June 10, 2002 12:00 PM

Their heartbreaking work is finished now, the cops and the firefighters, the hardhats and the volunteers, the dogged workers who mined the mass grave the world now calls Ground Zero. Since the terrorist attacks almost nine months ago, thousands of people labored here round the clock, battling sorrow, exhaustion and the stench of death to clear and sift through 1.6 million tons of tortured steel, cement and the ruined remains of 2, 823 human beings—including, at times, their own lost loved ones. There were, says firefighter Joseph O’Toole, 47, “gallons of tears.” An official ceremony on May 30 marked the end of their surreal labors, but the boundaries of grief, and of hope, may be less easily mapped. “There has to be a place in heaven,” says Lee Ielpi, 58, a retired fire captain who in December carried the body of his own firefighter son Jonathan, 29, from the wreckage, “for the guys who have been working here.”

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