commemoration. "I'm staying away because I think they're turning it into this sick, cheeseball thing," said Deborah Anne Hagerty, whose sister, Karen, died in the attack. "All the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance. Every event is such an event. `We're taking the first girder down, we're taking the last girder down.' It's like, O.K. already."

She added, "I don't think a pile of dirt symbolizes that much to me."

Still, Ms. Hagerty's mother, Lena Whittaker, and stepfather, Linzee Whittaker, planned to attend. "They haven't found anything of her yet," Mr. Whittaker said, referring to Karen Hagerty. "So we still feel very strongly that that site represents, in large part, a final resting place for her."

For Karen Hagerty, for Dennis Cross and the others dead; for the thousands of friends and relatives; for the thousands of rescue and recovery workers; and for a city; the bells tolled. They clanged in four sets of five rings the traditional signal for a fallen firefighter at 10:29, the moment when the last tower finished collapsing 261 days earlier.

The command went out, and right hands everywhere snapped in salute. Then 15 people representing 12 agencies and groups the Fire Department, the Police Department, the crane operators, the families and others began carrying the stretcher slowly up a ramp leading out of the pit. Among them was Alan Reiss, representing the Port Authority and the colleagues he lost.

Mr. Reiss concentrated on the stretcher bearer in front of him, and tried not to make eye contact with any of the firefighters and police officers and family members who formed the honor guard up the ramp. "I did not want to lose it there," he said.

The stretcher, carrying a folded-up American flag, was placed in the hold of a Fire Department ambulance idling near the top of the ramp. Then a drum slowly beat against the hush, as bagpipers marched up the ramp, their pipes silent.

Last came the truck: a yellow cab pulling a flatbed, upon which rested Column No. 1,001 B of 2 World Trade Center, draped in black muslin and an American flag. Those covers concealed the spray-painted farewells that decorated the steel column, including the numbers lost by the Fire Department (343), the Port Authority Police Department (37), and the New York Police Department (23).

The truck groaned its way up the ramp, stirring puffs of dirt beneath its massive wheels, as a single police officer, in formal dress, jogged beside it. When it reached the ambulance with no body, the truck paused, "Taps" sounded, and five police helicopters passed overhead through airspace that was not there nine months ago.

The salutes dropped as the procession moved past a group of dignitaries senators, governors, a cardinal, a mayor, his predecessor with those who had formed the honor guard falling in behind. Then, just after the bagpipers had played "America the Beautiful," the applause began, a sustained, almost defiant applause that sought to fill a rare silence that had lasted nearly half an hour.

"A lot of people were clapping," Mr. Reiss said. "I understand it, but I didn't expect it."

The single ambulance, the single truck and a growing line of marchers turned north onto West Street, where the hordes of people standing on the sidelines picked up the applause. The western side of Lower Manhattan craned to get a look: men in hard hats peeking out of damaged buildings, window washers on scaffolding, photographers lined along the 10th-story balcony of 2 World Financial Center.

What they saw were thousands of heads, some raised, some bowed. Many of those below were like Lucy Knopf, 69, a secretary who, when asked why she had come, said only: "Respect." Or like Franklin Tucci, 34, who felt compelled to show support for the city and respect for the dead, but still was not sure he had made the right decision in coming.

"I'm still very nervous to be close to the site," he said.

Then there were those distinguished by their tear-streaked faces, or by the photographs held near their hearts. Among them was Joanne Briley, whose brother, Jonathan, used to admire the sunrises from the 110th-floor perch that his place of work, Windows on the World, offered. He was 43 years old, and now his younger sister wears a pendant bearing his image around her neck.

At 11:24 a.m., less than an hour after the bells first sounded, the formal procession reached its destination. The marchers came to a halt as the flatbed truck turned east onto Canal Street, bound for a Port Authority hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens.

The service ended, many people returned to work; among them, Mr. Reiss, who is now the deputy director of the Port Authority's Aviation Department. Others took pause; some firefighters from Brooklyn gathered around a van on Murray Street to drink beer from plastic cups.

But the flatbed truck bearing sorrowful cargo continued on, escorted by police cruisers. It bounced and lurched over the rutted pavement of Canal Street, the open market of a thoroughfare that serves SoHo, Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

It passed police Sgt. Joseph Vanschaick, who gave a crisp salute. It passed Dan Dalrymple, a theater scene artist, who thought about his mother's photographs of John F. Kennedy's funeral. It passed a teenager from Long Island named Walter Sonsowski, who skipped school to witness history because he might one day teach it.

The truck's driver shifted into low gear to climb the bumpy incline leading onto the Manhattan Bridge. And then the last piece of the World Trade Center melted away in the late-morning urban haze.

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