NEW YORK – Recovery crews searching through the last mountains of World Trade Center debris have found more human remains in the past three weeks than in any comparable period since October.
Nearly 3,000 body parts have been discovered since March 1, when workers began concentrating on the last heaps of rubble, including the footprint of the south tower, the first skyscraper to collapse.
Until this month, a large mountain of debris where the south tower stood was largely untouched because it was used to support a road for trucks hauling broken concrete and steel. But a metal ramp has since been installed, enabling workers to begin taking the pile apart.
Workers are also picking through a smaller pile of rubble where the north tower once stood.
During the round-the-clock operation, firefighters who comb through the debris with rakes and shovels stop frequently to stow remains into red biohazard bags. Bags are placed onto stretchers and draped with American flags. Rescue workers salute as the stretchers are carried out of the site and into ambulances.
The remains of 166 firefighters have been located, nearly 20 in the past three weeks. But that is still less than half of the 343 killed.
The remains of Assistant Chief Donald Burns, 61, one of the fire department's highest-ranking victims killed in the attack, were found last week. Burns, cited for valor five times during his 39-year career, was setting up a command post when the south tower collapsed.
The remains of Officer Moira Smith, the only city policewoman killed in the attack, also were found last week.
Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the city medical examiner, said 18,252 body parts have been found so far. Up to 2,830 people are believed to have died at the trade center. The remains of as many as 2,000 of them have not been identified.
Mary Ellen Salamone is still waiting for workers to find her husband, John, who worked for the bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Her reaction is mixed when she hears that workers have found another pocket of human remains.
"Any time there's a report that more remains are found, there's always hope that this time it's going to be your loved one," Salamone said. "Every time they find more, it also sends concern that they're in a rush to complete the cleanup."
Officials expect the last of the debris to be cleared away by the end of May. As of Monday, 1,460,980 tons of debris had been removed in 99,715 truckloads. The city estimates the total debris will exceed 1.5 million tons.
The fire department is using satellite technology to record the precise locations of human remains and personal possessions. Each body part and object is cataloged by firefighters with handheld units that fix locations through satellite.
The map of body parts and belongings, from identification cards to laptop computers, should help engineers understand how the towers collapsed, said Deputy Fire Commissioner Thomas Fitzpatrick.
Families have been eager, too, to learn exactly where their loved ones were found, he said.