They filled box after box, bag after bag: Sodden shoes, Marathon medals and bibs, Mylar blankets, rosary beads, police patches, holy water, photographs of the dead.
They wore gloves and worked in the half light of dawn, untying shoelaces and bits of string.
Into bags went the accumulations of two painful months.
A toy stuffed leopard, Japanese candy, musical scores, sunglasses, pinwheels, shells, rocks, children’s sandals, a plastic sword — mementos put there by thousands from Boston and around the world whose ultimate tribute to the horror and heroism of April 15 was to leave behind a piece of themselves.
The makeshift memorial appeared in Copley Square after the bombings and grew to become a worldwide symbol of Boston’s ground zero. The hand-scrawled notes, the kaleidoscope of flags, and hundreds of running shoes tied to metal stanchions were the raw and unscripted vocabulary of hope and defiance amid the destruction. It was toured by heads of state and broadcast around the world.
But now some dozen volunteers were taking it down. A scattering of early risers came to silently watch. Some were relatives of victims. Some had run the Marathon that day or had been on Boylston Street when the bombs blew.
“It’s really hard to watch them doing this,” said Gina Gallagher, a 32-year-old from Quincy who ran the Marathon and was stopped near Massachusetts Avenue, unaware until later of the destruction at the finish line. She had tears in her eyes.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, in a letter to victims’ families, cast the moment as a way to help “us all look to the future.” A Remembrance Committee will work toward a permanent memorial, possibly in Copley Square, he said.
But it seemed also a funeral, a hard passage out of a time when Boston’s pain was shared by the world and into a period when the city must cope alone with its wounds.
“It’s still so confusing, so hard to explain,” said Patricia Campbell, whose daughter, Krystle, was killed and who came to Copley Square for the first time Tuesday. “I’m still in shock about this whole thing. It’s beautiful what people did here.”
She and her husband, William Campbell Jr., drove from Medford wearing Boston Strong shirts in the blue and yellow Marathon colors, the name of each victim printed on the back.
They fought tears as they took it all in and recounted the love they have received since their daughter was killed by the force of the first blast — the thousands of letters, the gifts left at their door, more random acts of kindness than they could recall.
“I just had to be here to see it off,” Patricia Campbell said.
The somber work began shortly before 6 a.m., when officials from the mayor’s office and the city archives and volunteers from the New England Museum Association and Polygon, a Georgetown company that helps preserve relics, began collecting anything of potential value.
Within a half-hour, they removed nearly all the New Balance, Brooks, and other running shoes, including a pair of Nikes with a quote from Gandhi and a pair of Asics with a note scrawled by the heel that read, “You may leave Boston, but Boston never leaves you.”
Then they collected the hundreds of caps, most representing local teams, scores of flags from China to Brazil, and dozens of banners, including one in purple urging visitors in capital letters to “Feel Better,” and another quoting the slain 8-year-old Martin Richard, “No more hurting people.”
They saved until last four white crosses at the center of the memorial. Each went into its own box, labeled by name: Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, and Sean Collier, all of whom died.
The volunteers loaded hundreds of boxes and bags into trucks, which would take them to Georgetown to be dried and later fumigated at Historic New England in Peabody before being stored at the City of Boston Archives in West Roxbury.
Among those who helped yesterday was Kevin Brown, 59, a Brockton carpenter who spent much of the past two months looking after the memorial.
He said he built the cross for Collier, the MIT police officer who was shot to death three days after the bombings.
Like so many others, he found peace coming to the memorial.
He said it has helped him cope with the loss of his mother three weeks before the attacks.
“I’m going to miss coming here every day,” he said. “I’m sad to see it go.”
About two hours after they began, several volunteers swept up the remaining debris and stacked the metal stanchions near the sidewalk.
By then, the morning commute was in full swing, with office workers rushing past the now-empty plaza.
All that remained was the statue of John Singleton Copley, presiding over the square that bears his name, with an ever-stoic gaze.David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.