“The Seldom Heard 911 Story”
Mention the Fresh kills landfill in the same sentence with 911 and most civilians and some cops will look at you and have no idea what your talking about. For me the story is fresh in my minds eye. You wake at 3:00am, grab a huge cup of coffee, jump in the car and leave Your home in beautiful Orange County. You cruise south on the NYS thruway, then onto 17 south through New Jersey in the dark. You make the two hour ride out to the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. You arrive and park your car at the bottom of this monstrosity of a hill. Your in work cloths and construction boots. Boots you received months prior at ground Zero while working around the pile. Boots you got for free from Stanley Tools who donated hundreds of boots to first responders and I am forever grateful to stanley. Not only for the actual boots but I’m thankful for the thought of a company willing to lend a hand by supplying first responders with simple supplies to help them perform.
At the bottom of the landfill your directed to a makeshift bus stop where other detectives in work cloths are waiting. Every so often you may catch a familiar face but most are strangers, but still brothers. Detectives from other commands and boroughs. Its hard to explain the feeling of being a brother to a total stranger. A stranger who shares your same struggles and who understands being a cop. Every thing is mud and gravel at the landfill and In some spots it’s both mud and gravel. An old bus comes down the hill and everyone hops on. The bus takes you up a long winding road to the top of the land fill. Up on top your told to get off. There are a couple of make shift structures, and some military dome structures with ventilators feeding fresh filtered air into the domes. There is a structure marked morgue. Your fitted with a white tyvek type suit, a respirator mask and some goggles as well as given work gloves. Your told at that time that your working a twelve hour shift. You are going over to a sifter and given a number corresponding to the sifter your assigned too and pointed in a general direction. The orders are that you are not allowed to leave the sifters unless someone relieves you and takes your place. You will be sent relief for a short break at mid morning, for lunch at midday and maybe another short break mid afternoon. You are told that barges are bringing rubble across the bay from the World Trade Center site and dumping it at the bottom of the landfill where it will be trucked up to your sifter and others manned by other detectives. All except the very large pieces will be loaded on the bottom of your huge sifter which would normally be used for recycling garbage but as of now it’s being used to look for body parts and human remains. Your told you will have two buckets next to you. Body parts go into one bucket and personal property, pictures, wallets, work IDs, etc. go into the second bucket. When you are relieved on break you bring the bucket with what ever you found to the morgue/evidence collection building.
The Fresh Kills Landfill had been Capped earlier the year before. It was no longer being used for garbage collection. A thick membrane was placed over the mounds of garbage and tons of top soil placed over the membrane. The landfill had been temporarily reopened that year as a search station in an effort to search and recover remains of 911 victims and to sort through the rubble for evidence. Everything on the hill was soil and earth with huge dump trucks driving up and down the dirt roads delivering and removing debris to and from the search areas. The dump trucks are huge with tires as tall as a man. You make your way to you designated sifter. When you arrive you can’t believe the size of the contraptions. You see one fellow detective looking and waiting to be relieved by you. On the other side there is another tired looking detective waiting for his relief. The noise from the sifters is deafening. The detective shakes your hand then takes his buckets leaves you the two empty buckets and is off and gone at the blink of an eye. You stand there on a makeshift scaffolding watching him quickly walk across the field like he is trying to escape something. For a moment he turns and looks over at you but keeps walking. The sun is just beginning to peak over the horizon. You muse over the sifter with it’s attached conveyor belt. The whole machine is vibrating violently breaking apart The debris as its approaches you on the conveyor belt. You have a precious few seconds to spot something important before it passes, and then is gone and falls over the back edge of the conveyor into a pit where a back hoe operator clears what has been all ready looked at.
