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Operation Recovery

A traveling memorial to 9-11 touches down in Cleveland.

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One of the photos on display at Recovery.
  • One of the photos on display at Recovery.

It's been nearly two years since September 11, 2001, and Mark Schaming thinks it's time for the public to get a close-up look at the structural, personal, and aeronautical remains found at Ground Zero. "They should see the enormity of what exactly went on there," says the director of exhibitions and public programs at the New York State Museum. "Being in the presence of these things is so different."

Schaming helped organize Recovery: The World Trade Center Recovery Operation at Fresh Kills, a traveling exhibit that kicks off a national tour at the Western Reserve Historical Society Friday. It consists of more than 50 objects salvaged from the site and 65 photographs. The show's formation, not surprisingly, was daunting. "There were 175 acres of huge piles of unidentifiable debris and ash that once were the World Trade Center," Schaming says with a sigh. "There's a lot of steel."

Recovery originated not long after September 11. Rescue workers from various agencies spent weeks looking for survivors. More than 1.8 million tons of debris were gathered from Ground Zero by firefighters, police officers, engineers, contractors, and volunteers. Most of it was taken to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island for evaluation and burial. (Fresh Kills was named by early Dutch settlers; the words mean "fresh stream.")

"We collected a very small amount of material that could actually be identified and saved," Schaming says. "I don't think people have an idea just how destroyed everything was."

FBI agents, private contractors, and others sorted and examined the debris at Fresh Kills -- a tedious process that required more than 1.7 million man-hours. As they worked, the New York State Museum staff photographed the faces, the piles, and the processes. "What was remarkable is that the police and FBI would sort this [stuff] every day in a very specific way, looking for human remains, personal effects, and evidence," Schaming says. "At the end of the day, we'd see buckets of things.

"The whole story of the World Trade Center began to unfold with these objects that they were finding. It was like an archaeological dig, but in a very compressed time."

Among the objects in Recovery are an American flag, souvenirs from the World Trade Center gift shop, building keys, part of the marble floor, elevator floor signs, and a chunk of one of the planes. "It's the history of September 11," Schaming says. "These are images of the objects, the sites, and the people who worked there.

"It was very meaningful to do this. But it was very sad to see this stuff come to the hill in that shape. It's something you never forget."

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