|11 September 2001>News Stories>Counting
Sandeep Jauhar . NYTimes . 23 September
The morgue was inside Brooks Brothers. I was standing at the open-air triage center at the corner of Church and Dey, right next to the rubble of the World Trade Center, when a policeman shouted that doctors were needed at the men’s-wear emporium inside the 1 Liberty building. Bodies were piling up there, he said, and another makeshift morgue on the other side of the rubble had just closed down. I volunteered and set off down the debris-strewn road.
It was the day after the attack. The smoke and stench of burning plastic was even stronger than on Tuesday. The road was muddy, and because I was stupidly wearing clogs, the mud soaked my socks.
I arrived at the building. In the lobby, exhausted firefighters and their German shepherds were sitting on the floor amid broken glass. A soldier stood at the entrance to the store, where a crowd of policemen hovered. ‘‘No one is allowed in the morgue except doctors,’’ he shouted.
I entered reluctantly through a dark curtain. Cadavers had always made me feel queasy in medical school. In anatomy lab, I had mostly watched as others dissected. In the near corner was a small group of doctors and nurses, and next to them was an empty plastic stretcher. Behind the group was a wooden table where a nurse and two medical students were sitting grim-faced, looking like some sort of macabre tribunal. Brooks Brothers shirts were neatly folded in cubbyholes in the wall. They were covered in grime, but you could still make out the reds and oranges and yellows. In the far corner, next to what looked like a blown-out door, was a pile of orange body bags, about 20 of them. Soldiers were standing guard. In the store’s dressing room were stacks of unused body bags.
The group was discussing the protocol for how to handle the bodies. A young female doctor said that she didn’t think anyone should sign any forms, lest someone think that we had certified the contents of the bags, which we were not qualified to do. That, she said, was up to the medical examiner. Someone asked whether a separate body bag was needed for each body part, but no one knew the answer. The leader of the group was a man in his 50’s. I looked at his badge. It said ‘‘PGY-3.’’ He was a third-year resident, which meant that I was probably the most experienced doctor in the room, a thought that deeply disturbed me. I just finished my internal medicine residency in June.
At this point some National Guardsmen brought in a body bag and laid it on the stretcher. The female doctor unzipped it and inspected the contents. ‘‘Holy mother of God,’’ she said, and she turned away. In the bag was a left leg and part of a pelvis, to which a penis was still attached. The leg itself hardly seemed injured, but the pelvic stump was beefy red and broken intestines were hanging out of it. A pants pocket was partially covering the pelvis and was emptied of change; this pocket was put in a separate bag. A policeman said that part of the victim’s body had been brought in earlier, along with a cell phone.
That was good news. If the victim had the numbers of family members on his speed dial, he would be quickly identified. But identification wasn’t my job. Processing was.
After five minutes, the bag was zipped up. The older male doctor, who had been working there for hours, said he had to leave. The other doctor also said she had to get away for about an hour. ‘‘Are you a physician?’’ she asked me. ‘‘Yes,’’ I replied. ‘‘Great,’’ she said. ‘‘You can take over.’’ Then she started giving me instructions on how to catalog the body parts. Basically, I had to call out the contents of each bag to a nurse, who would write them down on a form. That was it.
I was in a fog. I felt totally unequipped to do this kind of work. I recalled my friends who had done medical clerkships in Africa. They had told me of the terrible tragedies and the deep frustration of not having proper medical supplies. But we were not suffering from a lack of supplies. This was not third-world medicine. It was netherworld medicine, without rules.
Another body bag came in. This one had a spleen, some intestines, part of a liver. I was in charge, but I wasn’t a pathologist. I was just improvising. After sifting through the bag’s contents, I began to feel ill. I walked past some headless mannequins and out into the smoke-filled air.
Sandeep Jauhar is a New York City doctor.