Ground Zero Workers Face Changes

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- With the debris nearly gone and the cleanup just a month from completion, the workers who have spent nearly every day at the World Trade Center ruins since Sept. 11 face what could be a wrenching change in their lives.

Some have yet to begin grieving for the friends they lost. Many fear losing the bonds of friendship forged through the emotionally and physically exhausting labor. Others are nervous about returning to the lives they had before the terrorist attack. And some of those who lost their firefighter sons do not want to face the day when they have to stop searching.

The sun now shines as warmly as it did more than seven months ago, when workers began picking through rubble that stood 10 stories high. Now, ground zero is reduced to a seven-story pit, and buds are sprouting on a tiny tree nearby.

``The other day, I brushed into the tree, and I do a double take,'' said Mark Winslow, a Port Authority police lieutenant. ``I look at it, and the tree leaves are starting to bud. I say, `Oh my God. We have been here a long time. We went through three seasons.'''

As the scenery changed around them, rescue workers stifled their grief and ignored the symptoms of stress.

``The task that you have at hand is so important that your attention and concentration is on that _ it's not like you have time to sit down and think about what happens,'' said Port Authority Police Lt. John Ryan, who oversees the recovery of remains.

Sgt. John Flynn, whose best friend and partner, Gregg J. Froehner, was killed in the attack, said he has not begun to grieve for that loss or the many others. Thirty-seven Port Authority police officers were among the more than 2,800 people killed.

``I know it's going to come. I know there's going to be a point in time where I hit a wall,'' said Flynn, 47.

The Port Authority police and the city police and fire departments have already offered extensive counseling to all their members but are still grappling with how to provide therapy to the ground zero workers. Port Authority police are considering a weekend retreat for the officers.

``People have become attached to the site _ it's become a mission and an obsession to try and recover all those people who lost their lives,'' said Richard Sheirer, former director of the city emergency management office. ``When that's over, it's going to be difficult for everyone, whether it's the grappler operator or a firefighter looking for a friend.''

Some retired firefighters dread that the end will come before they find their sons' remains. They have spent nearly every day there, yet remains have been identified for only 182 of the 343 firefighters killed.

``All these months down here, you figure eventually you'd get to them, but that may not be the case,'' said Bill Butler, 62, whose firefighter son Tom was killed. ``It's very hard, walking away.''

Firefighter Dennis O'Berg, 55, retired earlier than he had planned after losing his son on Sept. 11. He has sought relief by working at the site, forming relationships with others looking for their lost sons.

``I wish it would go on, I do,'' O'Berg said. ``As long as we're still looking, we still have hope that I'm going to find my son and everyone else who's left.''

The last remaining heaps of debris are expected to be cleared by May. About 800 laborers toil there during a 24-hour period, 150 of them firefighters or police officers. Workers have removed more than 1.5 million tons of rubble and found more than 19,000 body parts.

When the task is done and they return to work, they are likely to find their jobs have changed. Protecting the city is different now, and new faces will replace co-workers lost.

``When you do something every day for as long a period of time as this has been, you grow to develop friendships. And when the site is done, we won't be working together on a daily basis,'' said Ryan, the Port Authority officer. ``Unless you're actually here and going through this and seeing what we see and dealing with it, it's difficult to explain it to people.''