How long did they search for bodies after 911?

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City claimed nearly 3,000 lives. In the aftermath of the attacks, rescue and recovery workers spent months searching through the rubble of the collapsed towers to recover victims’ remains. It was a massive undertaking that required a coordinated effort between numerous agencies and thousands of personnel. This article examines the search and recovery operation at the World Trade Center site, looking at how long the efforts continued and what was involved in this immense task.

The Collapse of the Twin Towers

When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 AM on September 11, 2001, hundreds were instantly killed. The crash ignited fires throughout the upper floors of the 110-story skyscraper. At 9:03 AM, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower, creating similar massive fires in that building. Fires raged in both towers, weakening their structural integrity. At 9:59 AM, the South Tower collapsed after burning for 56 minutes. The North Tower fell 29 minutes later at 10:28 AM, after the fires burned for 102 minutes (1).

The towers’ total collapse was unprecedented. The enormous debris field contained a tangled mess of structural steel, concrete, office contents and human remains. The debris pile at Ground Zero reached 70 feet deep and contained an estimated 1.2 million tons of material (2). Recovering bodies would require carefully sifting through this immense wreckage.

Commencing the Recovery Operation

Almost immediately after the towers fell, the monumental task of search and recovery began. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) acted swiftly to mobilize personnel and begin rescue operations. Officers established a command post on the northwest corner of Vesey and West Street. This location gave incident commanders a vantage point to direct operations on the rubble pile (3).

FDNY personnel were soon joined by the New York Police Department (NYPD), Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) and other law enforcement. Construction crews arrived with heavy machinery to help move debris. The National Guard deployed troops to assist and provide security. The United States Public Health Service organized Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams (DMORTs) to recover bodies. Numerous structural engineers were brought in to monitor the stability of the site (4).

This huge search and rescue team mobilized amidst a chaotic and dangerous environment. Fires flared in the debris for months. The site contained many hazards like exposed steel beams, damaged utilities and pockets of smoldering fires. The unstable wreckage was at constant risk of shifting or collapsing. Yet the recovery teams worked on bravely, motivated by the hope of finding survivors and recovering victims’ remains.

The First 24 Hours

In the first hours after the towers fell, hope remained that survivors could be found in pockets within the debris. Rescuers heroically clawed into the tangled wreckage. At 12:10 PM on 9/11, the search teams found their first survivor, Port Authority worker Genelle Guzman. She would be one of only 20 survivors ultimately rescued from the rubble (5).

Despite this early success, most victims were killed instantly or trapped deep inside the unstable ruins. During the first day, rescuers recovered only 11 survivors. But they removed over 70 bodies from the debris (6). Search teams worked through the night under klieg lights powered by generators. An eerie gloom hung over the site as smoke smoldered from the rubble.

By the morning of September 12, hopes of finding many more survivors had faded. But the mission shifted to search and recovery of remains. With over 2,800 lives lost at the World Trade Center, many heartbroken families waited for closure. Retrieving human remains for identification became a solemn priority.

The First Weeks

In the first weeks after 9/11, search and recovery efforts ramped up dramatically. The FDNY established 24-hour shifts so more personnel could comb the debris. At its peak, over 3,000 FDNY crew members staffed the site daily (7). The NYPD, PAPD and other agencies also maintained a continuous presence.

To aid the search, the site was divided into four sectors labeled 1 through 4. Sector 1 contained the footprint of the North Tower. Sector 2 held the remains of the South Tower. Sectors 3 and 4 contained the surrounding buildings and debris field. Assigning search crews to specific areas brought more organization to the efforts (8).

Crews worked carefully but urgently. They used buckets and shovels to remove debris layer by layer. Larger machinery clawed rubble away from promising voids where remains might be found. K-9 units brought in search dogs to help sniff out potential body locations. Recovery teams wore masks, gloves and protective clothing while working amidst toxic dust.

In the three weeks following 9/11, searchers recovered over 600 bodies from the site (9). Body parts were photographed then sent to the city medical examiner’s office for DNA testing and identification. By September 29, the medical examiner’s office had positively identified 184 victims (10). While the collapse had pulverized many bodies, identifying even small body fragments provided some solace to grieving families.

Transition to Recovery

By early October 2001, hopes of finding any more 9/11 survivors had faded completely. No survivor had been pulled from the rubble since September 12. The operation transitioned into a recovery mission focused solely on retrieving remains.

