A couple of WTC rescue/clean-up questions

I would appreciate your views on two conversations I had over the past two days about events related to 9/11.

My friend and I were discussing the Sunday eve TV show which he watched but I did not. He mentioned how wierd it was seeing firemen on film, and wondering which of them went on to die that day.

I wondered what lessons have been learned concerning the use of emergency personnel in catastropies. As I understand it, out of the 3000+ who died that day, approximately 350 were rescue workers. Does anyone know of any discussion as to the beneficial effect brought about by those valiant souls? Did the efforts of all of the resue workers - including the 350 victims - greatly enhance civilian survival? Could a similar result have been achieved with less loss of rescuers? I am not trying to Monday morning quarterback, and I understand that fire and police personnel have to act under a strong presumption that they can save civilians and improve a situation. But they also have to know when odds are insurmountable.

The second conversation occurred this a.m. with my wife. She was reading the morning paper which said while the cleanup of the site moves ahead swiftly, identification of the victims has been amazingly slow. So far, only 753 of the dead, or about a quarter, have been identified. More than 15,000 body parts have been recovered from the site.

I said, even tho I acknowledged the economic interests of insurance companies in confirming death before making payouts, I did not really understand the need to positively identify the dead. She said that if I were in the building, she would personally feel a need to confirm my death, among other reasons to avoid feeling I had possibly just “taken a powder.” How realistic do you think it is that a significant number of folk pulled Judge Craters and simply walked away from their past lives? Is this of sufficient statistic significance to warrant costly and timeconsuming efforts to genetically attribute specific globs of burned and torn flesh to a particular past individual? I understand that different proples’ personalities and philosophies may make them desirous of certain verification, but I question the time and money that should be spent to attempt to provide such verification.

Damn, can’t figure any way to phrase these questions without sounding like a cold, heartless, disrespectful bastard. I apologize for coming across that way. But I would still appreciate your input.

Point 1 - In hindsight, it is probably correct that not many civilians were saved by the firefighters. BUT, at the time no one was expecting the towers to collapse. If they had not and the firefighters had more time to climb the 80 or so flights of stairs it is likely that they could have saved quite a number of people trapped on upper floors. So with the information they had at the time, I would say that they did the right thing.

Point 2 - I agree that it is unlikely that more than a few (if any) of the missing just decided to take the opportunity to disappear. But that is not the motivation to identify the bodies. In fact, most of the victims who have not been identified have had death certificates issued for them already. The motivation for identification is to provide remains (and closure) to the relatives. I think they would be a huge protest if the identification effort were ended due to the cost. I think that the families would say that the $500,000 cost of providing a month long “tribute of light” should have been cut before stopping identification of remains.

On point 1, I thouroughly agree with rsa. None of the officers in charge expected the towers to collapse, simply because it had never ever happened before during a fire.

Thanks for your responses.

Regarding the need/desire for remains/closure - this is something I personally just do not understand. If I had lost my wife or children in this incident, I cannot imagine that anything would be improved by identifying a mangled piece of flesh or bone as having previously been part of them. To the contrary, I can imagine such a thing as being quite disturbing.

Point 1:
There’s a nasty and cold math to making decisions like this. Rescuers getting killed needlessly happens too often, but it’s so hard to say “Stop. You can’t help”. Who makes the decsion? Who want’s to justify having made the decision. If you don’t let the rescuers folow their insticnts and charge ahead, who’s to say how many may have lived, and how many would’ve died…? Unfortunately (fortunately?), the WTC was a unique event, and nothing the world has ever seen matches it. How would one know the risks? There’s no prior body of knowledge, and no one ever thought to do an analysis on a scenario like the WTC (save for a few Cassandras who were ignored as not credible), so on what basis do you say “No Go”? Now there’s some knowledge, and people will start working-up scenarios for analysis.

When all else is unknown, you gotta go with “Save who you can”. Anything else is unacceptable.

Point 2:
Forensics isn’t like flippin’ a switch. It takes time, and when teh bodies are as decomposed and mutilated as what came out of the WTC, it’s going to take longer. As noted, death certificates have been/are being issued, so the benefits and estate issues are being handled.

Another point: It’s time to dust off the studies on high-rise firefighting and escape systems.

Gech. That was one ugly post.

Too bad you apparently missed Nightline last night, it was an in-depth look the effort to identify the dead, as well as the lesser known effort to simply return people’s personal effects, both to the families of the dead as well as the living survivors. There is a whole system set up in the garbage dump where they are very carefully sifting through the debris to find not only body parts (they have found thousands, and this sifting is after the debris has been examined at the site), but personal effects: Id cards, photographs, jewelry, weapons! (lots of guns) and they have also found about $45,000 in cash ( I don’t know what they are going to do with it).

Koppel made the point that the extraordinary care and sensitvity that is being shown in this case, the time and expense to make sure not to miss anything, is unprecedented in the history of the world, not unlike the attack itself. But he also made the point that if we were to get hit again, it is not likely that that we would continue making these Herculean efforts.

It was also pointed out that the efforts to identify were more about the families than anything else. The insurance companies aren’t insisting on anything; too many people were, to put it bluntly, obliterated, with no traces remaining to be found.

Which was another point that was made: almost nothing of any size has been found intact since the beginning. Not a phone, a keyboard, a filing cabinet, a chair, nothing. Everything in those buildings was smashed to tiny pieces. Including, horribly, the people.


PS: On the same lines as the idea of using the tragedy to “take a powder”, I had an even more dreadful though in the days right after it happened: what if someone really evil decided to kill their wife or husband, get rid of thebody, then claim that they had been in the building? The perfect crime…

Having known people who were in the building that day, I couldn’t make myself watch the TV special. They died once, and that was quite hard enough.

As to identifying the bodies, I know that for many of the dead there is nothing to identify. My brain does know this, rationally, and accepts that. The non-rational part of my brain cannot accept that these people I know ceased to be entirely. Ceased to live it can handle, but it is not dealing well with ‘left nothing behind.’

So it seems I’ve got some turmoil, because I know I’ve got to bury the dead, and because there’s no dead to bury. Sure, there are death certificates, insurance benefits, and all the other things involved in ‘legal death’. What’s not there is the visual confirmation that yes, they’re really gone. They are, and I know it - but it’s incomplete - and I don’t know it.

Hard to explain, I guess, what it is like to accept finality without seeing finality.

Even harder to explain is that I don’t want to see it. I would actually rather they never tell me they identified a friend’s leg or finger - because in some ways I can choose to disbelieve that which I cannot see. The image in my mind of my friends is whole and complete, they’re healthy and intact. And if they have to be dead, perhaps it is better that they are just ‘gone’ than to see that the reality of their deaths was nowhere near so gentle.

I wonder if that made any sense.