Year Zero

The Missing

by Jonathan Wallace

September 29, 2001

Year Zero is an episodic series of essays on ethical and practical implications of the present crisis. Subscribe here.

One summer night in 1976, about 4 a.m., some friends and I walked into a highway diner in Georgia. On the glass door as we entered was a poster with a photo of a smiling, attractive, missing blonde woman. The information ruined my mood for days after: on a road trip to Key Largo I was reminded that people could vanish, that there were predators slipping across the margins of our world who could take them. Those predators in the shadows seemed to refute God, and to put the world under a dark light. Were we fools to live as if they did not exist?

In the years between then and September 11, 2001, I saw a few more posters for the missing. In New York, the posters--I remember only two or three across many years--tended to be for the elderly or mentally disabled who had wandered away. Some were found, a few days later, walking around Kings' Plaza mall in Brooklyn, or sitting at bus stops; some were never seen again. The city itself was the predator, collecting a certain number of its denizens of whom no trace was ever discovered.

But it never prepared us for the day after September 11, when missing posters went up for hundreds of people who were in the World Trade Center towers when they collapsed. In Brooklyn Heights, where I live, I emerged from the subway and saw a poster for Genna "Jenny" Gambale, another pretty, smiling woman.

Terrorists are always dour in their photographs, and the nineteen we have been staring at these two weeks are no exception. Serial killers when taken are most often the same: there is a stare favored by those who kill many. The victims, however, are almost always smiling. Their killers knew even when photographed that they had killed or would; but the victims poignantly believed that life was safe, and smiled because that is what one does before the lens, and also because right afterwards there was the movie, concert, visit with the nephews or love-making to be anticipated.

From earliest childhood I have found this thought unbearable, that someone walks thinking about college, marriage, a career, having a child, a book or any other project to complete, while unknown to them a clock is ticking down a last hour. At noon today, a stranger will abduct you from the parking lot of the 7-11. At 8:48 a.m. today, a plane will hit exactly opposite your desk in the tower. You have one hour left, you have five minutes. When you woke today you did not know you would be strangled or shot, that you would fly to pieces in a blast, that you would jump from a ninetieth floor window ledge to avoid the flames. When you took that picture you would not have smiled. Somewhere in the world as you took the picture and when you woke this morning, is a human intelligence who regards you as a thing, as raw material to be shaped to serve his pleasure or express his wish. How do you live, indeed how do you maintain your little civilization, knowing he exists?

There was a difference. The ordinary missing went without transition; they went to work or to the grocery and were never seen again, vanishing beyond the event horizon of a black hole. The missing of the Trade Center were in a building which was hit by a plane, pervaded by fire and unbearable smoke, and which collapsed straight down on them with the force of a three-kiloton nuclear explosion. The first people to miss them were the emergency room physicians and nurses, who set up facilities on a scale unknown outside of wartime, and waited for casualties who never came. Much of the blood donated that day had to be thrown out, because there was no-one to transfuse. For a day or two after, people held on to some hope that their missing were unidentified in the hospital, or wandering the streets in shock. But by September 13, there were no more John Does anywhere.

In big cities we improvise our culture in real time. The site of the towers was "ground zero" to everyone within a day; and the posters erupted out of nowhere, took over the city, and even mutated in successive waves. The first ones were hopeful: you had the smiling picture, a few facts typically about where the person worked, including the company, which tower, and the floor. Last seen, Windows on the World. Last seen, 102d floor, One World Trade Center. A few days later, the newer posters still included all of this information but now listed the loved one's identifying marks: the scars from cancer surgery, the navel ring, the tribal.

They were everywhere: in storefronts, on lampposts, subway entrances and on the station walls. You saw some only in huge heartbreaking collections of the missing in Manhattan, as outside the armory where in the first few days the families gathered; but others, like Genna Gambale, wandered far afield, lone appeals for love and grace in Brooklyn Heights. On the platform of the 14th street PATH station, there was just one, a "missing brother".

One night, a few days after the black hole opened in downtown, I went into Manhattan with two bags of books and magazines-- escapist stuff, lots of Heinlein, Tolkien, and currently popular literary novels about Renaissance painters; magazines about guitars, cars and hip-hop--no romances to remind anyone of the missing, and nothing mentioning the disaster. I had the idea I would leave them in the Armory, to help distract the families during their terrible wait. But I confess I had another reason: I wanted to know and to see. I was avid for experience.

The building at Twenty-fifth and Lexington, better known heretofore for art and flower shows, was surrounded by police barricades and officious volunteers with clipboards. They weren't taking any donations here, and only family members could come in. So I hovered outside the barrier with my two shopping bags, looking at a massive wall of grief. All of the the hundreds were here whose families had made posters, all of the ones who wandered alone in Brooklyn or on the PATH platform had gathered here, in the company of all the others whom I saw no-where else. The walls were thick with them for a block, and people like me walked the wall, looking at each smiling face. Young bare-chested men with handsome Irish faces, brokers from Cantor Fitzgerald. Married men holding babies. There were many pictures where other family members appeared, where someone had drawn a circle in pencil or marker to show you which one of the group was missing. Young women full of anticipation. Someone said that week, "All the girls in stockings and sneakers I saw each morning on the Staten Island ferry are gone."

