(October 5, 2010, Barclay & Church St., Lower Manhattan, NYC) In a cold, dispassionate, and practical sense it was a crime scene, albeit a crime scene of unprecedented proportions infused with emotional, if not sacred significance, for a large number of people across the diverse spectrum that is New York City and its Metropolitan Area. The sheer number of fatalities contained within this hulking, smoldering 16 acre debris field that soared to over 10 stories in height in some places and continued below ground for another seven stories, put it in a class of its own. The nature of the deaths and destruction, a blatant act of war on our soil, in our City, forever sanctified this plot of real estate and everything that would be removed from it.
From the very beginning, while the smoke and dust still obscured the bright September sun, the task at hand appeared monumental, insurmountable. As the hours of that day of infamy bled away and the darkness of the early September 12th, 2001 morning shifted the wind ever so slightly to the west, every man and women whose fate had placed them there grudgingly admitted that this would not be a mass rescue mission; it was realized that early on that it would be a recovery effort. Initial assessments and carefully orchestrated forays into the wreckage by members of FDNY revealed a level of devastation that would most likely not yield any survivors. The incessant electronic pings from the hundreds of fire fighters location beacons punctuated the silence. Certainly there were unknown thousands who perished, whose remains were held captive by the forbidding steel and concrete mountains that just mere hours ago had been two towering office building, 220 acres of office space where 50,000 or so came to work every day. Head counts continued frantically into the dawn of the 12th, every FDNY House and NYPD Precinct, all the government agencies who had office space in buildings throughout World Trade Center Plaza, as well as all the employers in Tower I and Tower II needed to determine who was missing, who was not, and who had been were when that morning prior.
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The troops gather at the beginning of a morning shift at the WTC Site.
“The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately”, replied the Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, just hours after the Towers collapsed when asked by a reporter about the number of casualties. The actual number would be unknown and unknowable, with any degree of certainty, for many days. This harsh fact steeled the recovery workers determination and it was this knowledge, the knowledge that this monstrous, sprawling crime scene was the site of a mass fatality event the likes of which no other modern American city had ever witnessed. It was not fully realized at that time that this Site would be a grave, the heap a funeral pyre for so many, that so many would forever be entombed, unidentified, rendered unidentifiable by the brutality of the jet fuel feed infernos, the shear physics of fire, force, and magnitude of the pulverizing collapse.
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Yesterday the 2010 – 2011 session of the United States Supreme Court was called to order. Among their first pronouncements was that they had decided not to hear a case, the case docket number 09-1467 entitled “World Trade Center Families for Proper Burial v. New York City”. Essentially the case addresses the approximately 1.6 million tons of materials that was removed from the WTC site and transported to a closed landfill on Staten Island. While this material was handled as meticulously as possible throughout the recovery process, was scrupulously sifted both at the WTC site and again at the Fresh Kills Landfill, the families contend that it is inappropriate to have this material, which contains the remains of those who perished, interred at a landfill. They also sought a ruling on their allegation that 223,000 tons of material was never processed for human remains. There have been no positive identifications made for approximately 1,100 of the 2,752 people killed at the WTC Plaza on September 11, 2001.
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An uninterrupted procession of dump trucks ran 24 / 7 for over 8 months from the Pile to barges which would transport the debris to Staten Island for additional scrutiny.
The massive task at hand was undertaken with a distinct sense of solemnity that was in stark contrast to the horror and brutal, jagged lines of the Pile. Within days of the twin collapses, the Site was divided into four quadrants each under the supervision of a different contractor. The men and women of FDNY, NYPD, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of NYC,(OCMENYC) the FBI, and other agencies were tasked with the recovery of “biologics”, human remains. The WTC Plaza became a well coordinated job site were man and machinery, the senses of smell and tactility were augmented by computer mapping and GPS. Meticulously each and every fragment of a biological nature was cataloged first by its GPS coordinates, bagged, labeled and sent for processing first to an on site examination tent and then on to the OCMENYC. The Medical Examiner's Office soon had to rent several refrigerated semitrailers to store the collected remains. The existing storage space and laboratories were overwhelmed by sheer volume.
At the same time personal items from the missing were being delivered by next of kin; toothbrushes, combs, hairbrushes, anything that might contain traces of DNA with which to establish a data base. The recovered remains would be processed if they were determined to be “viable” - amenable to genetic analysis. Other labs in far away places such as Virginia joined the effort. Everyone involved knew the scale and scope of the endeavor was staggering yet not one among them ever baulked or tried to cut corners. If anything, the benefit of the doubt was applied more often than not simply in deference to the “maybe factor”, perhaps this small, irregular fragment of human tissue might render viable DNA that will lead to a data base match and ultimately to “closure” for one family out of the thousands torn apart by the uncertainties of the circumstances and the rapidity with which the fabric of their lives had been forever tattered.
