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Twelve years on, 9/11 Volunteer Remembers

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As I open the dental chart; attached on the inside flap is a crumpled piece of paper with a child’s pencil writing that reads: “Thank you, doctors, for helping to find my daddy. I sure hope he isn’t dead. Love, Alex.”

Dr. Mike Tabor is Chief Forensic Dentist for the State of Tennessee Office of the Medical Examiner and the author of a new true-crime novel, Walk of Death, which takes readers inside the workings of forensic odontologists and crime investigators by depicting the painstaking process involved in performing identifications and examinations of the deceased, most of which are beyond recognition. 

Dr. Mike Tabor. Courtesy Photo 

Long Island, New York, Islip Airport, October 16, 2001, 35-days after the World Trade Center attack

Airport security is intense. Two of Nassau County’s finest stand on the curb with a sign bearing my name. I approach the officers and manage a smile. They reciprocate. The deputies whisk me off to Manhattan, a trip normally requiring over an hour is completed in 25 minutes.

I am a volunteer, a forensic odontologist. My specialty is assisting crime investigators in the painstaking process involved in performing identifications and examinations of the deceased, most of which are beyond recognition. I have traveled from Nashville, Tenn., where I am Chief Forensic Dentist for the State of Tennessee Office of the Medical Examiner.

The team I work with at Ground Zero is loaded with experts. Anthropologists. Odontologists. Dental Assistants and Hygienists. Medical examiners. Federal workers. Every forensic specialty is represented.

For years, I’ve conducted examinations and have witnessed the unzipping of a black body bag countless times. But, today is different, very different. I take a deep breath.

My gloved fingers begin the arduous task of sifting through the debris. My search uncovers a tarnished medallion bearing the shield of FDNY, scratched, pitted, and covered with dust. I find a jacket with an embroidered name, then the firefighter’s right hand, still clutching the broken handle of his ax.

My heart sinks. My attention shifts to the flattened air cylinder, still strapped to his back. I wipe the dust off the dial. It reads ‘0000,’ the last breath of air taken from its contents.

As I open the dental chart; attached on the inside flap is a crumpled piece of paper with a child’s pencil writing that reads: “Thank you, doctors, for helping to find my daddy. I sure hope he isn’t dead. Love, Alex.” The dental records comparison confirms Alex’s worst fear. I must take a break. This is overwhelming and I just got here.

Team members head outside to tables lining the sidewalk, where we can grab a bite and sunshine. The warmth feels great, but we have no appetite. We all struggle to comprehend the devastation.

Our area is cordoned off with crime scene tape. There are hundreds of people lining the streets; many carry photos of their missing loved ones. They try to get our attention, hoping we might recognize a face. They cannot know the real truth, as it is too horrific to process.

An officer escorts a gentleman wearing a turban, who wants to give us something. “Do we mind?” No one knows how to respond. He carries a miniature American flag in his left hand and a dozen red roses in his right. He sets the vase on the table, and in broken English says, “May God bless you doctors for all that you are doing.” With that, he leaves. We are speechless.

The sound of a sharp, shrill siren scares me. I’m told it’s a signal for everyone to assemble. I follow the procession to an outside loading dock. At least 50 workers, all dressed in traditional green scrubs, form a perfectly straight line. We stand motionless with our hands over our hearts in reverent respect, as NYPD motorcyclists escort a funeral cortege bringing more remains to be examined.

The haunting sound of “Taps” is played as uniformed officers, three on each side, carry the stainless steel gurney. The black body bags bear the seal of the City of New York. The American flag that drapes each and every set of remains is solemnly and methodically removed, prior to entering our facility.

My arms are covered with goose bumps as tears stream down my face, my colleagues in unison. When the national anthem is finished, we remain at attention. I was not expecting this, yet I am proud of the way New Yorkers were honoring our fallen. Respect. Dignity. Pride. I am proud to be an American.

It soon became evident that this enormous task of identification was going to take months, even years. Of the roughly 3,000 fatalities, a full 16% were rescuers, who died trying to save others.

On a side street near Memorial Park, we find a narrow alleyway where a makeshift plywood bulletin board has been set-up to honor the memories of those lost. Families use this place to share their grief with others. The more I read these seemingly endless notes, the more I cry. Never have I been so disturbed by any one event in my entire life.

On a Wednesday morning, the team is taken to “The Pit.” Our team leader believes it will be helpful if each team member is familiar with how the bodies were positioned, extricated and transported back to our examining area.

I find myself alone, staring in amazement at the massive amounts of debris still standing as fire hoses continue dumping millions of gallons of water; 24-7 and steam still rising nearby. I look down expecting to see recognizable objects, a piece of a desk, a door, a plumbing fixture. Nothing, only melted glass, twisted rebar and chunks of concrete. A hundred yards away are beams that once held the towers erect; they are now waving in the wind like tiny toothpicks, each weighing more than 10 tons.

As I recall my experience, 12-years later, wounds remain ever present. Prior to our leaving New York, medical personnel provide a debriefing to help us cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I will not forget. The pencil-scrawled note attached to the fireman’s dental record, left by his son, Alex, thanking us for helping to find “my daddy,” is forever etched in my mind and soul, never to fade away. I only wish Alex’s daddy was with him now.

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