Accessibility links

U.S.: 'Ground Zero' Remains An Unhealed Wound

  • Robert McMahon

Seven weeks after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, the site of the former World Trade Center in New York remains a scene of grieving and devastation. The bodies of nearly 4,000 people remain missing in addition to more than 500 confirmed dead. Rescue agencies say the scale of the tragedy and the response are unprecedented in the United States.

New York, 5 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Fires still burn deep under the rubble of the former World Trade Center. The smoke and acrid smell they produce are a steady reminder of a wound that has not healed.

The fires feed on the massive debris created after terrorists slammed passenger jets into the two 110-story towers on 11 September, causing their collapse. The jets were filled with fuel and their explosions created an intense heat that crumbled the towers' structural beams. Officials say even now hunks of steel are being pulled from the wreckage still glowing red.

About a third of the debris has now been removed from the seven-hectare site but the work is painstaking. The latest estimates are that 3,923 people are still missing at the site and care is being taken to locate and identify remains.

In addition to the great pit of jumbled wreckage in the center, the site is ringed by scarred, blackened buildings that were once at the heart of the city's financial center.

John Allen, a spokesman for nearby Trinity Church, which is helping to assist the recovery workers, says the enormity of their task can only be understood by seeing the site of the tragedy, known as "ground zero."

"It's difficult to appreciate the scale of the devastation and the scale of the task of recovery and cleaning it up if you haven't been there."

Recovery crews have worked around the clock clearing the site and searching for bodies since 11 September. But Allen says relief workers affiliated with Trinity Church have noticed that the on-site crews appear to be wearing down physically and emotionally.

Emotions were especially frayed this past week when New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ordered a reduction in the number of workers permitted to search for bodies at the disaster site. Hundreds of firefighters demonstrated on 2 November against the plan, saying they were still committed to finding the bodies of victims that include their lost colleagues. The bodies of many of the 343 firefighters who died at the site have not yet been recovered.

But Giuliani said at a press conference his decision to cut the number of firefighters and other rescue workers was in response to safety concerns. Heavy equipment used at the site poses a danger to rescue workers, he said, while acknowledging the sensitivity of the work.

"All of us standing here have friends that continue to remain there and we would love to recover them, but none of us standing here can possibly justify seeing a human being die in this effort if it isn't handled with great discipline and great responsibility."

Relief workers say the absence of remains has complicated the grieving process for many of the victims' loved ones, most of whom were employed by financial-services firms in the two towers.

DNA testing is an important part of the identification process. Relatives have provided toothbrushes, electric razors, cigarette butts, and hairbrushes belonging to the victims. If no DNA samples from the missing are available from these items, authorities would rely on reverse DNA testing, which uses samples from the victim's parents or siblings.

Hundreds of body parts have been kept at a landfill on the New York borough of Staten Island, awaiting identification. But authorities believe that for many of the victims, there are simply no traces left.

To help surviving friends and relatives cope, the New York City department of emergency services has set up an assistance center staffed by 46 relief agencies.

The center has helped residents of some of the 20,000 homes rendered uninhabitable by the attacks. Thousands of meals are served every day. And there are many services for the grieving. Nearly every day, the center provides trips to ground zero for loved ones. They have access to spiritual guidance and mental health experts.

Susan Kessler, a disaster relief volunteer for the American Red Cross, says those who have confirmed the death of a loved one at ground zero are presented with a wooden urn containing earth from the site, as well as an American flag. The emotions, she says, are overwhelming.

"There's certainly anger, there are complete breakdowns, sobbing and grieving. There's stoicism. Just about everything. One of the things I've noticed [is] there seems to be a surge in patriotism."

Kessler says relief staff, working 12- to 14-hour days in emotional situations, can also feel the impact of the World Trade Center attacks. She says many find it rewarding to be contributing during a time of national crisis.

"All of us are disaster relief workers so we're used to being in chaotic disaster scenes, but even this is so much over the magnitude of what we're really used to."

U.S. media reports have been filled with stories of compassion and generosity toward the victims of the 11 September attacks. Figures from the Red Cross, the largest of the relief organizations, bear this out. Red Cross spokesman Mitch Hibbs says the organization has received pledges of more than $560 million to help the victims of the New York and Washington attacks. Overall, there have been $1.2 billion in pledges of aid.

The Red Cross last week stopped fund-raising for victims of the attacks, saying the money pledged should be enough to cover its relief efforts. Hibbs says those efforts have included assistance to more than 23,000 families for needs such as rent payments, funeral expenses, and memorial services. He says more than 2,000 Red Cross workers remain on duty in New York, many of them volunteers. The effort, Hibbs says, is unprecedented for the organization.

"This is by far and away the largest financial contribution ever made to the Red Cross, this is the largest expenditure made by the Red Cross and I think it's going to probably be the longest [campaign]."

Hibbs says the Red Cross expects to spend about $300 million over the next six months to address the continuing needs arising from the 11 September attacks. He says the organization is holding some of the money in reserve to cover unanticipated needs resulting from the attacks.

Hibbs says terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon for Americans to cope with, but based on the impact of the Oklahoma City attack six years ago, the need for relief assistance will be long-lasting.

"We know there will be emerging needs. Nobody knew that we were still going to be providing mental health counseling in Oklahoma City six years later."

The 1995 terrorist attack on a U.S. federal building in Oklahoma City by an American citizen, Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people, including a number of children in a day-care center. In the aftermath, some of the surviving relatives have committed suicide, marriages have been wrecked, and there have been many cases of lingering depression.