Four days after the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, clouds of smoke and dust could still be seen more than a mile north of the crash site.
Closer in, past the roadblocks manned by dozens of policeman, FBI officers, and army officials, the streets on Saturday were eerily deserted. Dozens of emergency vehicles sped by, sometimes interspersed with canvassed army trucks carrying stone-faced soldiers deep into ground zero.
Civilians, though stopped at Canal Street, still remained to cheer for the rescue workers as they left the area. An unexpected camaraderie had developed among the spectators, perhaps spurred by a shared pride in their country. American flags were everywhere, and T-shirts memorializing the attack were being sold, $5 for one, or $8 for two. With a sense of humor and timing, one man carried a homemade poster of Osama bin Laden with a dart on his forehead and a caption that read: "Yo Mamma, Osama."
But there was no excitement on the faces of those who had been to the destruction site, those who had spent the past four days crawling in the rubble, trying to find survivors. On their tired faces, one could only find a weary acknowledgment of duty.
The security was tight. Only residents and rescue workers could get past Canal Street, which is at least ten blocks away from the site. Beyond that, in a series of six official checkpoints, police and army officials allowed only certified rescue workers through. With a lot of luck and the aid of an authorized rescue worker, a civilian--or a member of the press--might make it to the site where the towers once stood.
Seen at night, under the harsh industrial fluorescent lighting provided for the rescue workers, the huge extent of the destruction was clear. Smoking piles of twisted metal and shattered concrete littered block after city block. Hundreds of relief workers, firefighters, volunteers, and army officials crowded the area. The dust, possibly laced with asbestos, still hung heavily in the air, and the supply of filter masks had dwindled low. Even hard hats, necessary to protect against falling debris, were difficult to find.
Despite the conditions, rescue workers continue to search for survivors. Their stories have become the story of this disaster, part of the very human effort to salvage any life from these ruins.
When one rescue worker, United States Marshal Matthew Fogg, first saw the plane crash into the towers on television, he thought it looked like a "trial run ... like what we do in law enforcement. I'm thinking that this is just [like] a mock terrorist act, ... a good training film." He had come up from the Washington, D.C. area on Monday with a friend, but Tuesday's events cut short his plans for a vacation.
"I felt an obligation to go in there and help out," Fogg said. By Wednesday, he was involved in the heart of the search-and-rescue effort, desperately helping other volunteers try to find any survivors buried in the mounds of rubble. They found far more bodies than survivors. He spent his days doing a "little of everything," he said, including digging and helping to cart away the debris.
He spent most of his time, however, searching through the rubble. In a typical rescue operation, the volunteers spend hours tunneling under the debris, trying to find pockets of space where there still might be survivors. Tied together by rope, they crawl in as far as they can go, bringing a dog with them to sniff out any bodies. Then they yell into the hole, telling anyone who can hear them to tap three times on the metal. All equipment is shut off, and everyone in the area falls silent while the rescue workers listen with stethoscopes for any tapping. Every once in a while, someone will tap back. In fact, one firefighter, rescued on Wednesday, was able to walk out by himself.
But those kinds of rewards are rare. "We've been finding limbs, fingers, hands," Fogg said. So far, there have been far more bodies than survivors, and after so many days spent lying in the rubble, the bodies are beginning to decay. That, he said, has been the most difficult thing for him to handle. When the bodies, many of them crushed and mangled beyond recognition, are recovered, the smell of decay lingers in the air.
With the official count of people "missing" in the disaster totaling over five thousand, it is hard not to hope that there will be more survivors. While Fogg does not want to be overly pessimistic, he is cautious in his assessment of the chances of survival. "Everyday that goes by," he said, "the chances of surviving are smaller."
Still, so many in this city cling to that desperate hope. The fire station on 8th Ave. and 49th St. lost fifteen firefighters in the disaster, the most of any single station in the city. On Saturday night, huge crowds gathered around a makeshift shrine. Hundreds of candles and flowers spilled onto the sidewalk beneath photographs of the fifteen men.
Inside the station, wives, sisters, and girlfriends desperately awaited any news of firefighters' survival. An incredible amount of food decorated every available surface, and they generously offered it to any rescue worker who passed through, but it seemed that there would never be enough people to eat it all. Some watched the news, but most were listening to Fogg's description of the rescue effort. When he was about to leave, one woman grabbed his sleeve, unmindful of the gray dust caked on his clothes.
"Any today?" she asked.
Fogg was silent for a moment before shaking his head. "Not today," he said.
Hope is what drives the rescue workers to keep coming back. Some have pushed themselves to exhaustion, and a few have even suffered mental breakdowns, but still they return to the site day after day. In the kitchen of that fire station, looking at the hope on those women's faces, the reason is clear.
"We all keep thinking that there is someone there, waiting on us," Fogg said.