A WTC Story

by Anne Azel

People ask her what it is like down there. "It's alive," she tells them. That shocks. It seems disrespectful that she should talk of life in a scene of such devastation. Hundreds died here in just a short few minutes, their lives and names stripped away. It is her job to help give them back their names. To bring some closure and start the healing of their families' grief.

Mostly that meant identification work in the lab but sometimes, as a forensic expert, she has to be there to try to piece together what happened. To find answers for next time. There is always a next time.

"It is alive", she says. The mask and breathing apparatus do not seal out the stink. Behind the smell of the new plastic of her mask, there is the acidic-damp stench of wet cement, burnt plastic, smoldering fiberglass, and dust. It is the body odor of disaster. She knows it well.

She and the firefighters who will lead the way, get down on their knees one at a time. She wonders if they each pray. The words of prayer come uninvited to her lips. On hands and knees, she is a pilgrim entering a holy shrine. They follow the ropes, the veins that stretch from one level to another. Sometimes, they squeeze around metal girders or slide down dust covered slabs of concrete. The steel and cement are broken bones and muscles highlighted by their probes out of the darkness. Other times, they enter voids where life has frozen in a historic snapshot. A store, a desk, a newspaper stand - September 11th, an early morning edition that has missed the news.

She hears its life force. The steady drip, drip, drip of water, its heart beat. The groan and crack as stiff joints settle in more comfortable locations, and off in the distance still, the soft breath of fire.

She has touched a thousand dead and yet, she will tell you it is alive. She feels its pain and its struggle to survive. It's alive with a thousand souls, their lives, futures and dreams. It is a harsh reality down there but not a sad one. What is important was not killed. It will always be alive, this place, these souls, a monument to the price of freedom.

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