The Chief Medical Examiner's office on First Avenue and Thirtieth Street in Manhattan is stark and somber. Nowhere is the reality, the graveness of that day more apparent, then here. The walls seem to throb with the anguish of husbands and brothers, aunts and mothers, who returned day after day to view truncated bodies in the hopes of identifying their loved one.
I have traveled to New York with my 88-year-old grandmother, May, and her 88-year-old cousin, Matty. Matty's 55-year-old son, Barry was an executive at the Port Authority, which managed the World Trade Center. His title, jarringly, was "Risk Manager." He was in charge of insurance-related issues for the skyscrapers. His office was on the sixty-third floor of Tower One. He perished on September 11th.
May can barely hear and Matty can barely see, so, for the next few days, I am their ears and eyes. Matty, who has now outlived both her children, has come here to see if there is anything more she can learn of her son's death.
All that is left of Barry is one bone. No skin, no muscle, no organ, no face. One bone. And it is charred.
In a small conference room, a handsome medical examiner sits down with us at a circular table. In his hand is Barry's file. In life, Matty's son wore a gracious smile and oversize bifocals. Now he is known by three numbers: a "P" number, assigned from a police report on his missing status, an "RM" number which will correlate with any of his remains found and a "DM" number which, in this case, denotes the singular body part actually identified.
It is, the file says, his right humerus bone -- the shoulder to the elbow. This is all that is left: one bone of 206. No skin, no muscle, no organ, no face. One bone. And it is charred.
"How exactly did he die?" Matty wants to know. "I have so many images running through my mind, can you put them to rest with the facts?" An assistant explains that "we can't make that specific determination from such a small amount of remains."
The medical examiner skims Barry's file and out of the corner of her blind eye, Matty stares at him. I am convinced that she and I are thinking the same thing being imparted. "Can I take a look at that?" I ask. We didn¹t travel all this way -- Matty has come from Florida by train, picking up May in South Carolina on the way, and I have flown from Los Angeles -- to leave with one ounce of wonder.
The Medical Examiner hands me the file without hesitation. It includes:
- A death certificate issued on Oct. 12, 2001 despite the absence of any remains. Cause of death: homicide.
- A document indicating the positive identification of Barry's right humerus bone.
- An amended death certificate dated May 11, 2002 to show a positive DNA identification. This came, we knew, after Matty sent a swab from the inside of her mouth that was matched with marrow from Barry's humerus.
- A document dated May 13, 2002 indicating that Port Authority officers had been dispatched to Barry's home in New Jersey to give the now "official" news to Barry's wife.
There isn't much more in there. And since Barry did not make one of those wrenching cell phone calls, Matty will never know exactly what happened to him. But since the plane hit well above his floor, he probably survived the impact.
That morning, he likely felt like a captain to his injured ship, not prepared to abandon unless it was apparently and readily sinking. The Tower "sank" in seconds flat -something that was not anticipated by anyone until the moment it happened.
Which is what that assistant now tries to use as some measure of comfort as we leave the Medical Examiner's building: "The Towers fell so fast," she says. "We're certain no one inside knew what hit them." Matty and May seem clobbered by these words. But I'm sincerely touched that after all this woman has been through, she still cares enough to try and offer solace.
Every square inch is covered with photos and memorabilia from the lives of the lost. It's a gut punch of father's day cards, wedding pictures and crayon drawings.
Our next day: Number One Liberty Street, a building adjacent to Ground Zero. It received minimal damage, and now has a room on the 20th floor with a bank of windows facing east toward the site that has been made into a "family viewing room." The room is large. Every square inch is covered with photos and notes and memorabilia from the lives of the lost. It's a gut punch of father's day cards and wedding pictures and memorial service programs and crayon drawings.
Matty stands at the window, looking out onto the site. She is reciting the "kaddish," the Jewish prayer for the dead. She is racked. Out loud she asks God why he has done this to Barry, to her. She turns and asks me how this could have happened. I who is never at a loss for words have nothing to say. I just stare down at a construction worker, a blip with a hard hat in the 16-acre crater.
Across the room, a woman arranges flowers near the picture of a fire fighter. "That's my son-in-law. He and my daughter were married only eleven months. Someone moved my flowers from last week, to make room for their own, but that's okay. That¹s fine, really it is."
"How is your daughter doing?" I ask.
She replies, "Nothing means anything to her anymore."
May, stone-faced and sober, is on a chair in the corner of the room, staring at the floor. Matty takes a photograph of Barry from an envelope in her purse, and I tape the picture next to the others on the wall, in history.
At Memorial Park behind Bellevue Hospital, we are given a list of "Frequently Asked Questions." The pamphlet tells us we have arrived at "the temporary resting place for victims of September 11th -- a place of peace where many have come to pay their respects -- a hallowed space where dignity reigns and a grieving nation honors its heroes." This is nicely put, but truly a euphemism. Where we've arrived is a large white tent with sixteen Mack trucks holding both identified and unidentified body parts.
It's a site only for family. No press. No public. No pictures. We're required to make an appointment because it's a "working area." We are guaranteed that "there (is) no restriction of (the) resources for the identification of human remains -- (the) effort will continue until we have exhausted the limits of science." So, for years to come, men and women will toil over the shreds of mortality encased in those trucks.
We are accompanied into the tent by a chaplain, a funeral director and two psychologists, all women. Trailer Number One is dedicated to men of service, so that's where Barry is. It's as close as we get to what remains of him. And it is the last stop on our mission.
Matty came on this journey to "get closure." But, she laments, she still doesn't have it. I tell her that maybe "closure" isn't something achievable if your son is murdered in such a colossal, monstrous, depraved display.
So Matty lights a "yartzeit candle," another Jewish commemorative tradition used in death, and places it on the steps of Trailer Number One. We see that people have written on the sides of the trucks and Matty says she'd like to do that.
We stand behind her, the chaplain, the funeral director, the two psychologists, my grandmother and I. And with a black sharpie, Matty blindly writes:
This is not how I thought we would meet again. I can only hope that my love for you will sustain you and your love for me will sustain me.