I saw Mario Nardone and Casey Cho and Genna Gembale again. Young Christians at a table were giving away bibles, a gift that could not possibly comfort me, who would rather believe in an empty sky than in a God who could intervene and won't. Yes, there is more comfort in an empty sky. "Suddenly," Yeats said, "I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven, which seemed as if ice burned, and were but the more ice." In that poem, which so perfectly matched a particular insomnia fraught with sorrow which I experienced in my twenties--an intense belief in an empty world, its shadows stirring with predators, experienced at four in the morning--the poet, taking "the blame beyond all sense and reason", concluded by wondering if the dead experienced "the injustice of the skies for punishment."

There were candles burning everywhere, and more posters with prayers and affirmations; "we will never forget you". And flowers, already wilting, in heaps, set on the sidewalk or stuck in holes in fences. And people crying. On Tuesday afternoon September 11, coming back into my neighborhood after trying to give blood, I saw a man my age walking down the street weeping; and I, fool and idiot that I am, thought "I am far stronger than him." But it only took a few more days, for me to see a hopeful, excited young face on a poster, and to cry too. I wept on the train, reading the daily profiles of the missing, the ones who loved salsa music or tinkering with motorcycles or who lived for nephews. I knew none of the missing but they were all exactly like the people with whom I had lived and worked my whole life. It was like a subway of the dead, entire train cars of people from my ordinary daily New York life had vanished into a mysterious hole. For two days I thought that the subway station below the Trade Center at which I exited every morning had been destroyed, a mistake encouraged by the fact that the number 2 line was not running. On the third morning, I absent-mindedly walked onto the platform at the Borough Hall station in Brooklyn, and a number 2 train pulled in, with people aboard with sleepy, anticipatory faces, waiting for the day. I stared at them and could not enter: for a moment I was looking at that subway of the dead.

Outside the armory, there was a reminder that even in the shadow of the towers, the ordinary predators were still slipping around: a poster for Dr. Sneha Ann Philips, a woman in her twenties or thirties with an Indian look, who vanished, not on Tuesday morning at 8:48, but on the evening before around 7:30. Who had gone out and never been seen again. Someone had written one word across the top: MYSTERIOUS. Implying that the hundreds of others were not, who had gone to work, as it turned out, in a zone where nothing could live.

Even in the thick of the sorrow the posters seemed like a mental glitch, an involuntary exclamation of the people who made them. What did they want, what were they trying to accomplish? The last survivor was found in the wreckage the day after. Within twenty-four hours, Mayor Giuliani began trying to prepare us gently for the likelihood that no-one else would be found alive, after the two thousand degree flames, the unsurvivable smoke, and the 105 stories collapsing down like a neutron star into a small mass. It was then that the posters took on their second expression, with the identifying marks. But the good mayor was also trying to prepare us that many of those bodies would never be found. They had been cremated or atomized. Contrast the Pentagon, where out of 180 missing, 120 bodies have been recovered, a little more than two weeks after the events. At the Trade Center, almost six thousand are missing, and less than three hundred have been found in the same period of time. Mostly people who were at or near street level and were killed but left fairly intact by falling debris. Or, in a few cases, by falling people.

Of six thousand families, only a small portion, perhaps a tenth, made posters. I thought these served perhaps a second and a third function. Some people certainly wanted to know where the loved one was, and what he was doing, at the end. Many of the posters sought "Any information" or asked, "Did you see him?" Were you next to my husband, daughter, niece, fiance, did you escape through the event horizon when my loved one vanished, and can you bear me news like the messengers did to Job, who said, "And I alone escaped to tell thee"?

We need to impose meaning in any way we can on chaos and death, so that we are not refuted. It is a familiar thing: the families who campaign afterwards against drunk driving, or for airport security, or who lobby for years for or against the death penalty. After September 11, we needed desperately to believe in the heroism of the passengers on the Pennsylvania flight, or in smaller ways, in the meaningful choices, the helpful choices, made by the missing at the towers. The man who walked down 84 floors, then stayed right outside directing others out of the area. The man who went up, when everyone else was running down, in search of his wife, who was on a floor above. The lovers, friends, siblings and spouses who worked together. We heard the words "At least they were together" many times these past two weeks.

The third purpose of the posters: they are the Greek grave steles of our time. In my college art history class, I grieved for a girl who died more than two thousand years ago, portrayed holding a pet dove, and for a young woman, examining a jewelry box. The Greek artists memorialized the dead by capturing them in a representative moment of their ordinary lives. Unlike our dead, they are not shown smiling; the gravity of the outcome is represented in their sad but calm expressions, which seem to represent an acceptance of death. Perhaps the families had made these posters for the same reason the ancient Greeks made those stones, to affirm that a loved one had been. There was a clump of time-space, a vivacious knot of matter with aspirations, who was Casey Cho.

The living try to continue; we steer away from the missing and the dead as if in an endangered lifeboat pulling away from a wreck. On the first weekend, we drove to our house on the east end of Long Island, one hundred and twenty miles from ground zero. We breathed ocean air and walked down streets where the only missing posters, as always, were for cats and cockatiels.