Thursday, at 10:59 a.m., the same moment the second tower collapsed on September 11th, five bells rang out in memory of the 343 firefighters lost in the attacks and the final load of rubble was hauled from the 16-acre site in lower Manhattan. After 3.1 million hours of round-the-clock labor, 1.8 million tons of debris removed, 20,000 body parts recovered and 1,102 victims identified, the job was finished. In a tribute to the 1,730 WTC victims whose remains may never be found, workers, flanked by silent mourners, carried a final empty stretcher draped in an American flag out of the pit. Only bagpipes and bugles broke the eerie quiet.
Just a few took active part in this final ceremony. But in the beginning, in the first days after the attacks, each worker came to Ground Zero carrying something: A fear, an aching void, an ineffable rage. Firefighters turned up in memory of fallen colleagues. Police officers arrived clutching photographs of their dead. Fathers and brothers and sisters came for the backbreaking work, hoping perhaps to sweat out some of their tears.
At first, we called it a rescue and recovery effort: every ping, every bang followed by a strained call for silence, as the workers cautiously picked their way toward the sound, shouting reassurances, hoping they might find a survivor, miraculously clinging to life in the midst of the rubble. Later, the last, dogged hope abandoned to the harsh realities of the site, it became a salvage job: Pull the wreckage apart, keep your mask on, pray none of the broken steel beams falls on you. This was a daily grind cloaked in mindfulness, punctuated by constant, grim reminders of death and loss, spent sifting through the wreckage in hopes of finding human remains.
The fires at the heart of the rubble burned for weeks, holding recovery efforts to a wide perimeter, and sending foul-smelling smoke wafting through the New York atmosphere. As the brilliant fall weather cooled into winter drizzle and snow, New Yorkers, at once repelled and consumed by the thought and images of the wound to our city, were the first to visit the site. Soon, tourists arrived in droves, snapping photographs, taking in the atmosphere. Tickets for the viewing stand were handed out in order to control the crowds.
All that time, the workers kept at it, downing thermoses of coffee and sandwiches proffered by Red Cross volunteers. The workers were at once celebrities, flirted with by the young people who flocked downtown to serve food and set up Internet connections, and totally anonymous, their features shrouded by hardhats or baseball caps slung low over their foreheads. We cheered them on, standing on the shoulder of the West Side Highway, waving our flags and our placards of thanks, but we will never truly understand what they did.
Many New Yorkers are already back in top form, bickering over plans to redevelop the stricken downtown area, complaining about traffic snarls, doing our best to carry on the traditions that make this city work. But the workers at Ground Zero don't have that option they're stuck in a time warp, reliving that awful day again and again. They make it safe for the rest of us to go downtown and breathe the air and wonder at the cool efficiency of the cleanup effort. "It's amazing," we marvel to ourselves. "It's like a clean slate." The workers are carrying our demons for us, having removed them from our sight. They'll struggle to exorcise their memories of glass and steel and gore for longer than most of us can imagine. And for that alone, we owe these men and women our gratitude as well as our compassion.