The dig

Searching for bodies in the rubble, a volunteer comes face to face with horror and death -- and discovers that there are still heroes in America.

By James Croak

Published September 19, 2001 7:19PM (EDT)

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

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

Some ironworkers who had just put in an 18-hour shift dropped by my loft at 6 a.m. Thursday and asked if I wanted to go in next time. They weren't sure, because they thought that I might have had enough after having witnessed it all go down. Of course I wanted to go.

We leave Friday in mid-afternoon. In Queens, 11 of us pile into a van and head for the Brooklyn Bridge to the uncanny sight of an altered skyline. We pull up to a commercial equipment store and help ourselves to everything we could carry: cases of gloves, masks, crowbars, pails, and respirators, without a thought of paying for it. The shop owner helps us load it and proudly waves as we drive off.

We have an ex-cop drive the van, and stick a police parking placard in the window. That gets us by the first four security checks. Then we approach two HumVees parked across the road at Park Row and Broadway, with many young men in battle fatigues standing about. National Guard, I think. Then they surround the van. Regular Army, I think. And then all six doors are 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 feel better already. They snap our IDs from our hands as fast as we can pull them out. The two in back talk very loud to hold our attention while the others move in among us. Satisfied, they tell us to park and motion us into the site.

We collect our shoplifted gear and walk a quarter mile to the site. The tension in the air is frightening: military vehicles, M-60 machine guns. Hundreds of angry cops. Everybody looking us over. A couple of more checks and we walk 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 dwarfs my expectations. It stretches about a quarter mile in any direction. There is no level area: the height varies from 15 feet 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 a vast coliseum, the smoking ruins of Pompeii. The exterior of the former towers was 12-inch steel columns spaced 4 feet apart. As they fell these shafts speared everything in sight. A dozen of them protrude 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 where the dig is taking place. The entire site is being excavated into 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 go off and everyone stands still. It's three day later and 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 in a stretcher between the lines. If it is a fireman (over 300 of them were lost) his hat is placed atop him and the stretcher is carried, not passed.

My first body is a fireman. His hat tells me what happened to him. Crushed, burned, shattered, it looks to have been brought up from the sea, a civil war relic. My second body is a young girl, petite, in shape. I can't take this, I think, and consider running away. Thankfully we don't have another for an hour or so. Periodically the line calls "we need paint," meaning they've found a body too deep to dig for immediately. When this happens the area is sprayed red so we can find him later. Several times we pass a body the size of a basketball. 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 is in a fetal position. She must have been scared beyond understanding, I think, before a billion tons of mess fell on top of her.

All total, we found 27 bodies and carried out 9.

It would be a good idea to bring small groups of the relatives of the victims into the site so they see for themselves why we are not finding survivors. Survivors? We aren't finding concrete. We pulled out tangled messes of rebar without a spec of concrete on it, except for being twisted it could have come off the shelf, and it was inside the slabs. In 12 hours I did not see a piece of glass, nor office equipment, nor a book, just steel and powder.

You think there are no heroes in America? I see a lanky blond that could model Chanel tie a rope around her ankle, grab a stethoscope and dive head first down a debris hole that would have shredded a raccoon. I see firemen so deep into the rubble their flashlights are mistaken for fire. The firemen are fearless, shrugging their shoulders at the obvious danger of it all.

But missing from the scene is any talk of how it got like this, why it came down, what should be done about it. Nothing, not a peep.

After 12 hours the accumulated stress and fear get the best of me and I walk home. But I'll be back in tomorrow.

James Croak

James Croak is a sculptor living in New York.

MORE FROM James Croak

Related Topics ------------------------------------------