Victims All

As the anniversary of September 11 looms on us, I cannot help but feel the grief of family and relatives who are going to be somberly reminded again of the ticking seconds of that fateful day. I am sure most have reconciled their tragic losses, though one can never completely recover from such horrendous cruelty inflicted by man to others of his own kind, with religion as an excuse.

We almost had tragedy hit our own family, as one of our sons was working in the vicinity of the World Trade Center and was trapped in lower Manhattan on that day. He narrowly escaped from the un-breathable air as he made his getaway to the shores of New Jersey. We had lost touch with him for several hours when he was huddled in his apartment choking from the smoke and dust that had pervaded through an open window. I feel so fortunate that the tragedy that came so close to our family, took a turn and spared us. But I cannot forget that day. Just the thought of the anniversary now makes me misty eyed.

Another thought that keeps recurring in my mind is the well being of the wife and children of John Doe # 89. I did not know him or his family but only knew a relative of his who told me his tragic story. He was a young man with a wife and two young children working in the top floors of the World Trade Center North Tower. He had a bright future as far as the eye could see or the mind could imagine. He was working in the floors above where the first plane had hit. He called his wife on his cell phone, who was a schoolteacher in Long Island, and informed her about it immediately. He said that it was an accident and they were waiting for the rescue crew to get up there. As time ticked in the confusion of the first minutes after the attack, it was apparent that the victims still held out hope of a rescue. They had faith in the system of American ingenuity and trust in its ability.

Then he heard about the attack on the South Tower. His group had tried to escape down the stairs but there was no staircase below where the pane had hit. The escape route to the rooftop was jammed. The smoke that had crept into the upper floors was making breathing difficult. With no rescue helicopter of crew reaching them, John Doe # 89 knew there was no hope for escape. An hour later he had known that the South Tower had crumbled. Now it was only a matter of time before the same fate would befall his tower. In those agonizing minutes, he said good-bye to his wife on the cell phone and said he loved the children very much. He told her he loved her very much and asked her to care for the children with courage in his absence. He said he was going to sit in a corner where there was less smoke, with his back against the wall and await his death.

John Doe # 89 was the identification tag on his body when it was recovered in the first few days in the rubble. Only upper half of his torso was discovered. His family had a closed casket funeral a few days later. I still think of his wife and children though I do not know how they are coping with this most tragic event of their lives.

Another memory I have of the events comes from a New York City policeman. I know John's story because I am close to his in-laws and his wife. He was called to duty immediately after the attacks but was unable to get very close to the building because of traffic. He then was assigned to the periphery where he was given the task of controlling and directing the confused mass of people. This certainly saved his life as it kept him away from the towers. However, he was later assigned to the Fish Kill dumpsite in Staten Island where his arduous task was to sift through the rubble looking for body parts. Loads and loads of debris from the disaster site was hauled to this once abandoned garbage site and it was the duty of the policemen, using a sieve, to look for any evidence that may be helpful for the investigation of the tragedy. But what they found mostly were body parts.

It was back breaking job that only a dedicated policeman could handle. Fatigue however was not only physical. The mental and emotional tiredness far outweighed the physical ones. Parts as small as finger and toenails were carefully collected. Many sneakers were found with only the feet in them. A severed arm or leg was the largest parts they were able to find after a few weeks. The parts were collected for DNA evidence for identification. The enormity of the problems to follow was clearly evident to the policeman. After working there continuously for two months John requested a transfer to some other job. The recurring nightmares were too much to handle for him. John had paid his dues as a public servant admirably as he was one of the few who lasted that long in that job.

John's mother-in-law had called me immediately after the attack. She was worried about him, as she knew he had been called to the site but was unable to get in touch with him. When the towers collapsed she began to worry as to his whereabouts. She also had called me to find out about our son.

I am sure there are many more harrowing stories about that day. I have read about the woman on the sixtieth floor in the North Tower who could not help but to make eye contact with the victims who jumped to certain death from the windows of the South Tower. The man in charge of color-coding the victims according to the severity of their injury remembers a woman, who was burnt beyond recognition warning him that she was still alive, and requested him not to attach a black tag on her. This was minutes before she drew her last breath. There were many heroes at ground zero that day. In Pentagon there was the burly army sergeant, who was catching the victims as they were jumping out of the incinerating building.

The events of September 11 have affected many more lives. There are permanent wounds in many that may never heal and fester for a long time. In others, the scars will always be visible. As Americans we will never forget the injustice dealt to us from a fringe group of fanatics, who justify their actions, and hide behind their God and his mercy. No religion can condone this barbarism and call itself a legitimate, peace loving religion in the world. Every American, regardless of his religion or ethnicity is a victim of September 11. Our lives have been undeniably altered forever.

Now let us remember the day and fight for the lives lost so that not a single life lost was lost in vain. As the President said, it is time to bring justice to the perpetrators and only this will satisfy the souls that were lost and their loved ones.


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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