9/11

The Saddest Mother in the World

Alicia Céron looked as if she lived in the foothills of the Andes. It was easy to imagine her walking through the market of a small town wearing bright, stiff cotton clothing. Her face was earthy and soft, lined and sad. Her speech was rushed but quiet, her eloquence confined by her imperfect English. She was short but substantial. At the end of our first meeting, I hugged her while she sobbed, and while her head came just to my chest, she was heavy to hold.

In 2002, the day before Valentines Day, Mrs. Céron showed up in the lobby of the medical examiner’s office in midtown Manhattan for the first time. She was looking for her son, Manuel, who had been killed on 9/11. She had heard that the bodies of the World Trade Center victims were at our office and she wanted to find her son, who had not yet been identified in the five months since the towers fell.

It was true that the bodies of the victims were at our office, but it was also a lie. There were no bodies. The towers coming down rendered concrete unto dust. There were no bodies. Instead, there were body parts. Torsos, arms, legs, hands, feet, countless pieces of tissue and of bone and what felt like a million femurs, the strongest bone in the body. When Ground Zero closed in 2002, we had almost 20,000 remains and our official victim count was 2,749. The number of remains would cross over 20,000 after I left in 2005 as additional remains continued to be found in air shafts and other tucked-away places at Ground Zero.

During operations, we printed a page of operational statistics, for months daily, and less often as time went on. The report of July 7, 2004, ten months before we closed the identification process, shows we had identified 1,555 people. Only twelve had been identified by viewing. A handful more we identified using photographs. No one was walking up and down rows of bodies identifying their loved ones, which is what she assumed she could do (and she was not the only one who found out about us and showed up assuming this).

Also, while we had identified 1,555 people by 2004 we had identified 8,789 remains, the overwhelming majority using DNA. That’s an average of more than five remains per person. Sometimes after an identification, you would sit down with a family to discuss what had been found and there would be forty fragments of tissue, pieces of bone of various sizes and random limbs or even more horrible things like, once, a uterus. And chances were 100% that those forty remains weren’t identified at the same time. We commonly would identify a partial jaw bone and then six or seven months later DNA results would link another ten remains to that same person.

We had a form people filled out to say if they wanted to be notified if additional remains were found, but no one expected a call from us six months later: “We found more of your husband.” I once called a widow about additional remains while she was having her daughter’s birthday party. “How do I go back out there?” she asked me. Sometimes people would get something like a two-inch fragment of femur and that would be it. One person was identified by DNA but the entire tissue fragment had been consumed by testing so we had a positive identification, but nothing to give them.

But on that day in February of 2002, Mrs. Céron did not know any of what had gone on at our office or what was to come. She believed she had found the place where she could find her son. After she and her family arrived and were given visitor badges, the front desk called back to the conference room where World Trade Center operations were held and let me know she was there. When I came through the locked door into the lobby, I saw her immediately. She was wearing a large button with Manuel’s picture on it. These oversized buttons were common in the beginning, the faces of the dead walking around, looking out at you like they did from the missing posters that blanketed the city. You didn’t see them anymore by the time she came to the medical examiner’s office though, but in the years I knew here I never saw her without one.

She was also carrying an orange three-ring-binder with all of the paperwork she had accumulated on her journey as the mother of a World Trade Center victim. By this point in the process, most people who lost someone but had not had an identification of remains had filled out the necessary paperwork to get a death certificate without remains. I would come to find out that she had not done that because she felt like it would be killing him. Without a death certificate, she believed, he might still be alive.

Her husband was with her along with their son and daughter and a group of other people whose relationships were never made clear. I don’t remember any of them talking, just her. I sat down in the lobby with her and listened to her story and told her no, this was not a place where you could walk amongst the victims’ bodies and identify them. I talked gently but truthfully. When we finished that conversation, I told her I wanted to make sure we had everything we needed to make an identification.

In January of 2002, the medical examiner’s office had set up a DNA Hotline for families to call to see if we had enough DNA to identify their loved one. People might wonder why we were collecting DNA samples six months after 9/11, but it was the first time we’d had to take a studied look at what we had. The first  months had been consumed with receiving the remains from Ground Zero, issuing hundreds of death certificates without remains using a process that didn’t exist before 9/11 and dealing with the hundreds of identifications we had already made. At this point, though, and even much earlier, if you were going to get an identification is was going to be via DNA.

