This was the day relatives finally accepted their loved ones were not coming home

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They came to Pier 94, on the West Side of Manhattan yesterday, clasping envelopes or manilla folders. A few had briefcases or small satchels. With eyes cast down, they made their way inside the warehouse buildings that sit over the water of the Hudson river, adjacent to where the cruise ships normally come in.

The scene was familiar enough. For days now, Pier 94 has served as the Family Assistance Centre for relatives and friends of victims of the World Trade Centre disaster. The are counsellors inside, officials with information on claiming financial aid and even food and drink. And sympathy. But this was a different, even more poignant, sort of a day. If that is at all possible. They were coming to talk about death certificates.

Partly, it had to do with bureaucracy. Or how to cut through it. The city had arranged to bring some 500 lawyers to the centre yesterday to advise the bereaved on how to set about securing death certificates when, as in most cases, there have no body to present. But it was about more than that. This was the day for anyone who was ready, to accept, finally, that their loved ones were not coming home.

Rudolph Giuliani, the Mayor of New York, made that clear himself. "If you know that your husband or father or relative was working there, and you've come to terms with the idea that they're dead, and that they're not going to be recovered, then you can make the choice," he said. "And it's your choice to apply for a death certificate".

The city's leaders, the say-it-how-it-is Mr Giuliani included, are still not willing to say what now seems obvious – that nobody else will be found alive. There is a political squeamishness about making such a statement, born of a fear that maybe, just maybe, a miracle could still happen.

And many of the bereaved indeed still pray for that miracle. Like Luz Maria Ortega, whose husband, Juan, 32, worked in the World Trade Centre and has not been heard of since 11 September. She was not planning to go to the pier. It would mean giving up on Juan. "I'm going to wait at least another 15 days and then I'll think about it. I can't lose hope".

For those who did take up the Mayor on his invitation, the steps into Pier 94 were taken only with anguished reluctance. Even as they did, they were funnelled by police barriers past one of the many so-called "Walls of Prayer" that have sprung up all over the city. The message from the scores of flyers on the wall said something different. That these people were still "Missing". There was still hope.

"This is so hard, so unbearable," confesses George Santiago, 37, a heavy-vehicle tyre fitter from Brooklyn, his face etched with grief. His wife of eight years, Ayleen Santiago, who was 40, is among the nearly 6,400 people missing from the twin towers. She worked for, Blue Cross Blue Shield, a health insurance firm, on the 30th floor of One World Trade Centre. Mr Santiago lingers to talk in the cool autumn wind, because he can't bear to go in.

"I don't want to give up that there still could be life in there, but then again ... only God above, man, can say. There are so many people missing and I can never stop wondering where all those bodies can be."

Every day he has telephoned or visited hospitals in Manhattan and even in neighbouring New Jersey, praying he might find Ayleen in a bed recovering from injuries. At home, he tries to take care of a 15-year-old daughter from Ayleen's first marriage and his 16-month-old daughter.

Mr Santiago says he is here because he has to be. He needs the death certificate to get state support. But he knows that by seeking a death certificate, he is crossing some invisible line, where hope is replaced by mourning. "I don't want to do this. I don't really want to go there for a death certificate for my wife, but for the some of the benefits and so on, I just think I should have it."

Jesus Centeno, 34, is adamant his sister, Ana, 38, may yet be found. Asked if he has come to the pier because he has accepted her passing, he answers instantly that he has not. "She is still missing. We still have hope for her. Even if they don't find her, she is will always be missing in my heart". Yet, he admits, almost under his breath, that he is also here in search of a death certificate. "If we have to do it, then we have to do it."

In the envelopes and the folders are the documents that everyone has been told to bring with them to the pier. Once inside, they are guided to a private booth where one of the volunteer lawyers will be waiting to assist them. Each person will then be asked to fill out a simple form – a "New York State Death Certificate Request Form" – and submit the documentation. That will include things like birth and marriage certificates, even recent payment stubs form personal cheque books.

The emphasis is on speed. Normally, it would take about three years to obtain a death certificate if there is no body available. Earlier this week, New York's Governor, George Pataki, signed an executive order designed to radically cut that time. According to Steven Fishner, New York City's criminal justice coordinator, the processing "is going to be reduced in most cases to a few days".

At the pier, they are hoping to complete each interview within about 40 minutes and get through about 600 families each day. In theory, families whose names began with the letters A to G were only meant to turn up yesterday. But no one was about to reject Mr Santiago or anyone else away once they had arrived.

Each person was also being asked to sign a formal affidavit explaining why they believe their relative was in the World Trade Centre when it was attacked. To help curb fraud, the city will also cross-check the names of those declared dead with companies that had employees in the towers.

It will then be only a matter of days before those that came to the pier yesterday will be able to go before a state judge for a legal declaration of death. For many, it may only be then that they can accept what in their heads they already know. "It's going to be real tough," said Wilfredo Agosto, whose wife of seven months, Myrna, is among the missing. "Then it will really set in that she's gone."