MANHATTAN — A piece of landing gear apparently from one of the jets that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11 was discovered behind the Park51 mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan this week, police said Friday.
The metal landing gear, wedged between the back walls of 51 Park Place and 50 Murray St., was first spotted by surveyors for the center about 11 a.m. Wednesday, and investigators have since discovered "a clearly visible Boeing identification number," police said.
The NYPD is treating the area as a crime scene, blocking it off so that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner can examine it. Authorities may also search the ground for human remains, police said.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly visited the scene Friday evening to look at the landing gear, which he described as "a historical artifact."
"It brings back terrible memories to anyone who was here and involved in that terrible event," Kelly said. "And obviously the families could very well be impacted by this find."
One worshipper at the mosque said he was amazed by the discovery.
"It's crazy," said Khaja Mohideen, 37, a Jersey City resident who was praying at Park51 Friday afternoon, when told of the discovery. "It's surprising."
The find was less shocking to Kenneth Maxwell, one of the FBI's chief supervisors of the recovery operation after 9/11.
Maxwell, who was then the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division in New York, told DNAinfo.com New York that in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, Lower Manhattan was "like a war zone," and the federal government's focus was on getting the area back to normal as quickly as possible, not on collecting every piece of evidence from the blocks surrounding Ground Zero.
"We didn't need the plane as part of the forensic collection," Maxwell said, because authorities already knew exactly what had happened, so there was no need to reconstruct the plane fragments.
"[It was a] uniquely different crime scene approach," Maxwell added, "where there was a balance of collecting and preserving debris for DNA collection, and remediation of the area."
Sharif El-Gamal, the developer behind Park51 and founder of Soho Properties, released a statement Friday about the find.
"Soho Properties recently discovered a piece of the aircraft from the World Trade Center tragedy," El-Gamal said in the statement.
"We immediately alerted the city of NY and the NY Police Department, and they are currently removing the piece of evidence from the site. We are cooperating fully with the appropriate authorities to make sure this piece of evidence is removed with care as quickly and effectively as possible."
Park51 sparked a firestorm of controversy in 2010, when some 9/11 family members spoke out against plans for an Islamic cultural center two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The center officially launched in September 2011, but after an initial wave of cultural and community programs, Park51 now mostly just serves as a local mosque.
On Friday afternoon, some passersby stopped to look curiously at the police gathered in front of Park51.
"I think it's amazing," said Dan Vanable, 63, a construction worker rebuilding the World Trade Center. "Another piece of the puzzle."