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Solemn Ground

May 30, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: Thousands of people gathered at Ground Zero this morning to mark the end of the World Trade Center recovery operation and to remember the people who died there. Family members of victims, firefighters, police officers, as well as politicians, including former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, attended the emotional and largely silent ceremony.

It took place in the seven story deep pit once the basement of the 110 story towers. At the peak of the recovery operation, 3500 uniformed and civilian workers cleared rubble and searched for human remains. 3500 more worked on the immediate perimeter of the 16 acre site.

But for some but for some, today’s ceremonies will not bring and end to their grief, people like John Vigiano, who came to the site on Tuesday.

JOHN VIGIANO: I’m down here for one reason, to say good-bye, and say thank you to all the men who are still here.

TOM BEARDEN: The retired firefighter came to Ground Zero every day for five months, trying to find the remains of his two sons, John, a firefighter, and Joseph, a police detective. Joseph’s remains were found in October, but there has been nothing recovered of John.

JOHN VIGIANO: I’ve accepted the fact that there’s no body. And not finding the body for me is like a mixed emotion: Their souls went to heaven, there’s a heaven, this is probably purgatory, and Osama bin Laden will be in hell. But his soul is here, and whatever they find is just remnants, I accept that, it keeps me going. If I dwell on the fact that there’s not a physical body, I’d go nuts.

TOM BEARDEN: Vigiano watched as firefighters raked through what little remained of the 1.8 million tons of debris that has been removed.

JOHN VIGIANO: It’s not closure for my wife and I. As my wife said, "the only closure we’ll have is when they put us in the ground next to our sons."

TOM BEARDEN: Even after nearly nine months at the site, his emotions are still close to the surface.

JOHN VIGIANO: They were stand-up men, they never backed off from a job. I loved them. They were my boys. I had them for, I guess, half a lifetime, but it was good, it was good. (Crying) Quality time, that’s what I had.

TOM BEARDEN: Vigiano was one of a group of fathers who came to Ground Zero day after day to find their sons. Among them was Lee Ielpi, another retired firefighter who lost his 29-year-old son, Jonathan, who was also a firefighter. His body was recovered from the stairwell of tower two.

LEE IELPI: When the building came down, it went that way, and the stairs laid out across the ground, and that’s where he was found, and right in line were his guys and a couple of buddies I’ve worked with over the years. Right in the same line. This is what we have to talk about every day, huh? I’m happy it’s coming to an end here.

TOM BEARDEN: Does it bring you some measure of peace?

LEE IELPI: No. No. I don’t know, I don’t know where we find peace with it. I don’t think that’s going to come for quite a while to a lot of us.

TOM BEARDEN: Early estimates were that it could take up to two years to clean up Ground Zero, but in fact the process went much more quickly, and was significantly under budget. Chief Edward Kalletta is in charge of firefighter operations at Ground Zero. He says extraordinary cooperation made the job go faster.

CHIEF EDWARD KALLETTA, New York Fire Department: There was construction unions, firefighters unions, the laborers, the police department, everybody worked hand and hand, put all differences aside just for the sake of this recovery operation here, a solemn dedication that wasn’t about money, it was about doing the job here and to recover as many people as we could. To bring some – if there is any such thing as closure to any families that was what we were about.

TOM BEARDEN: But Ielpi says it didn’t go quickly for him, and for the people who lost loved ones in the towers.

LEE IELPI: Where do we ever talk like this? Nine months in this country we’ve been looking for our loved ones– nine months.

TOM BEARDEN: Ielpi says his heart goes out to single parents who try to make sense of this time in history, people like Marian Fontana. She lost her firefighter husband, Dave, and now has to explain it all to her six-year old son, named Aden.

MARIAN FONTANA: I miss him everyday. I miss talking to him at the end of the night, the cuddling, the kissing, the hugging, and just being together as a family. And my son is heartbroken, and I’m heartbroken, and it’s really

TOM BEARDEN: His body was found in December, and she says that makes her one of the fortunate ones.

