In the half-light of dawn, with runners and relatives of the victims watching, they snapped on rubber gloves, unfurled rolls of plastic bags, and began by untying the knots of all the tangled shoelaces.
At the city’s behest, about a dozen people gathered at Copley Square and meticulously picked through the makeshift memorial of the Marathon bombings, preserving for posterity the hundreds of sodden shoes hanging from metal barriers, the weathered banners, the shirts, hats, and many other symbols of compassion left there over the past two months.
Sarah Norcott, who was on Boylston Street on Marathon Day, and her friend Gina Gallagher, a runner who was stopped less than a mile from the finish line, jogged over to witness the dismantling of a place that has drawn thousands of people to seek solace and offer prayers since the attacks, which killed three people and wounded more than 260.
“I wanted to pay my last respects,’’ said Norcott, 32, of South Boston, who was drinking a cocktail at Max Brenner when the bombs exploded on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.
She and Gallagher teared up as the volunteers worked quickly before the morning commute. “It’s really hard to watch them doing this,’’ said Gallagher, 32, of Quincy, who was stopped near Massachusetts Avenue with thousands of other runners during the Marathon.
City officials last week said the time had come to remove the temporary memorial, which has grown every day over the past two months with everything from stuffed animals to paper cranes. The material from the memorial will eventually be placed in the city archives.
In a letter he sent to survivors and victims’ families, Mayor Thomas M. Menino wrote, “It is my hope that the respectful closing of the temporary memorial will help us all look to the future.’’
The somber work began shortly before 6 a.m. when officials from the mayor’s office, the city archives, and volunteers from the New England Museum Association and workers from Polygon, a Georgetown company that helps preserve artifacts, began collecting anything of potential value.