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Keys to Lost Dreams

July 21, 2002

In the end, as we might predict if we could bear to anticipate, it is the little things that loom largest. This past week they finished sifting through 1.6 million tons of debris from the World Trade Center. That's 3,200,000,000 pounds of matter from two immense office towers, two giant airliners and all the lives within them.

For 10 months, workers at an abandoned Staten Island garbage dump combed through everything hauled from the disaster site. Nearly 20,000 human body parts rest in cold storage for identification. So far, remains of fewer than half the 2,823 victims have been identified. The medical examiner hopes, ultimately, to ID 2,000, or 70%, of them, a gruesome task but one that can bring comfort to so many waiting families.

Due to the force of the explosions and the power of the collapses, which turned reinforced concrete into talcum-like dust, the workers found little recognizable--not a desk, not a single chair, not even a complete desk phone. Nothing they came upon wouldn't fit in a desk drawer. They found thousands of personal items, more than 75,000 of them, enough to barely fill a modest garage. A few things were returned to survivors, folks who fled in time. But most await connection with possibly unidentifiable owners.

The items are mostly small stuff, normal everyday things from the pockets, purses and desks of people, many of whom no longer exist. Some paperweights, pagers, loose change, combs and baseballs. More than 400 watches, some ticking, some that stopped when the buildings fell. Some items are weird: no wallets or purses but numerous credit cards--and baby photos--that survived while massive steel beams melted.

They also found 119 earrings.

Those of us who were mere witnesses to the awful events need know no one who was actually there to grasp the power within such tiny items. Everyone who has ever lost anyone loved, even to natural causes, has gone through a drawer later and unexpectedly come upon a driver's license with a face from before. Or maybe it was a watch from a familiar wrist and another time; the watch can no longer keep time but no one can discard it. Or a birthday card you once sent with a forgotten sentiment that apparently became someone else's timeworn treasure in silent storage.

As witnesses we need not touch or see those little items to imagine and understand their big power. They are, to be sure, just things. But in the end, it turns out these little things are not mere lost items. They're important keys into the memories of those now gone.

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