Bereaved Britons arrive to begin their grim task

The Relatives
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The Independent US

They came to find their loved ones, or at least to see where they had died, and before their plane had even touched down they saw for themselves the obscene mangle where the missing were buried, a pulverised concrete tomb that may never give up their remains.

From the air on a clear day such as yesterday, lower Manhattan resembles a cauldron, a bowl of smoke and dust peopled by frantic ants digging with their hands.

For the first of 600 grieving relatives to arrive here, by courtesy of the British Government, it must have been a horrible sight. It was called a mercy flight but there will be at least three. On board, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and spouses sat patiently, enduring a journey they thought they would never have to make. It is unlikely any will ever see whole the person they came to find, but they had to come anyway, for catharsis, for closure.

The flight was scheduled, so the bereaved were mixed with ordinary travellers who looked slightly bewildered to find cameras and reporters to greet them at arrivals. From the off, the grieving passengers were treated with kid gloves and reporters were kept away as they arrived. Staff from the British consulate-general were there to meet them and whisk them off to what has come to be known as the British Family Centre, a hotel on First Avenue normally reserved for UN diplomats.

Flights carrying the relatives landed at JFK airport's terminal four, the Virgin Atlantic building that sparkles with glass and chrome, the dim and dusty terminal seven owned and run by British Airways and the city's other international airport, Newark. The visitors were met by British consular officials in the early evening sunshine. Some of those who will walk this route may have thought they were too old ever to contemplate the frenzy of the Big Apple. Now they will see it by default.

After an hour's journey, the group, numbering five "family units", as consular officials called them, arrived at the Millennium Plaza hotel, a monolithic glass and concrete building formerly known as the UN Plaza because of its proximity to the United Nations itself. Inside, the hotel is a confusing riot of mirrors and garish carpet, its bar a place where diplomats gather and whisper.

With views over the East river and Central Park, it provides the kind of luxury few of those who came would normally enjoy. It was being paid for by the Foreign Office. Two members of each family of the missing are being provided with free flights and three nights' accommodation. But this will be no holiday.

After checking in to the 100 rooms reserved for them at the hotel, the bereaved were introduced to teams of specially trained police family liaison officers and grief counsellors. The teams were assembled last week by Scotland Yard and the Foreign Office, 20 police officers from Kent, Sussex, Essex, Surrey, North Wales, Dorset and Hampshire, and 10 counsellors plucked from the ranks of delegates attending a conference on grief management in London last Saturday.

According to Deputy Chief Superintendent John Godsave, who is co-ordinating the help for the families, they have all had experience of trauma and disaster, including the Omagh bombing and the Aberfan disaster.A quiet and deferential man, Supt Godsave appeared to have been moved by what he has seen so far. "My team and I have been humbled by this," he said. "While we're here, we will strive to support these people and give them any help and comfort they require.

"We will work in threes, two police officers and a counsellor, to make sure that the relatives are never left on their own without support if they want it."

One hotel worker preparing to receive the relatives said: "This is breaking my heart.We knew we had thousands of our own dead but we had no idea there were as many as 300 Brits in there too. It's funny, but you almost feel like apologising to them for what happened because this is your city."

For many, today is expected to be the hardest day. One of the reasons for the visit is to register their loved ones missing at a US family centre situated on Pier 94, a vast former warehouse next to the Hudson river in Hell's Kitchen on the west side of town. Apart from the scene itself, this is perhaps the saddest place in New York. It is here that families will have to bring their loved ones' medical and dental records and a seven-page form produced by the New York Police Department to help to identify remains.

And it is here too that the most horribly personal procedure must take place. Relatives, in particular fathers and mothers of the missing, must give a sample of saliva for DNA testing and they have been asked to bring along something that will contain the DNA of the person they want to find. People here stand in line with toothbrushes, combs, hairbrushes, electric razors and even cigarette butts smoked by the ones they love, and hand them over to a stranger. It is clear from the faces of those who leave that if you have lost someone you love, something as personal as a toothbrush takes on an enormous and desperate importance.

For many, a visit to the site will be necessary to accept what must be difficult to believe at present. For others, it will be a terrible experience, but one that they must endure. Consular officials have been liaising with the police and civic authorities with a view to taking the relatives as close to the site as possible without hampering rescue efforts.

Thomas Harris, the consul general, said: "We will do whatever we can to show them the site, but the rescue operation is paramount and we do not want to do anything to get in the way. None of us has experienced anything like this before, so it's all uncharted territory. All I can promise is that we will do our best to get these people through this."

Tony Blair is due to travel to New York and Washington tomorrow, so there are hopes that he will be able to attend a memorial service being planned for the British victims. In the meantime, at the request of Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador to Washington, a tiny church, Our Lady of the Rosary near the site of the tragedy, is being made available for bereaved Britons who wish to pray.

The priest, Father Peter Meehan, has been busy giving thought to what he will tell the Britons: that they are not alone in their sorrow, that they must be patient as they overcome their trauma, and, perhaps the hardest to grasp at this time: "They should remember that God is there. I will tell them that God is present in the darkness, as well as the light."