RAY SUAREZ: Some workers leaving the World Trade Center site this week had buttons and stickers attached to their hard hats that said, "Welcome to Hell." And it sounds a little over the top until you see the site close up-- the noise, the dirt and the columns of smoke.
The horrifying landscape of twisted debris, men and machines working round the clock. Some continue to pull the destroyed buildings apart, while others shore up, stabilize, get this land ready for whatever is coming next.
PETER RINALDI, Port Authority of NY & NJ: This is not your normal construction job. You're working around debris that's unstable, you're not sure what it is, you have machinery and equipment that you have to be careful doesn't fall to lower levels. Remember, this wall goes 70 feet below where we're standing. That's the equivalent of a seven-story building.
RAY SUAREZ: Peter Rinaldi is an engineer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Much of his working life was spent in the buildings he's now helping to clear, a tomb for friends and coworkers.
PETER RINALDI: My office is actually, right now, somewhere out in the middle of that pile there. It's very heart wrenching. What you try and do is you try to put it out of your mind and just try and focus on getting the job done here. It's difficult at times, but you know, we try and do it.
RAY SUAREZ: In the last month and a half, hundreds of millions of pounds of debris have been cleared away, and recovery of the dead on site made a lower priority. The city said large numbers of recovery workers at the site heightened the risk of accident. The New York firefighters had spent seven grueling weeks searching for victims, and for their comrades, the order to stand down amid a change of focus was not what they wanted to hear. Firefighters scuffled with police earlier this month, and tried to force their way back into the wreckage after their presence had been cut back.
FIREFIGHTERS: Bring them home! Bring them home! Bring them home! Bring them home!
RAY SUAREZ: The mayor has since raised the number of firefighters allowed at the site to 50 from 25. What remains of the thousands still missing -- if recovered at all -- may be found only when these trucks are unloaded in another part of the city. Firefighters continue to file back from funerals, and other government departments are now in charge of the site. George Tamaro is one of the senior engineers working on this deconstruction project. He says it's hard to gauge the level of danger from day to day.
GEORGE TAMARO: One of the problems is the debris is sitting on some floors that haven't yet collapsed, and some of our people, when they go in, discover that certain floors were sound yesterday; when inspected today, they have collapsed.
PETER RINALDI: The only thing that's really holding these walls up now is the debris that we're starting to remove. So as we remove this debris, we need to install these tiebacks backs to hold the walls from collapsing in. We're putting 600,000 pounds of force in each tieback, so we're actually pulling the wall back into it, away from the excavation by anchoring it into the rock.
RAY SUAREZ: As these workers brace the walls that hold the Hudson River and adjacent blocks back from the plaza, others continue to empty the vast basin. Wells are drilled to pull up groundwater, which relieves pressure on the supporting walls. Tamaro says the site will be cleared to street level by the end of the year; excavating down to bedrock will take longer.
GEORGE TAMARO: Eight to ten months, maybe a little longer. It really... It really depends upon the conditions we encounter. Obviously, the tower sections are much heavier at the base than they were at the top. So up until now, we've been removing the lighter steel. As we go deeper and deeper, we'll be moving heavier and heavier pieces, and it just... It could take a longer time than I'm guessing at.
RAY SUAREZ: On the streets that radiate from the plaza, still more workers string miles of new cable to replace electric lines damaged in the terrorist attack, and the barriers keeping the public away have moved much closer to World Trade Center Plaza, as more streets reopen and life struggles to get back to normal.
These closer barriers are increasingly crowded with onlookers, who grab a visual reminder of the attack. The towers were once top tourist attractions, but these new pilgrims can't bring back the steady hum of small business streets like Maiden Lane once had. Julio Chavez runs Mardi Gras Pizza.
JULIO CHAVEZ, Mardi Gras Pizza: Maybe we have to shut down.
RAY SUAREZ: So you can last another couple of months, you think?
JULIO CHAVEZ: I think so. For another two months, it will be all right, but after that, I'm not so sure.
RAY SUAREZ: Chavez has cut his staff of six to three.
PETER MUSCAT, Maiden Lane Liquors: It doesn't look that... That good for me.
RAY SUAREZ: Peter Muscat has worked at Maiden Lane Liquors for 35 years.
PETER MUSCAT: I'm not even preparing for Christmas. To me, Christmas is not coming this year.
RAY SUAREZ: Real Estate Attorney James West also works on Maiden Lane. He was barred from the office for more than a week after the attack, and then found it in surprisingly good shape. We spoke atop his office building just over a block away from the World Trade Center.
JAMES WEST: Yeah, I never had second thoughts about coming back to work. In fact, I couldn't wait to get down here. You know - I wanted to do something. I wanted to make myself useful, and I thought, "you know, the best thing I can do is get back to work and stay out of people's way." Not get in any of the emergency workers' way. But also, start producing what I produce.
RAY SUAREZ: A neighborhood suddenly short 30,000 to 40,000 customers is back at work, hoping the wind doesn't shift, which would add to the strong smell and the grit in their eyes. Workers on the site and in the neighborhood share something.
GEORGE TAMARO: There is-- jokingly called-- the World Trade Center cough.
JAMES WEST: It's kind of a dry cough. It sometimes wakes me up in the middle of the night.
PETER RINALDI: Yeah, I did acquire one of those coughs in the first couple of weeks that I was here.
GEORGE TAMARO: (Coughs)
RAY SUAREZ: Well, there you go.
RAY SUAREZ: Once the plaza is cleared, stable, and down to street level, what happens next? I asked Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress.
RICHARD ANDERSON, President, NY Building Congress: What we need to think about is what's appropriate given the memorial that everyone agrees should be here. What's appropriate given its location in the economy of New York-- indeed of the entire country and the world-- there needs to be a mix of activities that are appropriate for that location.
RAY SUAREZ: For a while longer, until that transformation starts, this will remain a place of struggle and hard, dirty work, a place we can't look away from, a place made powerful by death.
JIM LEHRER: By the latest official count, 600 people are now confirmed dead at the World Trade Center. 3,770 remain missing. Including the Pentagon attack and the United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, the dead and missing number 4,603.