MARIAN FONTANA: To come to the end of eight months of waiting, and I… to imagine myself as one of the lucky ones is… is a really hard pill to swallow. I… you know, most of my friends at the firehouse, the wives, did not get anything back, and have not even held services yet, and this really breaks my heart.

TOM BEARDEN: Fontana started an association called "9/11 Widows and Victims’ Families." She spends much of her time lobbying on firefighter’s issues. It’s one of the ways she’s been able to handle her grief, but Fontana worries about workers at the site who now must face that grief head on.

MARIAN FONTANA: I’m ready for it to be done, I think. You know, this was an inevitable day. What really worries me is that there was such a community that became a part of the World Trade Center: The Salvation Army workers, the rescue workers, they all really made this their life’s mission, and 24 hours a day were there for weeks on end. That community is now gone.

And so, I’m concerned about how do we keep our community together and how do we help each other get through this next road? Because when you keep yourself so busy, the way I have, and a lot of the people who are working down there have, you don’t really have time to feel the grief in the way you probably should. And then when everything stops, is probably when we get flooded with the loss.

TOM BEARDEN: Of the 2,823 people who lost their lives at the site, 1,796 have never been accounted for. Even though recovery at the site has now concluded, officials plan to continue sifting through debris that has been shipped to a landfill, hoping to identify additional remains through DNA testing. Monica Iken’s husband, Michael, is one of the missing. He was a bond trader on the 84th floor of tower two.

MONICA IKEN: It’s very difficult for me right now, because I don’t have any remains, and I had hoped that I would get something back even if it was bone fragment, just to know that he didn’t go "poof" one day. You know, he got up and went to work and went "poof." Where is he? And the… it just brings me back to 9/11. It makes me realize that he’s not coming home. 9/11, I knew he wasn’t coming home, and now he’s really not coming home.

It’s very hard to say good-bye to a picture, and to acknowledge that I said good-bye to a picture. I have nothing. I don’t even have his wedding band. So where did he go? Like, where is he? He’s got to be somewhere there. So for most of us, they’re somewhere. And even though the recovery is ceasing, I mean, there were… there was skin tissue found in concrete. It was found imbedded. I mean it, even if he disintegrated or he was ash, he’s still there in that site, because I don’t have anything of him back.

TOM BEARDEN: Iken is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of survivors who view the site as a graveyard. That’s why they’re determined that it have some sort of suitable memorial. Iken started a foundation called "September’s Mission," which aims to achieve that goal.

MONICA IKEN: That’s his final resting place on earth, and it’s so important we do the right thing. That’s why the memorial process is so important. September’s Mission is all about supporting that and trying to make sure we have constructive dialogue take place, so that we can heal. We have a right to heal as a nation. The world is watching every move we make. And it shouldn’t be about money. It should be about the lives of the lost.

TOM BEARDEN: John Whitehead was chosen by Governor Pataki to head the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which will try to balance economic needs with the needs of the families.

JOHN WHITEHEAD, Lower Manhattan Development Corp.: Instead of being just a memorial, it’s a graveyard, and that’s a serious thing. But the redevelopment must also begin. We can’t just sit and grieve and wring our hands. Life moves on. The city needs the area to be redeveloped. It has to be redeveloped with some office buildings with — 12 million square feet of office buildings were destroyed in the… in the loss of the two twin towers. Civic buildings have to be built. A beautiful memorial has to be built. We want this to be a world class memorial. It will be the most beautiful memorial anywhere in the world. (Bells ringing)

TOM BEARDEN: At exactly 10:29 this morning the time the second tower collapsed on September 11, a fire department bell sounded the fire code in memory of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives. (Bells ringing)

SPOKESMAN: Present. Halt.

TOM BEARDEN: An empty stretcher draped an in American flag symbolized those still missing. (Marching band playing) Shrouded in black, the last steel beam to be cleared from the site was carried away on a flatbed truck. Organizers had decided there would be no words, no prayers, no speeches on this extraordinarily somber day. (Bag pipes playing "America")