We were there to collect the remnants of bodies. Arms and legs and helmets that held only skulls. As a forensic pathologist, I identify the dead. This was why I found myself at 235 Vesey Street in New York City at the site of the temporary morgue for the World Trade Center Disaster.
Pieces of yellow, white, and pink paper floated in the air like slow motion confetti. I stooped to pick up one of the larger fragments with black lettering — “Dun & Bradstreet”. Important words in another time, now disconnected like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces that could not be put back together; like the human remains that confronted me.
Thick, gray/brown, acrid smoke rose continuously from the huge burning pyre a full block away. The scent of fire hung on my clothes even after I returned to my bed at night. It was still there the next day.
As I stood outside the tent, my exhaling breath condensed in the cold air. I felt a bit cold too, clad only in a short-sleeve green polo and khaki pants. It was an unseasonably chilly September morning.
I looked up at a thumping sound overhead where a helicopter flew a low circle around the grounds. Despite the restricted airspace above, these Sikorskys were a familiar sight here at Ground Zero. Thwomp, thwomp, thwomp, thwomp. The rhythmic beating of the blades broke the stillness of the early post dawn. I shivered, from the temperature and from the sound.
I walked toward the portapotty across the street, stepping over concrete and metal debris. A path had been cleared down the center of this once busy urban block so rescue vehicles and hearses could drive through. Still a lot of refuse remained pushed to the sides. Across the street, a cavity in the ground yawned 50 feet on each side. Cars had been towed there and stacked; covered in dust and crushed in on the tops, only the tops. Tires were flattened and windows smashed. I wondered if they had been looted. Thousands were still without power in this part of the city.
“I need to see your ID,” a stern-looking, much too young soldier said as he put his hand up to stop me. The other hand held an M16 rifle. I was surprised at this added security since I already had to pass 13 checkpoints to get here.
Past the Family Assistance Center with its outer walls covered in pictures of young fathers with kids piled on their laps, smiling pregnant women, brothers and sisters’ arms entwined in a reunion, wedding photos, current and old.
Past prayer vigils with groups of people huddled on blankets, lighting candles, and holding up banners for peace.
Past evangelists proclaiming the end of the world with flyers that read “Come home to Jesus.”
Past the Medical Examiner’s Office with tables of human remains outside its building, in the alley between NYU and the morgue, sheets draping the ominous contents.
Nearer to the disaster site, barricaded streets were filled with lines of hopeful people; these stretched for two blocks. They came out every morning, young and old, and I’d often wondered if some of them spent the night. Police officers kept them out of the street beyond the wooden sawhorses like at a celebratory parade. These folks handed out bottled water and candy, waved flags and cheered us on. Their faces were so hopeful. At times I couldn’t bear to look at them.
These civilians thought there were living people to be found in the destroyed earth. They thought we were performing a rescue mission. But it never had been that, not really. Our goal was to recover the bodies and most of them were in bits and pieces. We attempted to identify the dead: the dead who had fallen out of the sky.
I pulled the lanyard from beneath my shirt, kept there to prevent it dipping into blood and grime as I worked in the temporary morgue.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said and resumed his sentry stance.
I opened the door of the toilet and it creaked as I entered –– an eerie sound like in an old radio horror show. I unbuckled my belt and eased my pants slowly down. The pockets heavy with equipment – flashlight, ruler, Swiss army knife, clean gloves, markers, labels, notepad – clunked to the ground. The frigid edge of the latrine raised goosebumps on my skin. The cold minimized the outhouse smell.
My pee sounded desolate as my bladder emptied the first of many coffees of the day. Coffee, my elixir of life. Through my job as a medical examiner, I had learned to drink it any way available. Black, with sugar or cream, with both, with artificial creamer, cold, lukewarm, hot. But never decaf. Caffeine was fuel for my constantly exhausted body.
I finished, readjusted myself, and pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer from my back pocket and squirted some onto my hands. I made a mental note to tell the supply officer that the lavatories needed some. These small duties helped to keep a sense of order amidst the despair of chaos.
The tent flap opened as I approached and a man dressed exactly like me emerged. Taller and 20 years my junior, he was smiling broadly.
“Hey, I was looking for you,” he said.
“Just using the head,” I said.
“I brought some breakfast sandwiches. They had them in the Red Cross trailer,” he said, handing me one.
I didn’t have much of an appetite but politely took the proffered gift. Elias started to take a bite and then watched me as I stared at the sandwich.
“Hey, what’s up?” he said.
The wind gusted, causing the office confetti to swirl around our boot-clad feet together with irregular fragments of ash. Two weeks after the attack and the fires still burned.
“The bathrooms are closed,” I said. I referred to the building next to the morgue. It had housed the nicest bathrooms. After the attack some Vietnam Vets had cleaned them up, lining scented candles on the counters and supplying personal hygiene articles, toilet paper, paper towels. There was running water and clean toilets. Now they were shuttered.
“Why?” he said.
I pointed to a new 20-foot-long crack in the gap between the sidewalk and this next door building.
“This crack appeared. I heard someone say there are falling beams inside. Now the building is considered unstable and unsafe to enter,” I said.
On the outer wall of this edifice was another warning, spray painted in orange “three loud blasts = evacuation.” I felt a vibration in my zipper, buckle, and the badge in my pocket. The cranes removed the steel beams at the site; their demolition shook the earth.
“That sign is helpful,” I said pointing to the orange graffiti.
“Yeah, if you hear those blasts, run to the Hudson River and jump in,” Elias said.
The great military presence in the city and a government working hard to keep us safe, had no better plan than “run.” Everyday there were rumors of another attack.
“Do not leave a van unattended – it can be used as a weapon.”
“Report any suspicious activity. We are in the midst of a war.”
We stood in silence for a few moments.
“It’s all too much sometimes, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “but we’re their guardians. We have to tell their stories.”
I inhaled that thought, took it deep into my lungs, let it absorb into me.
“You’re right,” I said. “Thanks for that.”
He nodded and made his way to the portable bathroom.
“Dr. J?” a man poked his head out of the tent; a police detective in another world.
“Yes?” I said.
“We have incoming,” he said.
“Be right there,” I said, putting the uneaten sandwich into my pocket. I paused to look at a nearby large, metal sculpture that had against the odds survived. Ten-foot-tall figures held up signs for New York and Quebec with square panels in their abdomens painted light blue with borders of white clouds. Probably an advertisement for a travel agency or visitor’s center. I imagined slogans – the sky’s the limit; blue skies; up in the air; reach for the sky.
The reality of people visiting the sky and then falling out of it is seared into my history.
Mary Jumbelic is an author from Central New York, and the former chief medical examiner of Onondaga County. Performing thousands of autopsies in her career, she elaborates a strong voice for the deceased. She explores through creative non-fiction the imprint the dead have made on her humanity.
She has published with Rutgers University Press, Tortoise and Finch, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Vine Leaves Press, GFT Press, Women on Writing, Jelly Bucket, The Closed Eye Open, and Grapple Alley. In 2014, her piece was selected for the top ten in the AARP/Huffington Post Memoir Writing Contest. In 2021, another was chosen in the top ten for the Tucson Literary Festival.
She teaches online courses on writing for the Downtown Writer’s Center of Syracuse and is Assistant Editor for Stone Canoe.
Stories can be read on her blog, Final Words, at http://www.maryjumbelic.com.