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'Ground Zero' cleanup faster than expected

NEW YORK (CNN) -- With the six-month milestone of the September 11 terrorist attacks approaching next week, New York's mayor and governor said Wednesday that cleanup and recovery efforts in and around "ground zero" were going much faster than originally expected.

"The progress that is being made is probably more than anyone would have anticipated, or could have anticipated, on the afternoon of September 11," said Gov. George Pataki at a press briefing with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In the days after the disaster, officials estimated it would take more than a year to remove the mountain of debris from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan.

But in the first six months, 83 percent of the debris has been removed, and Bloomberg said the effort should be "roughly" finished by May, at least four months ahead of what was predicted.

None of the workers on the disaster site have been killed or seriously injured during the debris removal effort, he said.

Pataki said the cost of the cleanup would be "dramatically" lower than expected.

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The death toll from the terrorist attacks stands at 2,830. The mayor said the recovery of bodies continued, with four more recovered Tuesday.

In addition, Bloomberg said activity continued to inch closer to normal in lower Manhattan, with businesses in the area, such as restaurants and hotels, reporting increased business and people signing leases for apartments.

The New York Fire Department, which lost 343 people in the terror attacks, has made progress in replenishing its ranks and will have hired 900 new firemen by this summer, Bloomberg said. Some of those will fill spots opened by normal attrition.

"We'll never be able to replace the experience and the lives that we lost, but their legacy has to be that we come out with a stronger, better fire department," he said.

Seven of the 11 subway stations affected by the attacks have reopened. Bloomberg said all but one -- at Cortlandt Street -- should be open by November.

He said the West Side Highway and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel should reopen by April 1, which should improve traffic flow in lower Manhattan.

But to keep traffic moving, Bloomberg said the city would continue the ban on single-occupancy vehicles in the disaster zone and has reduced the number of parking permits. Parking regulations were being strictly enforced, he said.

While short-term progress was being made, the mayor and governor emphasized the long-term rebuilding of lower Manhattan would take years.

For example, re-establishing service on underground commuter trains from New Jersey, which connected at the World Trade Center site, could take as long as two years, Pataki said.

On Monday, which marks six months since the disaster, a sphere that stood outside the World Trade Center will be rededicated at a site in Battery Park as a temporary memorial. In addition, a temporary "tribute of light" above the disaster site will be illuminated.

"What we're trying to do is to balance the requests of the families for being able to be alone with the outpouring of sympathy of people throughout New York, throughout the state, throughout the country, throughout the world, to come and to pay their respects to those who were lost," Bloomberg said.




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