Trying not to think too much, they sift the remains of buildings and people

Click to follow
The Independent US

"I had a body in my truck the other day," says the lorry driver, staring at the horizon.

"I had a body in my truck the other day," says the lorry driver, staring at the horizon. "I didn't know until I emptied the back, but there it was. I don't know if it was a man or a woman. It was too mangled."

This is Fresh Kills, the unfortunately named landfill site receiving the detritus of the World Trade Centre, the remnants of Manhattan's financial guts, its steel, concrete, glass and brick. And what is left of the people who worked there.

All day every day since the twin towers collapsed on 11 September, trucks have been ferrying rubble the 30 miles from lower Manhattan to this 3,000-acre waste site on Staten Island. There have been an estimated 1,000 runs so far; about 200,000 will be needed.

Driving these rigs is a job that is taking its toll on ordinary men – it seems to be almost exclusively men – who have had no training in death and who probably never expected that any driving job outside the funeral business would involve hauling cadavers.

"I try not to think about it too much," said the driver who found the body. "I try not to look over my shoulder. It's important that we get on and clear up and start all over again, so I know it's worthwhile. But the idea that I got dead people in the back, or parts of dead people, is driving me crazy.

"I can't watch television any more. I go down to the site and I try not to see too much but you can't help it. My wife says she's worried about me, about what I'm seeing, about whether another building will fall down and hit me. I think I'm OK, but we have all been told we can have counselling if we feel we need it."

The fact that an entire body was found is further evidence of what Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been reluctant to say so far; that this is no longer a rescue operation. If it were, more care would have been exercised in scooping away the rubble.

Fresh Kills derives its name from the waterways and channels around it; kil is a Dutch word for channel or stream. It was closed down last year but reopened to deal with this disaster. Police have cordoned off the main entrance to keep ghouls and rubberneckers at bay, but the drivers are usually happy to give you five minutes of their time on the way out. For some, talking about the job seems to help.

"I've been lucky," said one driver in a large Mack rig. "I haven't been carrying anything too horrible – or at least the guys in there haven't told me if they found anything after I'd gone. But one of the guys had an arm with a watch still attached to it last week. What can you say?

"The way I deal with it is by thinking that for every body part we bring here, there can be an identification and someone's poor relatives can at least get confirmation that this guy or this woman is dead, and then they can start to get some closure."

Inside the compound, with massed gulls circling overhead, there are reports of up to 800 people being involved in sifting the loads, including FBI agents in white overalls, purple respirators and yellow boots. They have found everything from firefighters' helmets and police officers' guns to compacted cars and severed heads.

"I had a foot in a load the other day," said one trucker from the TNP Trucking Company. "It's freaking some of the guys out, but it doesn't bother me. It's just another job. You try not to think about it too much, you go home, hug your wife, your kids and you feel better.

"Everybody is saying we gotta get back to normal. Well you can't do that until you clear up the mess those bastards left behind. That's the way that I look at it. I'm on of the guys getting us back on our feet. If it means I got a dead body in the back, then I'll carry a dead body. Period."

No one inside the compound would talk about their job. They work their 12-hour shifts in silence. There is no laughter here, no one cheering from the sidelines, no restaurants turning up to hand out free food. There is just a job that has to be done out of sight, a job all of us would rather not dwell on for too long.