Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"They Sift Tons to ID the Lost of Sept. 11, Those on Site See This, Too, as Sacred," by Fred Kaplan,

January 15, 2002, The Boston Globe, "They Sift Tons to ID the Lost of Sept. 11, Those on Site See This, Too, as Sacred," by Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff,

NEW YORK - While hundreds of tourists line up for a look at ground zero from the new viewing platform, the real horror has been relocated 19 miles away, to a former garbage dump called Fresh Kills.

The Lower Manhattan site that was once the World Trade Center is now pretty much empty. The fires are extinguished, the ruins are razed, and 1.2 million tons of rubble have been excavated by cranes and carted away by a long procession of trucks and barges.

The caravan's destination is Fresh Kills, a site named with the old Dutch word kills, used of the streams that run through the marshes of Staten Island, and long home to New York City's garbage dump.

The massive landfill has been transformed into the world's largest crime lab.

More than 300 detectives, FBI agents, and forensic specialists hover over the evidence, which pours in at the rate of 12,000 tons a day. They are looking for any evidence - body parts of attack victims, personal belongings, and especially those black boxes, the flight data recorders of the two passenger planes that crashed into the twin towers on Sept. 11.

Yesterday, the New York Police Department gave its first media tour of Fresh Kills, a heavily guarded, fenced-in area closed to the general public.

The wreckage spans 175 acres, 11 times the area of ground zero. There are piles of crushed metal, twisted steel girders, grey mounds of who-knows-what pulverized as fine as grain.

In excess of 1,000 charred and crushed cars, trucks, and taxicabs that were parked near the towers that morning now occupy one area of the site.

A few dozen firetrucks have been lined up nearby, their frames twisted, their tires ravaged, their engines mangled, everything beyond repair.

The guide for the tour is William H. Allee Jr., New York's chief of detectives and a 29-year veteran of the police force. He has seen all this many times, but it still makes him gulp.

"These are the people who responded to the disaster," he said, pointing to the red row. "This is what happened to their trucks."

Just outside a trailer that serves as the FBI's command post, a bronze sculpture of a muscular nude man by Auguste Rodin - which once stood in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond trading firm on the World Trade Center's 101st floor - lies front down on the ground, its torso still intact, but its feet broken off, its head and arms vanished.

Nearby, another trailer bears a sign that reads, "Temporary Morgue." This is where body parts found in the sifting of debris are kept temporarily in a giant refrigerator before they are sent to the medical examiner's office for analysis.

More than 3,000 body parts have been found so far at Fresh Kills, their discovery leading to positive identifications of 46 victims, with more likely to come.

"We've found pieces of human remains that were maybe a quarter of an inch," Allee said. "Anything that has DNA can be useful. We put up pictures of the people who have been identified as a result of what goes on here. It lets everybody know their work is important."

Detectives wearing white worksuits and respirators are searching all across the site. Wherever trucks unload new piles, three or four detectives quickly rake through the debris.

After the large pieces of metal are removed, cranes lift what's left into six sets of twin chutes: one for fine particles, one for larger chunks.

The chunks are carried by conveyor belts, each manned by three detectives who examine each piece closely and stop the machinery whenever they see something that might be of forensic value.

Besides body parts, they have found driver's licenses, employee identification cards, photographs, jewelry, and more than 50 handguns, many of them presumably belonging to police officers killed when the buildings collapsed.

These possessions are taken to a decontamination center about 50 feet away, where they are cleaned and dried - a process that takes about 12 hours - and then catalogued in alphabetized bins, where they will eventually be returned to the owners or their families, if they can be tracked down.

The entire, elaborate operation - which also involves 150 sanitation workers and private contractors - runs nearly nonstop in three shifts, seven days a week, with breaks taken only from 1 to 5 a.m., to allow for maintenance of the equipment and cleaning of the muddied grounds.

Allee said he doubts that the airliners' black boxes will be found.

"I'm always hopeful," he said, "but there's a strong possibility that because of the impact, the black boxes were destroyed. They could have melted. They could have been pulverized."

Still, the crews work on - several retired detectives even come on weekends to help out - to find more human remains.

In the first few weeks after the attack, the debris came from ground zero to Staten Island by truck, through the Battery Tunnel, over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and across the Verrazano Bridge.

Now the trucks coming out of the World Trade Center take the debris to Manhattan's south piers and load it on 12 to 15 barges per day, which cross New York Bay along the same route as the Staten Island Ferry, then into Newark Bay and through the winding streams that separate Staten Island from New Jersey.

This is the way that New York City's 14,000 tons of garbage per day used to be taken to Fresh Kills, until the dump was closed last year, after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki took to heart complaints by Staten Islanders about the foul smell and the general indignity of being known as the city's garbage dump.

It was fortuitous that the dump shut down when it did, Allee said. If it were still operating, he said, he did not know where the debris from the World Trade Center would have been taken. There are few sites in the region with the size, security, isolation, and equipment of Fresh Kills.

Some family members of the 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11 attack have complained about the possibility that their loved ones could end up in a garbage dump.

But Allee disputed the perception. "I'm tired of hearing that," he said. "This is not a dump. This is sacred ground.

"If we had done it in a football stadium or a beach or a parking lot, it would be the same thing," Allee said. "This is an extension of the World Trade Center. This is a special place."

Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff. "THEY SIFT TONS TO ID THE LOST OF SEPT. 11 THOSE ON SITE SEE THIS, TOO, AS SACRED." The Boston Globe (Boston, MA). 2002. HighBeam Research. (October 4, 2010). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-7698945.html

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