With recovery now the goal, changes were made to operations at the site. Reduce the number of personnel to avoid having too many people working in close proximity. More heavy machinery was brought in to help search larger swaths of debris. And protocols were eased on how carefully material needed removed. Although safety was still paramount, the less delicate approach increased the speed of clearing debris (11).

Recovery crews implemented effective systems and tools to locate victims. Thermal imaging devices helped identify heat signatures that could indicate body decomposition zones. Sensitive audio probes listened for cell phone ringtones of buried victims (12). When human remains were found, the medical examiner took custody of the remains for analysis.

By early November, over 1,000 personnel per day worked the recovery efforts (13). Besides FDNY and NYPD, crews came from agencies like the PAPD, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and various ironworkers and contractors unions. Despite the dangerous working conditions, the long hours and emotional toll, these workers persevered in their solemn task.

The Final Search

As the fall of 2001 progressed, the recovery operation transitioned into its final phase. Search efforts reached the bedrock level where the towers’ foundations had been anchored. By November, the debris pile stood just two stories tall at its highest point (14).

With the debris removal nearly complete, the focus turned to a final hand search of the site. This phase, called “the final search”, began at the end of November 2001 (15). Workers on their hands and knees laboriously sifted by hand through the dirt and gravel that remained. Despite the cold late fall weather, the final search teams cleared the entire site. Their meticulous efforts recovered several hundred more human remains and personal effects (16).

Some private recovery personnel hired by victims’ families continued searching even after the final search officially concluded. They successfully found more human remains that were returned to families. But after 16 months of continuous operation, the official recovery efforts at Ground Zero were substantially completed by January 2002 (17).

The Toll of the Recovery Operation

The monumental recovery operation took a toll on all involved. In total, some 3,000 FDNY personnel worked at the World Trade Center site during search and recovery (18). Recovery workers faced serious dangers from fire, smoke and hazardous materials. Many first responders later developed respiratory problems like asthma. Post-traumatic stress disorder also affected many workers (19).

Tragically, some recovery personnel lost their lives while working on the pile. On November 4, 2001 an explosion blasted through the site. The debris burst killed two firefighters and one police officer (20). Their deaths underscored the constant peril faced by the tireless recovery teams.

Despite the mental and physical hardship, the brave recovery crews persevered month after month. Their dedication brought closure to grieving families all over the world. When recovery efforts ended in spring 2002, just over 60 percent of the 2,753 killed at the World Trade Center had been positively identified, including over 19,000 body parts (21).

Temporary Resting Place for Remains

As body parts were recovered from the rubble, authorities faced the question of what to do with these remains before their final internment. Many families did not want to take possession of partial remains of their lost loved ones. Construction of a permanent memorial would take years.

To house the unclaimed remains temporarily, the medical examiner’s office decided to lease part of the abandoned 42nd Street refrigeration building (22). The building’s cool interior helped preserve the human remains. Row upon row of body parts were carefully labeled and placed on shelves behind locked gates. For over 5 years, some 9,000 unidentified remains were stored in the makeshift morgue (23).

In early 2007, preparations began to move the remains to an underground repository within the 9/11 museum site. After a formal memorial service, the medical examiner’s office transferred all of the remains to the specially built facility. From there, forensic scientists could continue identifying victims and returning remains to families (24).

Creating a Fitting Memorial

Planning soon began for a permanent memorial to honor the victims of the 9/11 attacks. The chosen design featured reflecting pools situated within the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Called “Reflecting Absence”, the water-filled pools are ringed by the names of those who perished there. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened on the tenth anniversary of the attacks in 2011 (25).

A portion of the museum serves as a permanent repository for any unidentified 9/11 remains. An adjacent private room contains the 9,000 unclaimed personal effects found at the site. These touching items help humanize the terrible losses at the World Trade Center (26). Visitors from around the world now visit the memorial and museum to pay their respects and reflect on the events of that day.


The tireless efforts of the search and recovery workers at the World Trade Center accomplished an important mission under extremely difficult conditions. Their work provided answers to grieving families while showing deep respect to victims. Sifting meticulously through 1.2 million tons of rubble could not have been easy or pleasant work. But they succeeded in recovering and identifying many of the fallen.

The recovery mission stretched from September 2001 into the spring of 2002. Hundreds worked around the clock in dangerous conditions for months on end. Their perseverance demonstrated bravery, compassion and deep dedication. Out of a tragedy fraught with loss, their sacrifices provided closure and healing to a shocked nation. The search for victims in the aftermath of 9/11 stands as an inspiring response to an act of terror meant to divide America.

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