Blood and Glory

After 9/11, the bodies at Ground Zero were made heroic; the immigrant bodies that cleaned them up, less so

image by imp kerr

If money comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

—Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1

“We have still not had a death,” he said. “A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.”

—Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

We can tell the story in an easy calculus. The South Tower of the World Trade Center once stood 1,362 feet tall. At 9:03 a.m. on the morning of September 11 2001 it was struck by a Boeing 767 flying at 590 miles an hour and burning 9,100 gallons of jet fuel. The quarter-mile long tower burned at 1,800°F until 9:59 a.m., when it collapsed, sending 500,000 tons of material to the ground at 120 miles per hour and instantly killing 600 people. The North Tower, roughly its equal in size and weight, collapsed 29 minutes later, killing some 1,400 people. Before “Ground Zero” was ever invoked as an election-season rhetorical salvo, before it was ever emblazoned on a special-edition enamel plate anywhere near an eagle, and before it inspired George W. Bush to call it, in his diary, the 21st century’s Pearl Harbor, it constituted 16 acres of a “working fire” that burned 50 meters deep, a designation that gave immediate jurisdiction of the site to the FDNY. The firemen first brought in blueprints and floor plans, rushing to locations where they believed elevators and stairwells would have collapsed with the people they carried. Next, they introduced a map that used global positioning technology to plot patterns among locations where bodies, or parts of bodies, were being found. There were few survivors in the rubble—only 11, in fact —and it soon became clear that the mapping technology would instead be used to locate the dead.

The fire was mean and hard to extinguish. It burned long and deep, flaring when exposed to oxygen and fueled by tons of highly conductive paper and furniture soaked in jet fuel. On September 16, NASA sent an airplane over Ground Zero to gather infrared data that the U.S. Geological Survey made into a thermal heat map, one that showed patches of rubble burning at temperatures above 1,292°F, hotter than the burning point of aluminum. The New Scientist dubbed it “the longest-burning structural fire in history.” Heavy rains fell all day on the 14th and on the night of the 20th, into the dawn of the 21st. A total of four million gallons of water soaked through the debris and pooled at the World Trade Center’s “bathtub,” the 60-foot deep rectangular foundation on which the towers stood. Officials worried the foundation’s weak walls could give way, causing water from the Hudson River to seep into the PATH and subway tunnels, effectively flooding the city’s underground.

The fires burned for 100 days; alternatively, the fires were allowed to burn for 100 days. Officials had not stopped calling Ground Zero a “rescue operation” and they wanted to communicate that it was still possible to find survivors, something they could not do while simultaneously submerging all 16 acres with water and flame retardants. After the 100th day, the last flame was extinguished. It took Rudy Giuliani to stoke it back. At a New York City gala, he reminded listeners of the three firemen who raised the American flag atop the rubble in the now-famous photograph: “They were standing on top of a cauldron. They were standing on top of fires 2,000 degrees that raged for a hundred days. And they put their lives at risk raising that flag. They put the flag up to say, You can’t beat us, because we’re Americans. And we don’t say this with arrogance or in a militaristic way, but in a spiritual way: Our ideas are better than yours.” American exceptionalism was thus reified with the possibility of burnt citizen flesh.

Rescue workers called the 16 acres of debris on Ground Zero “the Pile.” The powdered debris in the Pile contained more than 150 compounds and elements including plaster, talc, synthetic foam, glass, paint chips, charred wood, slag wool, 200,000 pounds of lead from 50,000 computers, gold and mercury from 500,000 fluorescent lights, 2,000 tons of asbestos, and 91,000 liters of jet fuel. The nearly 3,000 human beings who died made up such a miniscule part of the debris that the odds of finding identifiable remains among this city of dust was less than 1 in a quadrillion. Before any tests could be conducted on human remains, however, scientists worried about getting institutional board approval for use of human samples in a scientific investigation.

On September 26, 15 days after the attack, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences sent researchers an email issuing a strict definition of “human subject.” According to the board, a human subject is someone for whom “private information must be individually identifiable” and “individuals whose remains ‘could’ be in the dust did not qualify as human subjects.” While the NIEHS framed its response as permission to use the bodily remains in scientific inquiry, their words carry a grave discursive weight. Defining personhood according to a human being’s ability to be personally identified implies that naming is a category of political recognition based on documentation given that parts of the corporal palimpsest must match information about the body in the state’s archive—paper matched with paper. Individuals who leave bodily traces but who do not officially “exist” in state archives because their livelihoods depend upon clandestine existence may not make matching individually identifiable private information easy. According to the NIEHS’s language, these persons would be excluded from the category of “human subject.”

