Copyright 2002 Daily News, L.P.
Daily News (New York)...04/22/2002


There is little left to search at Ground Zero.

Soon - likely sometime next month, according to Mayor Bloomberg - the nonstop recovery effort officially will be declared over. And many at the World Trade Center site will not be ready for that traumatic day.

Fueled by regret and depression, seemingly petty accusations are rising out of the pit. On the surface, the squabbles seem to be about everything from who deserves public praise to where it's okay to park a truck.

There are even ugly charges of stealing, hoarding donated clothing and sleeping on the job. Last week, a city engineer and a laborer were arrested after scuffling with Port Authority cops.

But most of the bleary-eyed workers shrug off suggestions that bickering has worsened.

"You've got construction interests on one end and recovery on the other end," said a high-ranking NYPD officer at Ground Zero. "Somewhere the two shall meet. Sometimes it's not pretty. But things are always resolved."

The overwhelming feeling at Ground Zero is not animosity or anger, say the laborers, machine operators, cops, and firefighters. It is frustration - that many of those who died on Sept. 11 will never be found.

"We realize the work is coming to an end," said Jack Lynch, whose son, Firefighter Michael Lynch, was killed in the terrorist attacks. "When that day comes, it's going to be very traumatic for many people."

Lynch, a retired Transit Authority supervisor, is part of a close-knit group of fathers who has been digging through debris, looking for sons, for seven months. He calls himself lucky because his son's body was pulled from the collapsed south tower last month.

Findings slowed in April

"Over 2,800 people perished," Lynch said the other day on his way to dig for more victims. "We've found about 900 of them. We had hoped to find more."

At Ground Zero, success is gauged almost entirely by the number of human remains recovered. March was a good month. April has been less kind.

More than 3,140 body parts were found last month as workers explored the last piles of rubble, including the lobby and lower floors of the south tower.

"Everyone got optimistic," said Bobby Gray, who oversees the heavy machines at the site. "Then we got to the tracks of the PATH train - the bottom of the south tower. We knew there wasn't anybody else there."

This month, fewer than 800 body parts have been recovered.

"We won't find everyone," said Gray, an International Union of Operating Engineers supervisor. "We've all been here a long time and there is this tremendous sense of frustration."

The Rev. Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest, wears a habit muddied from his days in the seven-story pit where he bears witness to the workers' anxiety.

"This is not foolish frustration," he said. "This is understandable frustration. Everyone has to be patient with these very good people."

'I-don't-know' syndrome

The last heaps of rubble are disappearing steadily. More than 1.5 million tons of debris have been hauled away. "Guys were hoping to find their brother, their sister, their friend," said Jeff Zelli, a shop steward for the Laborers Union. "But then they look at what's left and realize it's almost over."

"The arguing and political stuff, that goes on at every job, and down here it's probably a little more intense because of where we're at," Zelli said. "We're at the bottom of the pile."

When the recovery ends, there will be little stillness. Crews already are reconstructing the PATH tubes and erecting new steel for the No. 1 and 9 subway lines. As redevelopment speeds up, some workers will be back, but many will not.

"Nerves are frayed down here because a lot of people got the I-don't-know syndrome," a crane operator said. "Like I don't know how many more people we're going to find. I don't know if I can take this anymore. I don't know where I'm going to be after this."

The workers have asked Gov. Pataki to create a viewing area for them - much like that afforded victims' families - so they can continue to see what's happening on the sacred 16 acres.

Several of the building trades unions are considering offering special counseling to their members at the end of the job, and Jordan will begin offering meetings for former Ground Zero workers in June.

"You try to shut yourself down - not think about all of the bodies and what you've seen," said a grapple operator. "But it eats at you. You get mad when you shouldn't. At some point, it's time to go."