Luckily for you, you bought along a Walkman to listen to music and drawn out the noise. It’s hard to recall now whether it was a cassette player or a CD Walkman, not really important but amusing that you can’t even remember but remember other things so vividly. You stand there head down looking at the rubble coming past you. Plumes of dust comes off the debris from the vibration directly into your face. You can still smell it, even with the mask on, you know the smell from working at ground Zero months earlier. Years later you notice the same smell every time you climb the drop down stairs and enter your home attic where you stored old 911 clothing, helmet, gloves and boots. The smell is chalky, synthetic, damp, almost like glass if glass had a smell. The dust clings to everything. You eventually remove all the old equipment from your attic and dump it. You do it because You don’t like the place that the scent brings you back to. Back at the landfill you wonder how much dust is being stopped by the mask your wearing and more importantly how much your breathing in. The whole task is daunting, morbid and depressing. The loosened debris comes by you mixed in with the concrete, rebar, mud, dirt, office furniture parts, clothing and every so often an employee ID card with a photo of a smiling man or women from perhaps Duetch Bank or a myriad of other financial companies who rented office space in one of the towers. You try to keep your cool and stay focused. But you can’t help to think if this person survived or is he or she gone forever. You pick up the ID cards and put them in bucket #2. Then for a long period of time nothing but rubble comes by and then pow like a slap in the face another photo of a face looking up at you. A short time later a mans shoe, then a baseball cap then a women’s shoe then a child’s doll with blond hair and crystal blue eyes. Everything is covered In suet and mud. You don’t know how your ever going to recognize a body part when everything is covered with suet. Your cold and at times tremble uncontrollably. You are tired, tired is an understatement, your back and shoulders ach, you try to stay strong. On break you enter a makeshift mess hall. You have to undress and leave your outer shell outdoors as well as scrub your boots before entering. The mess hall is a dome tent. The air is somehow purified or filtered and fed into the tent. There is some food as well as snacks and snack bars for you to have. A sign over the snacks cautions you not too consume it outside the tent. Time resting goes quick. In the blink of an eye your on the sifter again. It’s hard to stay upbeat. Looking down at the conveyor belt for hours on end looking at personal artifacts of someone who has basically been pulverized is depressing. thoughts keep creeping into your head, no good thoughts for that matter. Just imagine every hurtful and depressing incident from child hood to the present coming back to you at that moment. Everything from your first girlfriend heartbreak, to being told your two year old perfect little baby needs glasses and your father having cancer, To all the countless violent acts you have witnessed on patrol. Working the sifter brings all the depressing memories back to you. Your in a perpetual low and at the same time looking at and touching personal items and property on the conveyor of people who quit possibly died during the collapse of the towers. At the end of the shift your relieved by another detective. You don’t waste time, you grab your buckets and are gone like the guy before you in the blink of an eye. You take the two hour drive back home only on the way back it’s rush hour and it takes you three hours. You work the landfill shift once a week every week. As the weeks go by your better prepared and know what to bring to be more comfortable for the long day.
One sunny day while on the sifter something goes by the belt that looks maybe too round and much too perfect to be a rock or a piece of concrete. As it goes by you snatch it out of the rubble barely picking it up before it’s lost forever. You roll it around in your hand and right away know that it is a human joint, the head not the socket. It’s perfectly free of flesh like it’s been exposed to some serious heat. You notice the underside is sheared off and notice the bones honeycombing that you expect to see at the inside of bone. The first thing that comes to mind is that it resembles the head of a humorous at the shoulder. I look up across the sifter and my counterpart detective is looking up at me. I motion moving my shoulder signaling him I’ve found remains and I think it’s part of an arm or shoulder. He is an anonymous detective from god knows what command. But he is like me, he probably left his own family in the dark to come here and do a terrible job and will probably reach home past dark and will be entirely exhausted emotionally, physically and mentally, and he will not get any recognition for what he is doing at the landfill but it doesn’t matter to him because he doesn’t require any. but thru his mask I can see a smile appear and he gives me a big thumbs up that I have never forgotten. Now years later with some medical training I realize what I found was a femoral head sheared off at the neck. A few weeks later while working at the landfill I am relieved to go for lunch and while walking to the mess hall tent across an open field I trip over a stick poking out of the ground just next to a road the dump trucks use. At first I just keep walking and shake my head. As I keep walking something stops me in my tracks. Call it intuition, call it what ever you like but something or someone has got a hold of me and is not letting me leave the spot. I walk back a few yards to the spot Where I tripped. I thought to myself “Hey this ground is capped and there should be no stick or roots coming up through the soil” upon looking down a white object is sticking up from the soil. Upon reaching it and picking it up I noticed i have found a rib. I walk straight to the morge and hand it over and am told “Hey thats a human rib! Probably fell off one of the dump trucks bringing up debris”.
My time at the landfill and at ground Zero although physically and emotionally taxing has served to strengthen me to this day. It has been stated that over 4,000 human artifacts were recovered during the recovery efforts at the Fresh Kills landfill leading to DNA matches to some 300 victims of 911. I am hopping that I was instrumental in helping a wife, daughter, mother or brother get closure with this tragic ordeal by helping Identify at least one victim through remains I recovered at the landfill. Those days spent on the hill will always be with me.
Retired NYC Detective
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