As the hours stretch into days, hope dwindles. For the British families waiting for news of their loved ones among the estimated 5,000 missing workers in New York, the silence is deafening.
Separations that began with a wave, a smile, or perhaps a tear are stretching into eternity. Absence yawns.
It would, some said yesterday, be a miracle if the relatives they are looking for were found alive. Miracles do sometimes happen. But like families everywhere, they are bracing themselves for the inevitable.
Norma Selwyn, whose son Howard, 47, was working on the 84th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Centre, spoke for dozens of others whose lives are on hold. "We are in limbo. We cling to the news and wait for a telephone call, but none of it is any good. It is the not knowing which I think is worse," she said.
Her son was on the phone when he was told to evacuate the building. He was making his way down the stairs when he got separated from his colleagues.
His brother Ian, 35, said from the family home in Leeds: "It is the lack of information that is the worst thing. The only thing we are sure about is that he was making his way down from the 84th floor. All we know is he is still unaccounted for. It is still absolute chaos out there."
The Foreign Office said yesterday it would help bereaved families who wished to fly out to New York to do so when security allowed. One option was to use military aircraft. A spokeswoman said: "We are liaising with the Ministry of Defence. We can't say when the flights will happen but we will be talking to the families about what they want and how we can help."
Information is the hardest thing to come by. Few bodies have so far been recovered from the rubble and the waiting families face the possibility that many never will be. Without a body, without proof that a loved one is dead, grieving will be more difficult and the prospect of resolution and recovery more distant.
Rosalind Bergemann, 36, who works for a technology company in Cambridge, initially thought both her father, Tony, and her fiancé, Glenn Webber, had died in the catastrophe. Both men were in the north tower when the first jet struck.
"The worst part was probably when the TV reports showed people jumping from the buildings. I feared one of them could be Glenn or my dad," Ms Bergemann said. Then she got a call from her father. He had been in the foyer of the building just before the attack and was injured in the ensuing confusion. After being treated in hospital, he was discharged.
Ms Bergemann was euphoric, but her euphoria was shortlived. She still did not know what had happened to her fiancé. Glenn, from Wales, was an e-commerce consultant whose office was on the 82nd floor of the north tower – close to where the first jet hit.
"When I heard from my dad I felt better that I didn't have to worry about him. He sounded very shaken but he was all right. All I want now is to hear something so that I know that Glenn is alive. The waiting is terrible. I'm exhausted. I haven't slept at all since it happened," she said.
The uncertainty is hard for adults but it is incomprehensible to children. What do you tell a child who asks: "Is Daddy dead?"
Trudy Freeman, the ex-wife of a 30-year-old options broker, Neil Wright from Tilbury, Essex, gave the only answer possible. "I told him no – we just can't find him," she said.
Mr Wright worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond trading company, which had 1,000 employees in the building.
For some the horror of seeing people trapped on the upper floors – people who will have included their spouses, children or parents – making the ultimate choice between clinging to the burning building or leaping into space, has left them traumatised.
Robert Eaton, 37, who also worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor, had left his American wife, Jacqui, at their home on Long Island on Tuesday morning and is thought to have been at his desk by 9am.
His mother, Laura, of Ditchling, Sussex, had spoken to him two weeks ago and at first when they heard the news they did not think it was his building that had been hit. Only after calling Jacqui did they learn the dreadful truth.
Laura Eaton, who attended yesterday's remembrance service in St Paul's Cathedral with her husband, Doug, said: "He was so near the top we know the chances of him getting out alive were slim. It's terrible to think of him and all those other people desperately trying to get out. His wife is so distressed I can barely understand her on the phone. She still doesn't believe it is true."
Martin Coughlan, 53, a carpenter from Co Tipperary, last spoke to his wife, Catherine, on the phone from the 96th floor of the south tower just after the second hijacked plane plunged into the skyscraper. His sister-in-law, Josie Coughlan, who lives beside the family pub in Cappawhite, Co Tipperary, said: "His wife heard from him just before the block went down. He just said, 'There's been a bomb, the place is covered in smoke and I'm trying to get out.' After that there was nothing."
Since then the family had been plunged into uncertain grief, she said. The family has tried all the hospitals but there has been no news. "It looks bleak," she said.
No news or bleak news. It is not much of a choice. The tally of calls to the Foreign Office's helpline stood yesterday at 18,000 – and rising.Reuse content