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Dreadful dust

Posted by Richard on September 11, 2011

For the last five years, as September 11 approached, I've reread Gerard Van der Leun's Of a Fire in a Field. It's mostly about the film United 93 and the heroes of that flight, and it's a beautifully written essay that I urge you to read (or reread) in its entirety.

But there's one passage about being in New York in the days after 9/11 that, after many repetitions, still tears me up inside like it did the first time I read it. 

Inside the wire under the hole in the sky was, in time, a growing hole in the ground as the rubble was cleared away and, after many months, the last fire was put out. Often at first, but with slowly diminishing frequency, all the work to clear out the rubble and the wreckage would come to a halt.

The machinery would be shut down and it would become quiet. Across the site, tools would be laid down and the workers would straighten up and stand still. Then, from somewhere in the pile or the pit, a group of men would emerge carrying a stretcher covered with an American flag and holding, if they were fortunate, a body. If they were not so fortunate the flag covering over the stretcher would be lumpy, holding only portions of a body from which, across the river on the Jersey shore, a forensic lab would try to make an identification and then pass on to the victim's survivors something that they could bury.

I'm not sure anymore about the final count, but I am pretty sure that most families, in the end, got nothing. Their loved ones had all gone into the smoke and the dust that covered the end of the island and blew, mostly, across the river into Brooklyn where I lived. What happened to most of the three thousand killed by the animals on that day? It is simple and ghastly. We breathed them until the rains came and washed clean what would never be clean again.

As I read that, my body tenses, it feels like there's a weight on my chest, and I find it hard to breathe, as if I too were inhaling that dreadful dust. 

It's a difficult experience. But I repeat it each year, sometimes two or three times. It never gets any easier, and it shouldn't. I think it's important to remember these things.

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