First burials in New York as death toll climbs

Ground Zero
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The Independent US

With lower Manhattan's skies still filled with smoke from the smouldering wreckage of the World Trade Centre and with rescuers still engaged in a desperate search for possible survivors, America yesterday started burying the dead from last week's attack.

In the first services of what will total thousands, senior firemen William Feehan and Peter Ganci were buried. Earlier, former President Bill Clinton, his wife New York Senator Hillary Clinton and their daughter Chelsea attended the funeral of the Rev Mike Judge, a chaplain with the New York Fire Department who died of a heart attack on Tuesday as he was performing the last rites on a firefighter.

Mrs Clinton, addressing the mourners, said she knew Father Judge. Hearing of his death made the attacks personal for her. "It will take a very long time before any of us find the words to express what this cowardly, evil act meant and did to the people we loved and to our city and our country," she said.

At the service, led by New York's Cardinal Edward Egan and attended by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Fr Brian Jordan said of the fire department chaplain: "The best way to describe him was your ultimate Irishman from Brooklyn – a warm, loving personality, and at the wake service last night everyone who met him said they felt like his best friend."

In Washington, a memorial service was held for the lawyer and television commentator Barbara Olson, wife of the US Solicitor General Ted Olson. Mrs Olson was on the hijacked airliner that was flown into the Pentagon and phoned her husband from the plane before it struck. She asked him: "What should I do?" Rescuers in Washington DC said yesterday that they had reached the core of the Pentagon crash site and expected to pull out many bodies.

By yesterday morning, 152 bodies had been recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Centre, with 92 identified; the number of missing people jumped to 4,972 from 4,700. The death toll at the Pentagon crash site stood at 189.

As the dead were buried, the search for any possible survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Centre continued as it has done since Tuesday morning: with cranes and bulldozers lifting away the heaviest pieces of debris, and bare hands lifting plastic buckets of stinking rubbish to pass them along human chains stretched across the site.

The rescuers are working around the clock, having to contend with wreckage and rubble that is still very hot: the jet fuel and rubbish compacted beneath 1.25m tonnes of steel and concrete burn slowly, but at a high temperature. But five days after this glittering symbol of American might was reduced to waste, the biggest battle being fought by the rescuers is increasingly one between hope and a reality that no one wants to consider.

In New York, only five survivors have been lifted from the rubble alive, and that was days ago. The microphones being used to listen for tapping noises that might indicate a sign of life are picking up nothing. "I was saying to myself, 'Give us some sound. Give us some sound'," said Fred Medins, one of the volunteers. But each time someone thought they heard a faint cry for help, he said, it would turn to nothing.

Another volunteer, Peter, had caught a few hours' sleep on Friday night bedding down next to his brother on a pavement close to the search site so that they could return swiftly to their labours. He added: "It's rough in there, but this should not have happened at all. The stuff we are seeing is not good." That was an understatement. Amid the rubble at Ground Zero – which people are now calling Ground Hero in tribute to the thousands of police, firefighters, National Guardsmen and volunteers – are things no one ought to witness.

One rescuer said he found the body of one of the American Airlines flight attendants with her hands bound together. Another said he found the remains of people strapped to what appeared to be their airline seats. Among the 13,000 tonnes of debris that have been loaded onto trucks and driven to the ironically named Fresh Kills landfill site at Staten Island, 400 body parts were recovered. And in terms of searching through the rubble, it is worth bearing in mind that these are still early days: there will be much more horror to come.

Amazingly perhaps, amid all this, people are still forcing themselves to hope, forcing themselves to believe a miracle could happen. After all, in 1995 didn't a 19-year-old South Korean clerk survive for 16 days after the store she worked in collapsed? Didn't a cook trapped by the Philippines earthquake in 1990 survive in an air pocket for 14 days while 1,650 others perished? And who can forget that eight-day-old baby who was lifted alive from the rubble of Mexico City Hospital, where the infant had been born the day before and which had then been destroyed by an earthquake?

One of hundreds of people still hoping is Wendy Doremus. She went on national television yesterday to talk about her husband William Boggart, a freelance photographer who had rushed to the World Trade Centre after the first plane was flown into it on Tuesday morning. Ms Doremus had spoken to her husband before the second plane struck. "He said he was with the firefighters," she said. "I cannot believe that when the second plane struck he would not have got out of the way."

Others are hoping that loved ones are lying in hospitals somewhere, alive but possibly too shocked or stunned to be able to identify themselves. Who has the right, or indeed the desire, to explain that such scenarios are increasingly unlikely and that it is most likely more suffering and grief, rather than joyous reconciliation, that lie ahead?

Just how many Britons are among the dead and missing is unclear. Officially 100 are unaccounted for, though many believe this figure will rise to several hundred as the days continue – a number that would constitute the largest single number of British casualties since the Second World War.

What is without doubt is that however desperate it all may be, the search and recovery operation will continue until every piece of rubble, every corpse and every body part is recovered. There is no shortage of volunteers: officials are now having to turn away offers of help as there is only limited space to work in.