British consulate becomes centre for relief efforts

Missing Persons
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The Independent US

When the lift doors open on the tenth floor of 845 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, the first thing a visitor sees is a large photograph of the Statue of Liberty dwarfed by the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The shock of the image makes you stand still long enough to have to stop the lift doors closing.

You are in the British Consulate-General, a place normally reserved for people who have lost passports or for businessmen thinking of investing in "Cool Britannia", but a place that has become a hive of frenzied and selfless activity.

It is here that efforts to help Britons bereaved or traumatised by the atrocities have been co-ordinated. Round the clock, staff – and their spouses – have been taking calls, giving help and grimly compiling a list of the 300 Britons thought to have died in the tragedy. At their head is the consul, Patrick Owens.

Mr Owens, 48, represented British interests in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and in Albania, from where he evacuated Britons under fire when the country imploded during the 1997 pyramid scandal. But yesterday, even he admitted nothing could have prepared him for the events of last week.

He said: "As an experienced consular officer, I am trained to deal with difficult situations, but a thing of this magnitude, this enormity, not just over the Brits but all the thousands of others, is very traumatic indeed. My staff have been exceptional. They have been working in shifts round the clock to help as many British people as we can.

"Some of the calls they have had to take have been very upsetting but I have to say they have all, especially the younger ones, been bloody marvellous and I am very proud of them."

When the scale of the disaster became apparent, the consulate-general staff had an emergency centre running within an hour. An office that usually processes hundreds of visa applications a day became a call-centre where details were taken of missing people. Hundreds more Britons who were on holiday contacted the emergency room after losing possessions, money and passports in the explosions.

While staff normally replace up to 10 passports a week, they issued 150 in the first few days. The bleaker side of the job was dealing with Britons living in New York desperate to find loved ones and friends. Staff trawled hospitals, worked with New York police and regularly visited a centre set up as a clearing house for lost-and-found people.

Mostly, there is no good news to pass on; occasionally, there is. "There was one man staying in the Marriott hotel who popped down for breakfast in a T-shirt and some shorts when he heard the planes crash into the twin towers," said Mr Owens. "He had a bit of money in his back pocket and thought he'd better get out of there. Somehow, he ended up in New Jersey and it was a couple of days before we could find him and reunite him with his wife. That was very pleasant, but there have not been many of those." Each time Mr Owens' staff establish that someone is missing, the details are passed back to London and on to a local police station. From there, a team of police family-liaison officers are dispatched to break the news and to ask the family of the missing person to fill in a seven-page form drawn up by the NYPD to help to find or identify victims.

In an admission that most of the victims will be unrecognisable at best, and vaporised at worst, families are also being asked for dental and medical records and a sample of saliva that can be sent to New York to help in DNA identification tests. Ideally, mothers, fathers or siblings must give a sample, but if that is not possible, partners are asked to provide an item that might hold DNA – a toothbrush, comb or lock of hair.

This week, the workload will become even more frenzied as the bereaved arrive from Brit-ain. "People are bound to react differently to the circumstances," said Mr Owens. "We want this to be a cathartic experience for them but it is bound to be traumatic for some."