NEW YORK – Hundreds of people gathered at Ground Zero Thursday in a ceremony meant to deliver one final goodbye to those lost in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
With the peal of a Fire Department bell and the symbolic departure of one final stretcher, the still-missing victims of the trade center's unspeakable horror were remembered in a ceremony without words.
The solemn service, 8 months after the Sept. 11 attack that collapsed the twin towers and killed more than 2,800 people, began with a bell sounding out the 5-5-5-5 fire code -- four sets of five rings, in memory of 343 fallen firefighters lost at Ground Zero.
The first bell rang at precisely 10:29 a.m., the time the second tower collapsed in a screech of twisting steel and falling concrete.
The stretcher, escorted by an honor guard representing various agencies and victims' groups, was brought up a 500-foot ramp from the pit where workers labored around the clock.
"This is the closest point I guess I can get to being with him again," said David Bauer III, whose father -- a Cantor Fitzgerald worker -- was one of the more than 1,700 victims still not identified.
Hundreds of people began gathering at the site more than an hour before the service, filling the seven-story pit that once was the basement of the twin skyscrapers that anchored lower Manhattan.
Of the more than 2,800 people killed in the attack, 1,102 have been identified. Nearly 20,000 body parts have been recovered.
New York City officials said the sifting for body parts in a city landfill and the identification process will go on for months. Those remains that cannot be identified will be retained, in case new technology someday makes it possible.
Remaining rubble -- some of which has been combed through for human remains -- still needs to be removed, and that work is expected to be completed by the middle of next week.
The unprecedented cleanup effort finished several months earlier than anticipated and at a fraction of the estimated cost. But while many victims have been identified, the end of the operation leaves numerous others without their family members' remains.
"I have mixed emotions about the whole thing," said Port Authority police Officer Ray Murray, a regular at the site since Sept. 11, wondering about the victims still missing.
"I'm glad that we get to go on with our lives," he continued. "At the same time, we'll never forget what happened here."
On Thursday, a truck was to follow the stretcher, carrying the trade center's last steel beam, which stood until Tuesday night, when it was cut down during a ceremony for ground zero workers.
The 30-foot column survived when the towers collapsed into a mountain of 1.8 million tons of rubble. For months debris covered it, but as the pile shrank the column was revealed, still standing where it was planted when the south tower was built. The beam, set on a flatbed truck and draped with a black cloth, American flag and bouquet of flowers, will be taken to a Kennedy Airport hangar for storage.
The processional was to stop at the edge of the site for a helicopter flyover and the playing of taps, before leaving the 16-acre site via West Street.
Then a human chain was asked to form across the top of the ramp, made up of Fire Department, New York police and Port Authority police officials, signaling that the recovery had ended.
"It was tough to come here every day, and now it's tough to leave," said Firefighter John Keating of Engine 257 in Brooklyn.
Several family groups, to accommodate those unable to attend Thursday, have scheduled their own ground zero service on Sunday.
The future of the cleaned-up site is under discussion. Control of the site will revert from the city to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land.
The Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the agency in charge of rebuilding the World Trade Center site, has received $2 billion in federal funds.
Last week, the Port Authority and the development agency announced the choice of architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle as the urban planning consultant that will assist them in producing a plan.
The firm will submit up to six proposals by July 1. Those will be narrowed to three or fewer by Sept. 1 and a final blueprint is to be chosen by Dec. 1.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.