 • • •

Fresh Kills, once the largest landfill in the world, is 10 miles south of Manhattan. A makeshift forensic laboratory city was set up on the landfill for nearly a year to sort through 1.6 million tons of debris. At the project’s peak, workers went through 7,000 tons of it in a single day. Recovery workers did find whole bodies but they found many more parts. Although skin fragments and hair abounded, these were poor materials with which to identify victims because 2,000-foot towers that welcomed visitors and employees for over four decades accumulated so much human hair and dead skin cells in rugs, chairs, elevators, bathrooms, lobbies, and every hard surface that researchers would have been confronted with a seemingly infinite number of false-positive identifications. Inside refrigerated trailers, cadavers were stored in body bags and tissue and bones were kept in red bins. Workers divided the bones amongst themselves. After washing the bones, they used small blenders called mills to grind them into a coarse powder that one worker remembers smelling like burnt steak. After they were done, they washed the mills with bleach and alcohol, a long and difficult process abrasive to the workers’ hands.

Legal scholars have called DNA an “alternative source of corporeality” whose personally identifying potential can be used in the courts of law as a facilitator of the Western jurisprudential philosophy of habeas corpus meaning “you have the body [to show].” When a DNA sample leads to the naming of a full human being—first name, last name, ethnicity, Social Security number—it means a body has been begotten “through translations, disassembly and reassembly, and conversion between states, properties and machines.” This follows Elizabeth Grosz’ definition of a body as a “concrete, material, animate organization of flesh, nerves, muscles, and skeletal structure which are given unity, cohesiveness, and organization only through their physical and social inscription as the surface and raw materials of an integrated and cohesive totality.” Whole parts like tissue and sinew and limb or microscopic parts like chromosome links become a “body” through translation and inscription—writerly motions.

Paul Lioy, an expert on toxin exposure who has studied the WTC dust, has observed that the debris “contained materials that were used to make the things that represent the raw material and by-products that defined our civilization.” This doesn’t just mean company letterhead and swivel chairs but also poisons. Asbestos and lead have long been part of the inner city’s ecological landscape, cheaply lining walls, tubes, and ceilings while leaving trace deposits of their dry powders in the blood and urine of inner city children. The EPA did not want to test for those particular substances in the blood of sick New Yorkers in the years following 9/11 because doing so would “lead down an endless rabbit hole costing billions and lasting years” meaning they would have had to find a way to “distinguish trade center material from common urban dust.”   Normalizing the bestiary of noxious powders implied in “common urban dust” ignores the many generations of inner city children—disproportionately African-American and Latino/a—who learn to prime asthma inhalers before they learn to sign their names. The pervasive expectation that some lungs and bloodstreams could be born or made impervious to poisonous dusts is evident in a study of WTC search-and-rescue dogs. The dogs, described as “canine equivalents of canaries in a coal mine” because they could show signs of asbestosis and mesothelioma a lot faster than human organisms could, had their chests x-rayed. The x-rays came back normal, but the study was criticized for excluding “many of the rescue dogs that were brought to New York from other parts of the country” meaning that New York dogs must have been so accustomed to quietly menacing substances in the air that their organisms weren’t trustworthy.

The federally funded New York City cleanup program lasted two years and cost $37.9 million dollars, $30.4 million of which went to contractors and subcontractors. Rosa Bramble Weed, a social worker and psychologist who has met with undocumented cleanup workers exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress, explains that undocumented workers received calls from “a very underground kind of network of people who are undocumented and need work. They called at night. They said, tomorrow there is work, come work.” Port Authority management contacted major contracting firms who sent the projects to subcontractors; by the time the jobs trickled down to cleanup workers, their contractors worked with hundred thousand dollar contracts while the immigrants were routinely paid $60 for 12-plus hour days. Vans drove up and down Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Long Island, Nassau County, and Suffolk County, looking for day laborers to bring to Ground Zero. The Polish and Latino construction workers—all men—arrived first, but the women were the last to leave. Undocumented women had cleaned Lower Manhattan residential spaces and offices for years and knew people who would call them up when there was work. And there was work.