We were still running operations twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and I was still working at full throttle, putting in as many hours as I could and going back to my hotel to collapse, only to return in a few hours. My boss got a kidney infection from not going to the bathroom. He was working so hard and so much was going on, he just didn’t have the time. The head of the DNA laboratory described it as building a plane while in the air and it was, harrowing and terrifying.

DNA identification in 2001 was complicated, time-consuming and resource-intensive (it still is, but less so). Also, in an event like the World Trade Center disaster, chaos confounds the process. Ideally, to make a DNA identification you would have something like a buccal swab from both the mother and the father of the victim. You would have a chain of custody of the buccal swabs and they would be labeled correctly, linking them to a specific victim.

9/11 didn’t work like that at all. There were numerous issues in the DNA collection process. One was the understanding of those meeting with the families to collect information, including DNA. People didn’t know who in the family to swab for DNA. Another was poor labeling, so we couldn’t tell who a particular toothbrush was for; we had, for example, three victims that shared the same names: first, middle and last. Also, sometimes a particular item — a razor, for example — did not render a usable profile. So a bank of phones was brought into the conference room and a phone number was advertised. Families could call in and we could tell them what DNA we had and if it was sufficient for a potential identification.

Since I had Mrs. Céron and her family in the office I asked to step out and verify that we had sufficient DNA to identify Manuel. It turned out that Mrs. Céron had given DNA at the Family Assistance Center in September, but her husband had not. Without the father’s DNA, we didn’t have enough reference material to find her son. His sister’s DNA would help, but it would not be enough.

Mrs. Céron wanted me to take another DNA sample from her. I tried to explain that once we had her DNA profile, we had it, and getting it again won’t help. “It’s like a phone number,” I tried to explain, “we only need to write it down once.” But she was insistent that more would help — and realizing that it was one of the few things she could actually do to help her son, I stopped explaining and told her I would take it again.

Everyone stood up from the couches in the lobby and followed me into the Family Room. Mrs. Céron, her husband and their daughter sat at the table with me. The other relatives sat on the low slung, the hideous, dirty, couch-like thing that lined the two walls across from me. They watched me, talking quietly in Spanish. I placed an envelope on the table in front of Manuel’s parents and his sister. I kept one for myself and used it to demonstrate the procedure. The father spoke the best English, so I focused the directions towards him. Mrs. Céron was sobbing from the moment we sat down. I paused frequently while her family tried to calm her down. Her daughter looked embarrassed, her husband overwhelmed.

I opened the envelope containing the DNA collection kit in front of me and indicated for them to do the same. Inside were two long, thin, white cardboard boxes, pressed flat. I demonstrated how to open the boxes up and fold up the flaps at one end to make a container that will hold the swab used to collect the sample. Putting the boxes aside, we unwrapped the sterile swabs. They were packaged like Band-Aids: two pieces of paper pressed together and sealed around the edges. I showed them how to peel back the paper to reveal two thin sticks with cotton at one end.

I took one of the swabs out and opened my mouth, rubbing the inside of my cheek with the cotton. Cells from my cheek were transferred to the swab. I put the swab in the box, folding the ends down like a gift box. They did the same. I pulled out the second swab and rubbed the inside of the other cheek. They followed without speaking. Mrs. Céron was still crying. We put the boxes in an envelope and sealed them with a bar-coded label with Mauel’s information and his RM number. RM stood for Reported Missing and it was our attempt at starting an accurate list of who actually died on 9/11. The efforts to work on that list would continue until the first anniversary when we released our list to the Mayor’s office to be read at the memorial service.

After we finished with the DNA collection, I asked if they had any questions. Mrs. Céron brought out pictures of Manuel and showed them to me while she cried. She wept as she told me of her struggles with depression. She could not move, she said, she never left the house, she couldn’t breathe. She told me about the bad dreams she had about her son. I asked her if she was getting help, and she told me she had a therapist, but it was all just so difficult. She took pills for depression, she took pills to sleep, but nothing was working. Her family was completely silent while we talked.

Alicia Céron did not know what to do with the loss of her son. Her life had come to an end. She wanted to be dead. She rocked back and forth while she told me the story of watching the World Trade Center get hit by the first plane on 9/11. She had been at home in New Jersey, ironing Manuel’s work shirts in the living room when the news came on. She knew her son was there and she had no way to get to him. She screamed at the television while she watched him die. I was awed by her sadness. It was a black hole sucking in all the light. It was a cold fire, sucking oxygen from the air.

