Twenty years later, I can still smell the charged electrical burn of the pile as I walked by it, weeks after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. The last standing piece of the twin towers, the braided steel facade known as the shroud, rose from the wreckage. NYPD officers were corralling tourists on Lower Broadway, urging them away from what was now a mass grave. As a New Yorker, I understood the pull—the incomprehension at a vast absence where there was once a living, vibrant presence, at one moment a teeming plaza, busy offices stacked up to the sky, the next, a pile of still smoking rubble, a void.
I was on my way to a training for the legal first responders of 9/11: a group of volunteer attorneys mobilized to help the victims’ families negotiate the grim bureaucratic gauntlet such a mass disaster presents. New York had initiated an emergency procedure for recording these unprecedented deaths, since ordinarily the family of a missing person (for that’s what their loved ones were, in the absence of a body) would have to wait three years before asking a court to issue a death certificate. The next of kin would still have to complete the paperwork to prove that their relative—spouse, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent or sibling—had been at the World Trade Center at the time of the attack, but they now had the option of requesting what was known as an expedited death certificate.
My colleagues and I would be working with the New York City Medical Examiner’s office to provide the legal documentation the families needed to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives: to apply for emergency cash grants, file for social security and insurance benefits, initiate probate proceedings, plan funerals. (There were other sources of assistance available to those without legal next of kin status, such as domestic partners.) The staff of the Medical Examiner’s office would concurrently be working—as they still are, to this day—to identify victims through DNA analysis of remains recovered at the scene. The City of New York set up a Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 on the Hudson River to process these thousands of deaths and assist the families of first responders, office, restaurant and building workers, air crews and passengers. There were booths with representatives from federal, state and local agencies, companies that had employed people killed in the attacks, nonprofit and charitable organizations, trauma counselors, childcare facilities, a canteen, National Guard and New York City police and fire department personnel and, at our booths equipped with computer stations for the legal forms and resources we needed, the lawyers.
Our job was to interview family members so that we could record in affidavit form the information needed to issue an expedited death certificate. Names and birth dates and addresses. Biographical, family and employment details. We had to see the next of kin’s photo ID and proof of their relationship with the missing person, such as a marriage certificate or a child’s birth certificate. All of that paled next to the question that was crucial for stating the basis of their belief that their loved one was in the World Trade Center at the time of its collapse: their last contact with the missing person and the details of that contact. The hurried goodbye as she rushed off to work. The phone call from his office on the 101st floor. It must have felt horribly insensitive, but more often than not the family members displayed grace, fortitude and patience.
One thing was not at issue: the manner of death. All the reported deaths of the 9/11 victims would be classified as homicides.
Working in disaster relief settings like this can be stressful and emotional, if also gratifying. My role was a small one, but such experiences tend to leave vivid impressions. Here are some of mine:
The community liaison officers of the NYPD, who escorted the family members to our workstations. I ran into one of these cops years later, a compact woman with curly brown hair, a freckled nose and kind eyes. We recognized each other immediately, with the connection of people who have shared the aftermath of conflict. One evening, the officer saw me get up from my chair to trail after one of the family members, a new widow pregnant with her first child, as she made her way down the corridor to the next station. It was the end of my shift, but I felt helpless, wanting to do more for her, for all of them. But there wasn’t any more I could do. ‘Go home,’ the officer would say to me. ‘Get some rest.’ She knew the feeling. We’d be back again the next day, and the day after that.
The American Red Cross mental health counselor who was my partner, on hand to assist family members during the interview if needed. She gave me her Albany chapter Red Cross pin to remember her by. I would later honor that partnership by volunteering with the New York City chapter’s disaster response unit, doing emergency relief work after Superstorm Sandy and the Miracle on the Hudson, the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549. As a Red Cross volunteer, I would also attend memorial ceremonies for the families at Ground Zero when it was a construction site for the rising towers of the new World Trade Center.
What I recall as a surreal bus stop at Pier 94, a waiting area for families who would be ferried to the pile to see the spot where their loved ones drew their last breath. I still wonder if I imagined it.
The mounds of comfort donations. I was given a teddy bear by my Red Cross partner. Someone else was handing out moisturizer and lip balm, surprisingly useful for hours spent reciting legal requirements, eliciting information, apologizing for intruding on precious and private last moments to record the details needed for the death record. For years I kept these items, the smell and tactility of them evoking what memory had elided.
But most of all, the gentle gratitude of these families faced with unimaginable loss, who only wanted their loved ones’ deaths to mean something so that in the future such tragedies could be prevented, sparing others their bottomless pit of grief.
—post by Suzanne Solomon