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Ask the men and women who labored on the recovery teams how they feel about some of issues that have arisen since that fateful day 9 years ago. Most will tell you it is time to dismiss forever the designation of “Ground Zero” for the more respectful and dignified monickers such as “The Site”, “The Pile”, or ”The Hole”. Ask them about the controversy surrounding a mosque and Muslim Center proposed to be built just two blocks from the northeast corner of the WTC Site. Most will reply that the mosque is a non issue. The real issue that the City of New York and all the individual agents and special interests should have addressed long ago is the rebuilding of the Site and a permanent, appropriate memorial of some kind. The fact that that open, jagged wound still exists on the tip of Manhattan in 2010 is abominable.
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One conveyer line at Fresh Kills manned by members of
NYPD Homicide, CSU, The OCMENYC, and FBI Forensics Specialists.
The cleanup that ensued over the 8 months immediately after the events of 9 11 01 will be studied by engineering, demolition, excavation, and other construction trade specialists for years to come. It was a logistical nightmare tamed by the minds and backs of all those called upon to participate.
As a crime scene it too will be studied and recognized as a seminal undertaking in the history of forensics, mass fatality events, crime scene processing, DNA identification, and a host of other sciences that were utilized during every step of the recovery.
Not only was every square inch of debris scoured on site at The Pile, it was examined just as closely, if more slowly, once it arrived at the Fresh Kill Landfill. Mining equipment from Pennsylvania and West Virginia was set up. Conveyors and sifting trays of increasingly finer gauge trapped fragments of tissue as well as remnants of personal effects such as jewelry. Whether an individual fragment of human tissue yielded sufficient viable genetic material for the rigors of the identification process was another story. No matter, each captured fragment was handled as if it contained the treasures for a positive identification and with the respect afforded a corpse at burial. Nothing was taken lightly, nothing dismissed as irrelevant.
The Liberty Street medical Examiner’s Station. One among many at the largest crime scene ever processed on American soil.
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that the Supreme Court decided yesterday to not hear the case brought by surviving family members of some of those killed at the WTC Site was not a surprise. Lower Courts had not seen the case as having merit. Perhaps this defeat is for the best. Maybe those family members can find some permanent closure knowing the debris in question is on Staten island. Certainly that material is in a distinct segment of the vast, closed landfill. A memorial marker of some type can be placed there. This was a legal matter that never had a great deal of public or political support.
Given the fact that the Courts on every level have not treated 9 11 01 issues very well, people whose lives are inextricably linked to that day, that Site and those remains have found satisfaction and peace in other ways.
Politically, the fallout from 9 11 01 reverberates in the corridors of power and for all the wrong reasons. The latest insult perpetrated on the 9 11 01 Recovery Worker’s is the Congressional defeat of a Bill that would have afforded those workers suffering from the various respiratory illnesses associated with the contaminants in the WTC Site air, a measure of security in that their medical costs would be covered. Those who labored there in the harsh conditions and are now sick themselves are, for the most part, stoic in the face of their illness and own mortality. That September day taught many a powerful lesson on mortality, the whims of circumstances and chance, the unseen eddies of fate and destiny. Who lived and who died was often a matter of inches or seconds, the smallest increments that we measure time, distance, action, reaction, fear. fight, and flight. There is a story behind every one who left those buildings intact physically just as their is a story for every soul that did not.
In the Common Book of Prayer the Burial of the Dead, Rite I, contains the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. And so it is.
In a sense the remains of the unidentified have already been spread by the prevailing winds of that day as well as by the otherworldly gusts that billowed as the pulverized constituent elements and over 1000 souls wear reduced to their most elemental forms. Those angry roiling clouds of smoke and dust spread far beyond the immediate area. Some particles from those clouds went high into the atmosphere are were caught in the jet stream and whisked far and wide. Others came to rest much closer to their point of origin. In either case all the remains, as they are, could never physically be recovered. Having had over 20,000 “biologics” recovered was remarkable but never satisfactory. The best efforts were exerted in the pursuit of remains.
The names of the unidentified are known today. Families and friends, colleagues and coworkers, neighbors and acquaintances have mourned appropriately. Those who perished are not forgotten nor will they ever be. Out of respect for all involved the powers that be should work tirelessly so that a fitting memorial be erected soon at the WTC Site and progress should be measured in stories complete on the structures that have been ever so slowly taking shape on that 16 acre plot.
The Burial Rite continues after mention of ashes and dust saying, “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. And so it is and so many songs waft from that Site heard to ears receptive to the words carried in the winds.
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