Excavators Recover Remains at WTC

NEW YORK (AP) - As excavators clawed into the ruins of the World Trade Center, the workers in the machines were often the first to spot human remains clutched in the grapplers.

``It's really tough when you find somebody. That's somebody's son, husband, daughter, wife, mother, father, and you've just pulled this person out of the ground,'' said Richard Streeter, 34.

Streeter was among dozens of grappler operators who began work on a 10-story-high debris pile Sept. 12, and is one of the few who remain at what is now a seven-story-deep pit.

A ceremony Thursday will marks the end of the cleanup at ground zero, where more than 2,800 people died and 1.8 million tons of debris have been removed.

``We're part of something special. Coming here every day means something to me,'' Streeter said.

The men who moved the debris, load by load, labored alongside the firefighters and police officers for more than eight months.

They did not hurry into the burning towers to save people, but when the buildings fell, they rushed to lower Manhattan to help lift the steel and concrete so victims could be recovered.

The workers, called operating engineers, wear jeans, sweatshirts and boots as their uniform. They are trained to build things, or take them down. Unlike rescue workers, they do not regularly face tragedy on the job.

``We've seen things that we never would have seen in our lives,'' said Jimmy Chiusano, 36, who decided this month to work straight through to the end without any days off. ``Now we've seen somewhat what war is about.''

Streeter said he is drawn to the site because he worked for nearly a year on the rebuilding project in the trade center's basement after terrorists bombed it in 1993.

Chiusano asked his union for the assignment because his father, a retired crane operator, helped build the twin towers more than 30 years ago.

Chiusano said his most difficult day was the first time his machine unearthed the remains of a firefighter still in uniform. ``I took a walk, took a deep breath and came back and did it again,'' he said.

The grappler operators supported each other on those days. They spoke frequently by radio, and slid out of their machines to gather around when remains were found.

``You know when somebody's not doing too good. Sometimes the bodies will be found in pockets - five, 10 bodies all clumped together - and you look over and you see that everybody's around his machine and you know the guy's in trouble,'' Streeter said. ``You walk over there, you stand alongside the machine with him while he's working and keep talking to him, and it helps.''

Talking among themselves - often at the bar after a 12-hour shift - is a form of therapy, the men say. Neither Streeter nor Chiusano has sought counseling, which has been mandatory for the majority of rescue workers.

Despite the danger, no workers were seriously injured during the cleanup, which ended three months ahead of schedule and cost about $750 million - a fraction of initial estimates.

``Our rate of injury is half of what it would be on a typical construction project - and there is nothing typical about this project,'' Kenneth Holden, commissioner of the city's Department of Design and Construction.

Port Authority Police Lt. John Ryan, who oversees remains recovery, called the construction workers ``unsung heroes.''

``We get all the recognition, but if we had 40,000 police officers and firefighters down here, we still couldn't do the job,'' Ryan said. ``They moved the steel so that we could find people.''

After the work ends and the rescue workers return to their assigned posts, Streeter and Chiusano may not be finished at the 16-acre site.

Both hope to be assigned there when rebuilding begins.

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