The Dig

by James Croak <>

This is the letter he wrote to her four days later.

4:30 am Sat.

Sophie et al,

I went back to the remains of the World Trade Center and dug for bodies.

There is a staging area at Chelsea Piers where city staff determines if one has useful knowledge or experience to help with the rescue. If they hear some, they tape S&R on you (Search and Rescue) and send you to the Javits Center for dispersal. They send you uptown, not down. Except for iron workers they want no else there and have placed the military at all entrances to prevent anyone getting close. It is a polite run around.

Some iron workers dropped by my loft at 6:00am Thursday—having put in an 18-hour shift—and asked if I wanted to go in next time. They weren't sure because they thought that I might have had enough having witnessed it all go down. Of course I wanted to. We went Friday in mid-afternoon: In Queens eleven of us piled into a van and headed for the Brooklyn Bridge to the uncanny sight of the altered skyline. We pulled into a commercial equipment store and helped ourselves to everything we could carry: cases of gloves, masks, crowbars, pails, and respirators, without a thought of paying for it. The shop owner helped us load it; he proudly waved as we drove off.

An ex-cop drove the van with a police parking placard stuck in the window getting us by the first four security checks. Then we approached two HumVees parked across the road at Park Row and Broadway with young men in battle fatigues standing about. National Guard I thought. Then they surrounded the van. Regular Army I thought. And then all six doors were jerked open at once.

Marines. Welcome to Not America. I am in the middle of Manhattan in a private car and armed Marines are ripping open my doors. I felt better already. They snapped our ID's from our hands as fast as we could pull them out. The two in back talked very loud to hold our attention while the others moved in among us. Satisfied, they had us park and motioned us into the site.

We collected our shoplifted gear and walked a quarter mile to the site. The tension in the air was frightening—military vehicles, M-60 machine guns. Hundreds of angry cops. Everybody looking us over. A couple of more checks and we walked into Guernica.

I saw the towers go down, so I thought that I would be prepared for the spectacle, but the enormity of the debris field dwarfed my expectations. It is about a quarter mile in any direction, there is no level area, the height varies from 15 feet thick to over 120 feet. Smoke still rises from all areas. Three of the tower facades still stand up to 10 floors but nothing is behind them, just the standing steel front. The field is lower in the center so it appears one has walked into the smoking ruins of Pompeii or another vast coliseum.

The exterior of the towers was made of 12-inch steel columns spaced four feet apart. As they fell these shafts speared everything in sight. A dozen of them protruded from the West Side Highway, sticking up like some mad confection. Four of them shot Zeus-style into the side of the American Express building 30 floors up, knocking off a corner. The debris washed across the highway smashing into the World Financial Center, blasting all of the glass from its walls.

Looking downward through the wracks of steel beams you realize they are sitting upon a sea of emergency vehicles.

How to Kill Firemen

1) Make an explosion.

2) Wait 15 minutes.

3) Make another explosion.

Spread out across the debris field are bucket brigades, serpentine chains of 200 people each—firemen, cops, military—lines meandering up and down to the dig. The entire site is being excavated with five gallon pails which are hand passed to dump trucks. Not a finger will be lost. Each dig has a cadaver dog, the dog shows us where to dig and then a small hole is made. In goes a TV camera with a listening device and everybody yells to be quiet. Generators are turned off and everyone stands still.

After four days there is no more sound, so the digging and cutting begins. When they find a body they yell "body coming" and an adjacent brigade climbs across the wreckage to form an opposing line, the body is then passed on a stretcher between the lines. If it is a fireman (there are over 300) his hat is placed atop him and the stretcher is carried, not passed. Actually we "pass" the pall because there is no walking.

My first body was a fireman. His hat told me what had happened to him. Crushed, burned, shattered, it looked like a civil war relic brought up from the sea. My second body was a young girl, petite, in shape. I can't take this, I thought, and considered running. Thankfully we didn't have another for an hour or so.

Periodically the line would call "We need paint," meaning they found a body too deep to dig for at this time so the area is sprayed red to we can find it later. Several times we passed a body the size of a basket ball. If the wreckage shifts, a Klaxon blows twice telling everyone to run, which we do. A minute later they all run back, me still shaking. The next body was in a fetal position—she must have lived a while, I thought, and died of exposure with a billion tons of mess on top of her, scared beyond understanding. All told, we found 27 bodies and carried 9 out.

You think there are no heroes in America? I saw a lanky blonde that could have modeled Channel tie a rope around her ankle, grab a stethoscope and dive head first down a debris hole that would have shredded a raccoon. The firemen in general were fearless, shrugging their shoulders at the obvious danger of it all.

But missing from the scene was any mention of how it got like this, why it came down, what should be done about it. Nothing, not a peep. I suspect that it was a kind of collective shame for not having protected us from this.

After 12 hours the accumulated stress and fear got the best of me and I walked home. But I'm sneaking back in tomorrow.


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