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September 13, 2001


A Few Moments of Hope in a Mountain of Rubble


interactive_feature  Interactive Feature: Terror Attacks

interactive_feature  Images of Terror

video  Terror Attacks on Manhattan

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A Day of Terror

Video: An Audacious Attack (September 11, 2001)

They found themselves in the landscape of nightmare, with jagged stumps marking where mighty buildings once stood, with the sky shrouded by smoke and the ground coated in ash, and search dogs overwhelmed by the smell of flesh in the acrid air. But there was no time to comprehend it all, not with the driving if faint hope that buried somewhere beneath there breathed survivors.

And every now and then, word of a miracle raced through the ranks of a man asking about his children, of a woman with hair still neatly braided inspiring hundreds of soot-covered, weary rescue workers to continue digging into the debris and steel that once were the World Trade Center towers.

But these adrenaline-pumping moments of hope were sporadic and few, tempered by the dawning, aching realization that for every survivor two on Tuesday, perhaps four yesterday there were probably thousands dead. By late afternoon, the jaws of huge cranes were biting indiscriminately into the piles of rubble, while police officers, firefighters, soldiers and other rescue workers pried at the ground with shovels and crow bars to free body parts, bits of human flesh, and rubbery patches of skin.

Then, like sanitation workers tending to some hellish park, they carefully dumped the scraps of human remains into a green trash bag held open by a soldier. At times, men gathered to puzzle over a piece of flesh on the ground; dogs sniffed at the bits with little enthusiasm and moved on.

"We don't find much," said a firefighter from East Rutherford, N.J.

At least publicly, city and state officials would not attach any number to the estimated loss of life after two airplanes pierced the twin towers Tuesday morning, a terrorist attack that leveled the World Trade Center buildings.

Instead, the aftermath was hinted at in the discussion of public-service employees missing and presumed dead: 350 New York City firefighters, including senior officers and entire squads; 40 New York City police officers; as many as 200 employees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as at least 30 Port Authority police officers.

Of the thousands presumed dead, only 82 bodies had been recovered by last night, in a search-and-rescue effort that never seemed to be beyond the reach of danger.

Yesterday afternoon, rescue workers scrambled again as a remnant of the south tower crumbled, scattering debris. Hundreds of people sought cover behind cars and walls. Then, a short while later, they returned to their grim task.

Magnifying the horror of that task were the reports trickling back to the rest of the world from a restricted and still-dangerous location in the western part of Lower Manhattan, rechristened Ground Zero. Of the 110-story twin towers now collapsed like stacks of steel pancakes. Of social workers with no one to comfort, and surgeons with no one to save, while surgical masks and shoes, gym bags and underwear, littered the ground. Documents that once seemed vital to commerce fluttered in the air.

At some point early yesterday morning when breaks in the smoky billows revealed a crescent moon a body was pulled from the rubble, and firefighters rushed forward to see if a colleague had been found. It was a man whom no one recognized, wearing a white shirt, black pants and a wedding ring.

Some of the firefighters cried as they eased the corpse into a body bag and carried it away. "He was married, man," was all that one could say. "He was married."

Such displays of emotion were few; the breadth of the tragedy seemed so mind-numbing that many officials did not even attempt to mask the cold details. When asked yesterday to describe the kinds of injuries being seen among the victims brought to Bellevue Hospital Center, Dr. Robert Hessler said: "The sort of injuries you expect when billions of tons of rubble fall from the sky on top of people."

And James Vaughn, a New York state trooper in charge of a cadaver- sniffing German shepherd named Garo, explained that the crime scene was almost too much for the dog. "There's so much scent it kind of overwhelms him," Trooper Vaughn said, as the dog lapped water from a bowl during a break. "Basically, what he's doing is smelling flesh in the air, and it's just coming out of the cracks. It's everywhere."

But if a dog smelled flesh, people sensed hope that victims were still alive, no matter how unlikely it seemed. Throughout the day came reports, shared at one point by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, that rescue workers were in communication with trapped victims, and that cell phone calls were being placed from somewhere beneath the small mountains of steel and concrete.

Climbing down from a hill of debris, Matt Cody, a New York City firefighter, described how he had inched his way through crawl spaces and tunnels, hunting for survivors but finding only human remains, including those of a pregnant woman. But he said that the memory of friends killed on Tuesday Firefighter Danny Suhr, crushed by a falling body, and Timothy Stackpole, just recovered from injuries incurred at another fire pushed him to keep digging.

"I played football with Danny; I trained with him," Mr. Cody said, his face wet with perspiration, his uniform gray with soot. "I can't tell you how horrible it feels."

The mayor and others seemed to be counting on the likes of Matt Cody.

"That's why you've got to keep focusing on how many people can we save," Mr. Giuliani said yesterday morning. "We know we've lost a lot of people. Now we've got to focus on how many we can save." After that, the city can focus on rebuilding, he said. "It's going to be a beautiful place again."

A return to urban grandeur seemed such a foreign concept in a place where thick dust darkened the day, and floodlights gave night an eerie brightness. Even the wind caused problems: one minute it was carrying the ash and dust eastward to Brooklyn; the next it was blowing west to sting the eyes, inflame the throat, and force officials to reposition their rescue operations.

It seemed that Lower Manhattan's world-famous skyline was now reflected only on the arm patches of the city's rescue workers.

Through Tuesday night and into yesterday morning, rescue-and-recovery workers dug, police officers guarded and medics waited, playing their frustrating roles on a stage blanketed in ash and flecked with bits of color. Red here for the flattened truck from Rescue 1; blue there for a shard of a police car; orange everywhere, for the body bags. And there were signs of red- white-and-blue patriotism everywhere, including the silhouette of an American flag drawn in the dust of a nearby window.

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