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SEPT. 11

One Bone of 206

A Mother and Two Relatives Struggle to Make Sense of the Unthinkable in a Mission to New York

September 08, 2002|KATE AXELROD | Kate Axelrod is a Los Angeles television writer, most recently on the HBO series "The Mind of the Married Man."

The chief medical examiner's office on 1st Avenue and 30th Street in Manhattan is stark and somber. It is the place where those who've lost relatives come in hopes of identifying loved ones.

I have traveled to New York with my 88-year-old grandmother, May, and her 88-year-old cousin, Matty. Matty's 55-year-old son, Barry, was an executive at the Port Authority, which managed the World Trade Center. His title was risk manager. He was in charge of insurance-related issues for the skyscrapers. His office was on the 63rd floor of the north tower. He perished Sept. 11.

May can barely hear and Matty can barely see, so, I am their ears and eyes. Matty, who has now outlived both her children, has come here to see whether there is anything more she can learn of her son's death.

In a small conference room, a medical examiner sits with us at a circular table. In his hand is Barry's file. In life, Matty's son wore a gracious smile and oversize bifocals. Now he is known by three numbers: a "P" number, assigned from a police report on his missing status; an "RM" number, which will correlate with any of his remains found; and a "DM" number, which, in this case, denotes the single body part actually identified.

It is, the file says, his right humerus bone--the long bone extending from the shoulder to the elbow. This is all that is left: one bone of 206. No skin, no muscle, no organ, no face. One bone. And it is charred.

"How exactly did he die?" Matty wants to know. "I have so many images running through my mind; can you put them to rest with the facts?" An assistant explains that "we can't make that specific determination from such a small amount of remains."

The medical examiner skims Barry's file, and out of the corner of her blind eye Matty stares at him. I am convinced that she and I are thinking the same thing--that file is rather thick for the thin amount of information being imparted.

"Can I take a look at that?" I ask. We didn't travel all this way--Matty has come from Florida by train, picking up May in South Carolina on the way, and I have flown from Los Angeles--to leave without knowing all there is to know.

The medical examiner hands me the file without hesitation. It includes:

* A death certificate issued Oct. 12, 2001, despite the absence of any remains. Cause: homicide.

* A document indicating the positive identification of Barry's right humerus bone--from earth transported from ground zero Oct. 7, 2001.

* An amended death certificate dated May 11, 2002, to show a positive DNA identification. This came, we knew, after Matty sent a swab from the inside of her mouth that was matched with marrow from Barry's humerus.

* A document dated May 13, 2002, indicating that Port Authority officers had been dispatched to Barry's home in New Jersey to give the now "official" news to Barry's wife.

There isn't much more in there. And since Barry did not make one of those wrenching cell phone calls, Matty will never know exactly what happened to him. But since the plane hit well above his floor, he probably survived the impact--and remained in the building to help direct emergency operations.

That morning, he probably felt like a captain to his injured ship, not prepared to abandon it unless it was apparently and readily sinking. The tower "sank" in seconds flat--something that was not anticipated by anyone until it happened.

Which is what the assistant now tries to use as some measure of comfort as we leave the medical examiner's building: "The towers fell so fast," she says. "We're certain no one inside knew what hit them."

Matty and May seem clobbered by these words. But I'm sincerely touched that after all this woman has been through, she still cares enough to try to offer solace.

The next day we head for 1 Liberty St.--a building adjacent to ground zero. It received minimal damage and a room on the 20th floor with a bank of windows facing east toward the site has been made into a "family viewing room." The room is large. Every square inch is covered with photos and notes and memorabilia from the lives of the lost. There are Father's Day cards and wedding pictures and programs from memorial services.

Matty stands at the window, looking out onto the site. She is reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. She is racked. Out loud, she asks God why he has done this to Barry, to her. She turns and asks me how this could have happened. I, who am never at a loss for words, have nothing to say. I just stare down at a construction worker, a blip with a hard hat in the 16-acre crater.

Across the room, a woman arranges flowers near the picture of a firefighter. "That's my son-in-law. He and my daughter were married only 11 months. Someone moved my flowers from last week, to make room for their own, but that's OK. That's fine, really it is."

"How is your daughter doing?" I ask. She replies, "Nothing means anything to her anymore."

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