Letter From America

The first thing I notice is the smell. It isn't just the caustic scent of burnt steel and jet fuel, familiar from the World Trade Center. It's something human, the odor of death. The next things I notice are the mountains of gray dirt, stretching as far as I can see. A crane scoops from a pile and spreads it out; FBI agents swarm over it with shovels. These aren't mere piles of dirt at all. They are the pulverized remains of the Twin Towers and all that was inside.

Buried in the heaps of rubble is the story of that day--September 11. There are watches that still tick, telling the time. Others do not, like one stopped eerily at 10:08, the moment its wearer's life ended. There are passports, driver's licenses, bracelets, rings, wallets, guns and the broken bronze torso of a man, with no head or feet. It's a Rodin sculpture once on display at Cantor Fitzgerald, the firm that lost hundreds of employees in the tragedy. It lies now on its side, not far from a pile of airplane parts, muddied and weirdly vulnerable, unnervingly human. The detritus of all these lives is overwhelming. Fighting disbelief, I take a deep breath.

It is cold and raining as I begin my tour of the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, the place that's now home to more of the World Trade Center's remains than lower Manhattan. Wreckage from Ground Zero is excavated and brought here to be sorted through and eventually buried. I was one of thousands of people who watched the buildings collapse from just a few blocks away. Now, exactly four months later, here I am watching huge cranes feed their remnants into giant red boxes, called shakers, which separate small pieces from larger chunks. The loud rumble of demolition machinery permeates the air. Front-end loaders scoop pieces from the shakers and dump them into a giant sifting machine. Conveyor belts carry the fragments past law-enforcement agents, who are bending over, hunting for human artifacts. I stand beside them, hoping to pick out a body part, perhaps, or something that might give someone, anyone, a sign of a lost father or wife, lover or son or daughter. But everything that passes by is that same ash gray color, that same chunky dust. However intently I stare, I cannot tell whether I am looking at a rock or a piece of a building or a door hinge or a human bone.

My guide to this netherworld is Richard Marx, an FBI agent from Philadelphia who has been at Fresh Kills almost every day since Sept. 12, building this city of workers and machines to sort the 650 tons of debris that arrive daily by barge, more than a million tons so far. His walnut-colored eyes are glassed with the by-now-familiar look of a person in shock. I can tell instantly that he has seen things at Fresh Kills no person should have to see. We drive through the mazelike streets of the landfill. Gigantic Payhaulers, eight wheels apiece, pass us bearing loads removed from the day's first barge. They turn left at the top of a hill and when I get there I see why. It is a city of the dead, ringed with huge tent-like structures where workers are outfitted with protective suits and respirators. There's a mess hall, toilets and a dozen or so trailers used by federal agencies and the New York Police Department, some of them to decontaminate evidence found at the site.

We get out of the truck. Heaps of mangled metal rise 15 feet in the air. Long rods are torqued into tiny shapes; thick steel beams lie around with their ends frayed into thin, wiry strips. Stacked nearby are these giant metal wheels--engines from the elevators inside the WTC, says Marx. I find someone's shoe, with the sole ripped off, completely coated in gray.

Not all the debris can fit on the conveyor belts. In a muddy field beyond the sifting machines, cars crushed like tin cans are stacked up four or five high, too many to count, but according to the FBI there's more than twelve hundred. A row of burned, mangled fire trucks stretches at least the length of a city block. At the end of the row lies a crushed car. Its roof has been stripped away. The back seats are gone. Hunks of building sit on what remains of the two front seats. The car radio, flattened to the size of a floppy disk, lies amid shards of broken glass. I can tell the car once was white, with streaks of yellow and blue. I trace a blue stripe along its crumpled body to where I spot the word police.

We drive to the top of the biggest mountain of debris, 40 feet high. Looking down I see all the cranes at work in an area nicknamed 42d Street, after one of Manhattan's busiest thoroughfares. This, too, was once nothing but an empty field. Now it's an efficient factory that produces tiny mounds of death. The rain finally relents. Clouds shift and I glimpse the city in the distance, where the towers used to mark the skyline. I glance down at my feet and notice a red speck the size of a stamp. Marx pulls on it and slowly more red comes out of the ground, until he holds an entire flannel shirt. It has orange squares in a plaid design. Some of the bottom buttons are still closed. I can't help but wonder, what happened to the man who had worn it? Looking into Marx's eyes, I know.