Jaime—whose surname I have omitted from this essay—is a Colombian immigrant who used to work as a nighttime security guard near the World Trade Center and helped with cleanup efforts from day one. When he first arrived to the site, “it looked like a Western, like a desert,” he told me. “Everything was dust-water and there was no light.” Jaime walked into building basements flooded by water and chemicals. He had no protective gear so he tied plastic bags around his ankles and waded through the waters. “The city was great at picking up the garbage,” he remembers. He was instructed to discard any debris in black trash bags and throw paper in clear bags—the black bags were for waste. The dust was the hardest to clean because it blinded him and stuck to his clothing, especially when he got wet. The wind took care of loose paper. Police arrived on the scene early and guarded the site fiercely. People were asked to show ID cards to enter the scene but cleanup workers just needed to prove they were there to clean. At first, tourists applauded and took pictures of them. Then, people started yelling, “Leave! Leave!” The women from Rosa’s group that I spoke to all know other women hired by subcontracting firms who were paid checks that bounced back. They are sick. They are also broke, uninsured, and, when I spoke to them, they were all hoping they would somehow qualify for “la Zadroga,” a federal bill that would help cover their healthcare costs. What they really want, though, is a green card. Jaime penned an open letter to President Barack Obama on behalf of the group asking him to grant documentation to immigrants who could prove they had worked at Ground Zero.

The man in charge of evaluating applications for The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was Kenneth R. Feinberg, a lawyer who had successfully settled the Agent Orange lawsuits and “was given the broadest prerogative to decide, in essence, how much each life was worth.” The Fund had unlimited funds but a clear end date. In 2003, it stopped accepting applications, and some individuals were only beginning to exhibit symptoms. Workers who did not make the deadline fell back on unsubsidized treatment in city hospitals or workers compensation payments. Treatment options were slim for undocumented immigrants. Dr. Charles Hirsch, New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner became “the gatekeeper to the official list” of WTC victims.  He looked at each death and decided whether to legally consider it a murder. The final list contained 2,749 names of deaths that had been ruled homicides. 2,749 names would be inscribed on the memorial.

 • • •

On September 11, 2002, New York State Governor George Pataki recited the Gettysburg Address. In Rudy Giuliani’s last speech as Mayor, he also quoted from the speech. The space of Ground Zero was almost immediately narrativized as a battleground with those who died on that day discussed as heroes, “the fallen.” Ground Zero tells the story of blood and Fresh Kills tells the story of bone. The dust materialized this narrative through coloring—it was just beginning to settle. The World Trade Center dust had, as Anthony DePalma has written, “an odd pinkish tint, a blush that was as curious as it was repulsive because it suggested blood and human remains. It was probably caused by some chemical reaction, and it did not last long. Eventually, the dust took on the more neutral color of dry bone.”

Blood and bone have a longstanding symbolism in national narratives of kinship and trauma. Think, for instance, of the Civil War. During the only war fought on American soil, Confederate soldiers disinterred buried Union soldiers to steal their skulls and use the skeletal remains as trophies. Union soldiers often mimicked these acts in retaliation. The 19th century saw the emergence of a black market in cadavers; because bodies could be sold to medical schools and amateur dissectors. Affluent Americans began burying their dead in well-secured tombs. The poor, chief among them immigrants and African Americans, were obviously just as ferocious in the desire to protect their dead, but lacked the resources to do so. They were thus relegated to, as Simon Harrison has explained, “burying their dead under a layer of straw to deter digging, or posting armed guards in the cemetery for several nights after a funeral.” Bone stealing arose during the Civil War because there was a great political value in “representing Southerners and Northerners as two different peoples.” Among American soldiers, spilt blood over the same land was less of a catastrophic blow to imagined notions of kinship than was the theft itself.

The wars that broke out on Fresh Kills over the fate of the pulverized bones whose extracted DNA identified individual victims were divisive and individual—it was about private grief, and families’ rights to mourn over their own dead. The mass burial of thousands of people’s bones under equalizing and anonymizing layers of dirt was obscene, and the co-existence of victim bone with terrorist bone was unfathomably disrespectful. Blood, however, had the opposite effect. It was used to collectivize trauma to an exaggerated, though politically advantageous, degree. When researchers began to monitor the health effects of New Yorkers who worked on Ground Zero and New Yorkers who had not, they first tested firefighters because of their proximity to the toxic dust and debris. The control group used to compare the level of toxins in the blood of potentially sick firefighters was made up of firefighters who did not work at Ground Zero. The blood of the firefighters who had not been at Ground Zero was also the control group used when testing the blood of other New Yorkers, i.e. non-firefighters. The blood of venerated heroes was the gold standard for all residents of a city in the throes of collective post-trauma. When the last traces of debris were removed from Ground Zero, the bedrock foundation lay naked and bare like bone without sinew.