The city and work crews say the cleanup has gone faster than expected due to longer shifts and a prevailing attitude that victims' families deserve their relentless labor. Workers also credit the speedy progress to a mild winter.
Still, they must pick through the debris 24 hours a day sometimes in snow and rain.
Scattered among unrecognizable debris were mundane and oddly untouched office items a box of ball point pens, some spilling out, leaking blue ink into the ashy dirt. Papers peeked out of red file folders, flapping in the chilly breeze. A pink invoice from a 16th floor office listed a payment for $193.26.
Since the recovery effort began underground last month, workers have toiled in the pit that once was the trade center's seven-story basement. Hundreds of trucks carry rubble out of the crater each day, more than 1 million tons in all now.
The job has entered its final phase as crews lay the foundation for a 500-foot-long metal ramp along the western edge of the pit to replace the two that are now on site ramps made out of debris and topped with dirt.
The debris "presumably contains remains," said Kenneth Holden, commissioner of the city's Design and Development Corporation.
After the cleanup shifted to areas below the fallen twin towers, pockets of vitims' remains were found, many in stairwells and other spots that were partially protected as steel beams fell like pickup sticks.
At the foot of one of the muddy ramps, giant orange excavators claw through the ruins, setting down piles for firefighters to pick through with hand tools as they search for remains. Of the nearly 2,900 victims, 684 have been matched to remains by the medical examiner.
During the next five months, Holden said, the biggest challenge will be coordinating the many operations beginning to creep back into the area, such as the transit authority's work to rebuild a damaged subway tunnel. Above ground, the developer who holds the lease on the property wants to build a group of smaller structures and a memorial to the victims.
"As the site gets considered to be less and less a disaster area, and more and more a reconstruction area, what's happening is more and more people want to move back which is great, as it should be," Holden said.
By SARA KUGLER
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