Less than 90,000 tons of debris remains at the bottom of the giant crater in lower Manhattan after nearly nine months of round-the-clock toil since Sept. 11, when the twin towers were reduced to 1.7 million tons of burning rubble 10 stories high.
"Everyone felt it was going to take a year or more to do," said Lee Ielpi, a retired firefighter whose son's remains were found in December. "Once we started working and we had the best winter on record, everything worked to the families' benefit, and that's why we're up to where we are and we can put a close on this sooner than we thought."
Representatives from the Fire Department, the Police Department, the mayor's office and other agencies plan to meet on Thursday to settle on the final day and decide how to commemorate it.
One date being considered is June 11, which would neatly mark nine months of work since Sept. 11.
City officials said a ceremony will be held to honor the victims and the thousands who worked at the site. But it will not necessarily take place on the same day the cleanup ends.
Of the more than 2,800 people killed in the attack, 1,056 have been identified. Nearly 19,500 body parts have been recovered; the medical examiner's office expects it will continue identifying remains for eight more months.
Some victims' relatives have complained that setting an end date will put the priority on finishing, rather than finding remains.
But those involved said notice is needed to plan a solemn service marking the day. Many also point out that few remains have been found in the past three weeks.
The service is likely to involve the ceremonial removal of a 30-foot column from the south tower that is the last piece of steel still standing. Workers have topped it with a flag and covered the sides with spray-painted messages and photographs of victims.