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Berger’s Burg: America’s challenge: Be more loving, caring

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Silence the pianos and with muffled drum,

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

By Alex Berger

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum,

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

W.H. Auden wrote that poem many years ago after the death of a close friend. It expresses similar feelings of millions of mourners for the thousands of victims who perished in the World Trade Center attack one year ago. It was indeed a ruthless byway on the road of life.

The incident was beyond my comprehension and, at the time, I believed, that “nothing now can ever come to any good” because of this cruel and heinous act. But, 12 months later, I can envision that this evil episode presents a new challenge for America — the opportunity to come together and become a more caring and loving nation.

I was plunking away on my computer writing my next column when Gloria excitedly informed me of the first plane that crashed into the WTC. I was at a critical point in my story and not wanting to lose my train of thought, I continued writing. I thought it was an airplane that accidentally crashed into the WTC, such as the one that struck the Empire State Building in 1945. But when I was told of the second plane hitting, I immediately ran to the television and watched the surreal scenes of death and destruction that was taking place before my eyes.

To this day I find it very difficult to write my usual humorous column. Yes, Sept. 11, 2001 changed America forever. It affected people from all walks of life. From the relatives and friends of the victims who lost husbands and wives; mothers and fathers; and children, who would never return home that day to the people whose mundane appointments had to be canceled, travel arrangements scrambled, and of course, firefighters, police officers, EMS workers and civilians who scratched and clawed in an attempt to save others. Out of this turmoil, the “9/11” saga produced extraordinary stories and I have a few to share with you.

“Jim” was driving to his office early that morning when he saw smoke rising from the WTC. He called a friend to inquire about it. The friend was speechless. He had been watching live pictures of the second plane hitting the WTC, then another plane smashing into the Pentagon and then still another plane going down in Pennsylvania.

When “Jim” was told of these catastrophes, he and his friend thought the world was coming to an end. Both trembled as they realized that their country was now at war.

“Jack,” was scheduled to attend a business-breakfast at the Windows on the World, a restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center. The night before the attack the breakfast function luckily had been canceled. “Jack” proceeded to call as many of his friends as he could, informing them not to come in for the breakfast. Unfortunately, 43 others hadn’t received the call and lost their lives.

“Dick,” a close friend of mine, lost his 31-year-old son in the conflagration. Rather than react with hate and anger, he simply went to church and prayed for peace among all peoples.

“Vincent,” a policeman, volunteered to help sift through the debris in an effort to collect body parts, personal articles and other evidence from the 1.6 million tons at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. He will never forget many of his grisly finds — a piece of intestine snatched away by a hungry seagull, a fragmented tooth and bone, and a woman’s closed fist holding a child’s hand. “Vince,” despite the horrific scene around him, came to the site, day after day, sorting through the tons of debris for ten months.

“Maria” was sitting nervously alongside me at the dentist’s office. I engaged her in conversation and our discussion turned to the WTC disaster. “Maria” said that she was in the WTC building at the moment the planes struck and saw people jumping out the windows. She was very fortunate to return home physically unharmed. She was concluding her Master’s Degree studies and was able to suppress the WTC memories. However, after obtaining her degree, the enormity of the tragedy finally set in and she suffered a mental breakdown. “Maria” is still being treated for her condition.

Although a year has passed, there still is WTC business remaining — the identification of nearly 20,000 recovered body parts of victims waiting to be identified by the New York City medical examiners (pathologists, forensic dentists, fingerprint analysts and DNA specialists). They are searching for something identifiable, such as an inscribed wedding ring or a set of genetic markers. Slowly but surely, they succeeded in identifying around l,000 of the more than 2,000 victims.

Relatives of the identified victims are given the recoverable portion of their loved ones for burial. The others, who still are waiting are requested to provide DNA samples and personal items to help in the identification search. A DNA hotline has been set up and has received more than 6,300 calls.

The thousands of body parts that have not been identified or returned to family members are preserved in a giant dehumidifier chamber. This is done to stem decomposition and protect the DNA. Descriptions and case numbers for the flood of body parts are carefully logged in a thick ledger. Each piece, such as “right foot,” “fragmented spine” and “rib muscle” is treated individually. They look for clues such as an old fracture, a steel screw in a hip or a clothing label, or anything that might reveal “Who are you?” A second ledger now is in use. This is the most ambitious forensic investigation in history.

A police officer and a detective from the Missing Persons Bureau are assigned to follow a body part as it passes before the eyes of the examiners. It does not leave the escort’s sight until it is stored in one of the refrigerated trailers parked in a Manhattan lot known as Memorial Park.

The city marked the end of its efforts to recover human remains from the rubble at the landfill on July 15; however, the identifying of recovered body parts will continue. It is unclear what will happen to the remains never identified or claimed. It is likely they will be interred beneath a memorial of some kind. Sept. 11 now will be known as Patriot Day. President Bush signed the legislation in honor of those killed in the terror attacks.

And so, the dust on the site has settled and the clearance is done. The thousands of crushed vehicles are gone. The mountains of twisted and tortured structural steel that stretched the length of four football fields have been scrapped and recycled. The trucks, backhoes and conveyor belts sit silent and still. All but a few stray mounds of the dirt and pulverized concrete have been returned to an indifferent earth, whose soiled mass tells no stories of the tragedy plowed beneath it.

There are competing plans for what to build on the 16-acre site. Don’t expect plans that reflect the historic magnitude of last year’s catastrophe. And, you will not find any sign of recognition that Ground Zero has become a tragic symbol. What you will see are proposals for real estate development. They range from a small memorial park with a cloned WTC to one with a large memorial park, and most everything in-between. I leave that decision to others.

I know that we have experienced the worst of humanity. Over time the wounds of the landscape will be healed, but the wounds in many hearts may never lessen over time. I know I can’t and won’t ever forget it.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, ext. 140.

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