The discovery of body parts has slowed to a trickle, the rubble is almost gone and soon all that will remain is a pit seven stories deep.
Within a month, the painstaking, around-the-clock effort to remove debris and search for remains at the World Trade Center site will be finished and the focus will turn to building a new cultural, business and transit center.
Work already has begun on rebuilding the commuter train and subway stations demolished by the fallen twin towers, which left an estimated 1.7 million tons of rubble piled 10 stories high at the 15-block site.
No human remains other than small bones have been found in the past two weeks, and city officials predict the recovery operation will end later this month. Fewer than 120,000 tons of rubble are left.
Lt. John Ryan, who oversees the recovery of human remains for the Port Authority police, said the slowdown has been discouraging in some ways.
"I guess it’s just a matter of the site winding down," Ryan said. "There’s a mix of emotions, but we do still have about three weeks left."
Officials said they hope to have a master rebuilding plan completed by December for the site — one that is likely to include a permanent memorial, commercial space and cultural attractions.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it could take the city up to two years to design a fitting memorial to the more than 2,800 people killed in the attack.
But transit officials said they couldn’t wait for the final development plan to begin rebuilding train lines that shuttled hundreds of thousands of commuters before Sept. 11.
"If you tried to tie this into the future development, it would just delay the whole thing," said Joseph Englot, chief structural engineer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site.
While most planners envision buildings less than half the height of the twin towers, the new subterranean train lines will be able to bear weight equal to the 110-story towers.
"We’ll put back the columns that could support the original loads. Not knowing now what the plans are, if somebody wanted to put back what was originally there, these columns could handle it," Englot said.
Construction on an elevator for the PATH commuter train station began last month. Workers will begin building the foundations for the station as soon as the recovery operation is complete, Englot said. The $140 million project is expected be completed by December 2003.
On the east side of the site, a repaired subway line will accommodate riders by November, according to Cosema Crawford, deputy chief engineer for New York City transit. Workers will build a new station at the trade center, which trains will bypass until the new development is completed.
After city officials determine that the remains recovery operation is complete, a 13-foot wall of structural steel with mesh panels will be built along the site’s perimeter to allow visitors to view the construction.
The medical examiner’s office expects its work identifying remains will continue for about eight more months after the recovery operation ends.
The number of identified victims surpassed 1,000 last week. More than 19,000 body parts have yet to be identified, spokesman Ellen Borakove said.
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