A police officer guards the site in Lower Manhattan where a piece of debris,… (Spencer Platt / Getty Images )
NEW YORK -- A large chunk of an airplane part believed to be from one of the jetliners hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, was found with a piece of rope twined around it, adding to the mystery of how it ended up wedged between two buildings in Lower Manhattan for the past 12 years.
Surveyors working on a construction project behind a building housing a once-controversial Islamic center spotted the piece of metal Wednesday and called police.
On Friday, after officials from the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board had inspected the object, police said it appeared to be a piece of landing gear from one of the two jets that crashed into the World Trade Center towers.
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"Could it have been lowered at some time? It's possible," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Friday after trudging into the narrow, trash-strewn alley himself to view the part.
If the part was not intentionally pushed or lowered into the alley -- and Kelly said officials aren't ruling anything out at this point -- it would have been catapulted through the air from the World Trade Center towers nearly three blocks away and dropped straight down into an alley no more than 18 inches wide.
The jet piece is about 17 inches wide and 5 feet long, underscoring the remarkable precision with which it would have fallen. Jet parts have been found farther from where the World Trade Center towers stood, but not tucked into such unlikely spots.
"I think it will be a challenge to get it out of there," said Kelly, adding that there were no immediate plans to move the object.
The site was declared a crime scene while the medical examiner's office decides if it is safe to sift through the area for human remains.
Most of the remains of the two airliners that crashed in the city have never been found, an indication of the force with which they smashed into the towers, causing both to collapse in a deadly avalanche.
More than 2,600 people perished in the towers, and remains of about only 1,600 have been identified, a fact that nags at relatives who know that victims' bone fragments could be scattered in hidden places or mixed with debris that has yet to be examined.
Adding to the bizarre nature of Friday's discovery is the history of 51 Park Place.
Before the 2001 attacks, 51 Park housed a Burlington Coat Factory. The store was badly damaged in the attacks and never reopened.
The building's next owner drew opposition from some political leaders and victims' families when he announced plans to open an Islamic center, including a mosque, at the site. The center finally opened in 2011 and has operated without controversy.
Pedestrians passing the building, on a street always heavy with foot traffic and especially busy during the Friday evening rush hour, were stunned when they learned why police were guarding it.
"Wow! What a coincidence!" said Jeffrey Adams as he walked past with his wife, Francoise Saint-Clair, just as Kelly was preparing to speak with reporters who had gathered outside. "Maybe too much of a coincidence," Saint-Clair said, noting that the discovery might give conspiracy theorists an opening to point fingers at the Islamic center.
"I think this is the first of many moments where a place that was supposed to be private will become a public spectacle," she said.
"Oh, my God," said another woman as she strolled by. "This will just bring back bad memories."
Kelly said the apparent landing gear includes a clearly visible Boeing serial number, but he was not able to say if it was matched to either American Airlines Flight 11 or United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center.
A third jet, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon, killing about 125 people. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing about 40 passengers and crew.
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