The next horrifying truth to dawn on New Yorkers will be this: their loved ones may well remain missing. It’s simply a fact at this point that rescue workers are finding fewer and fewer intact bodies. Now they’re finding body parts; and, mercifully, with help of DNA technology they’ll be able to make identifications. But in time even that will seem somehow better than the alternative. It’s an ugly truth: Cremation takes place in ovens around 1500 to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit. The jet fuel explosion from the airliners that crashed into the twin towers may have generated heat in excess of 2,500 degrees. Many bodies are simply gone, probably beyond even the best DNA experts’ ability to offer an identification. Eerily, some of the ash that fell on lower Manhattan may have been human remains.
This is not the first time, of course, that Americans have wrestled with the questions of Missing in Action. Since the Vietnam War, MIA flags have flown and many Americans have become convinced, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, that Americans are being held in captivity in Vietnam. Letting go has not been easy; and one of the gruesome cul-de-sacs of the 9-11 attack is that WTC victims families will soon be like MIA families asking Are my loved ones possibly alive somewhere? Did they get out? For those of us who didn’t know anyone who died, the answer’s sorrowful and simple: They perished. But hope is a reflex and for the families, it surely won’t be that easy to accept the inevitable. The mourners with missing signs may not clog the streets around the New York Armory command center in weeks to come, but they’ll still be in the same emotional purgatory make that Hell even after the operations are formally renamed from rescue to salvage. Without firm identification they’ll never know. In a sense, the twin towers became the tomb of the unknown soldiers. These were wartime combatants and like the mysterious soldier in Arlington National Cemetery we’ll honor them without being 100 percent sure who they are.