Ceremony closes 'Ground Zero' cleanup
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Eight months and 19 days after the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center were brought down by hijacked airliners, the cleanup and recovery efforts at Ground Zero officially ended Thursday with a brief and somber ceremony.
There were no speeches. The ceremony began with the sound of a fire bell ringing for a fallen firefighter at 10:29 a.m. ET -- the same time the trade center's north tower collapsed on September 11.
Thousands of people stood in silence, some with tears streaming from their eyes, as an honor guard made up of police, firefighters and representatives of other agencies walked slowly up a ramp from the site carrying a stretcher bearing only an American flag.
"It's over, but it will never be forgotten," said FDNY Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto, who was in the north tower when it was hit.
The flag, symbolizing the victims who were killed on September 11 but never found, was placed into a waiting ambulance.
It was followed by a flatbed truck carrying the last 50-ton steel column from the site of the Trade Center ruins. The beam -- part of the southeast corner of the south tower -- was hoisted onto a flatbed truck and shrouded in black cloth after its removal Tuesday night.
Ten minutes into the ceremony, a pair of buglers -- one from New York's Police Department, the other from the New York Fire Department -- played "Taps," followed by a flyover of NYPD helicopters.
Authorities put the final death toll from the twin towers' destruction at 2,823. The remains of 1,102 victims have been identified. Only 289 intact bodies were recovered.
The ceremony marked the end of cleanup efforts after eight months and 108,342 truckloads of debris. The cleanup was originally estimated to last a year.
"They got it done much quicker and more effectively than anyone had a right to expect," former Mayor Rudy Giuliani said before the ceremony began.
Among the dead were 343 New York firefighters and an estimated 70 police officers from various departments, including 37 from New York's Port Authority and 23 from the New York Police Department.
Fewer than half of the firefighters who died were recovered. Five of them were from Chelsea Firehouse -- Engine 3, Ladder 12. There, as at other fire stations around the city, dozens of family and friends watched the tribute on television.
"It's a sad day, but seeing all the families here makes it very comforting," said one firefighter
Hundreds of workers labored around the clock since September 11 to reclaim the bodies of those who died in the attack and to remove the 1.6 million tons of steel and concrete left behind.
The debris was moved to a Staten Island landfill, but reminders of the attack remain nearly everywhere around the area.
In addition to the 16-acre World Trade Center site itself, light poles still bear banners urging New Yorkers to "Salute our heroes."
The fence surrounding St. Paul's Chapel, just a block from the site, has been turned into a makeshift shrine where visitors have left flags, T-shirts, teddy bears and other mementos.
Another 189 people were killed in Washington on September 11 when a third hijacked jet crashed into the Pentagon, and 44 more died aboard a fourth jet that crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers apparently tried to overpower another team of hijackers.
-- CNN Correspondent Michael Okwu contributed to this report.
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