We stood up to leave and she grabbed onto me. I told her how sorry I was she lost her son. I had said similar words to countless other people. I had held crying mothers, gripped the arms of grieving fathers, but it never felt like this. I was immersed in her suffering, drowning in the water of her river of sorrow. After Mrs. Céron and her family left I went back into the conference room and said: “I just met the saddest mother in the world.” I was dripping her grief like sweat.

Over the next weeks and months and years, Mrs. Céron returned many times. She would appear in the lobby to see me, never making an appointment. I would get a call from the front desk that she was waiting for me, or someone would come into the conference room from outside and say, “The Saddest Mother in the World is in the lobby.” She always had some small memento with her: a candle, a picture, flowers. Usually, I would sit with her on a couch while she sobbed and talked about Manuel and how unwell she was, miserable, barely functioning.

After we talked in the lobby, sometimes for more than an hour, we would walk out on to First Avenue, turn left and head down 30th St. towards the NYU parking lot that had been taken over as a place to hold the remains brought from Ground Zero. In the beginning, Memorial Park was a set of refrigerated trailers parked in two rows with the backs of the trucks facing each other. Inside, the remains were kept in biohazard bags and then in bins. Eventually, shelves would be built inside the trucks.

Under the tent in Memorial Park. It’s a panoramic that doesn’t quite line up.

Families never got to see inside the trucks, but they did get to visit Memorial Park. Thirtieth Street was blocked off, so we could walk down the middle of it almost to the FDR and the parking lot was on the right at the end of the street. It started with just the trucks, but a tent was put up over them at some point and then a chapel was built on the other side of a canvas wall from the trucks so people would have a place of reflection and to leave mementos.

The Memorial Park Chapel. To the left is where the trucks were parked.

One day Mrs. Céron appeared in the lobby with a complex, confusing story about the FBI coming to her house to ask her questions about her son. “They had all this information,” she told me. “They wanted me to sign papers I couldn’t understand.” She hadn’t seen the men again. She was scared. She thought they were sent by the medical examiner’s office to tell her we’d found her son. We talked for a long time in the lobby about how things would work if we ever found her son’s body — we would tell the police and they would come to her house. I tried to comfort her with information and understanding.

I was overwhelmed and rushed that day, and my pulse was racing with the stress of knowing I needed to get back into the conference room. I searched for explanations about who the men could have been and what their visit could have meant. I asked her how her depression is — not good, she said. “I can’t stop crying. I can’t sleep. I can’t live without my son, my precious Manuel.”

During our times together we took frequent walks to Memorial Park. She brought different people with her over the years, and sometimes she came alone. I met Vanessa’s fiancé, and on another visit, one of Manuel’s high school teachers. And once, in a parade of short people with familiar energy, I met Mrs. Céron’s entire family, fresh off the plane from Bolivia. They had come for Manuel’s memorial service. But I am jumping ahead — this was after he was found.

In May of 2002, three months after I’d met Mrs. Céron, DNA identified bone fragments belonging to her son. I saw the paperwork come through and wanted to call her myself, but I hadn’t been working with the families long enough to follow my instincts. Instead, I waited all day for the police to go to her house. I was anxious, knowing that her world was changing, wondering how the news would affect her. It was like that early on — you would hold the identification paperwork in your hand and feel the power it carried. Somewhere, someone’s life was about to change. It was hard to know.

Then she called. She was crying so hard I couldn’t understand her. Later I would learn that the police had called looking for her husband and wouldn’t tell her what they wanted. She begged them to tell her what the news was, but they waited until she found her husband at work and had him call. When she called our office to speak to me it was 6:00 in the evening. I was so tired. My feet hurt, my eyes were strained, my brain was ravaged from spending my day making decisions that reverberated into a future I could not see but needed to predict.

She wanted to come to our office. Right now. I wanted to cry. It would take her over an hour to get to me with no traffic — at 6:00 pm, it might take two. My mother was visiting me from Virginia, and I wanted to spend time with her. But I told her yes, you can come, I will wait. She kept calling along the journey, making sure I was still there. She just had to see me. My mother and I went out to get some dinner and then walked back to the office.

I was on the first step outside the medical examiner’s office when I heard her voice. I turned and she was in my arms. I’m 5’8″ and standing on the steps with her on the sidewalk made our heights comically different. I was leaning over holding her. She wasn’t speaking, just sobbing and wailing into my torso. I looked up and my mother was watching us. My back started to ache from leaning over, but I held on. She drew in long breaths, sobbing. I could see people walking by us, cars driving up First Avenue, life going on. Her daughter and a young woman I didn’t recognize stood by looking at the ground. I waited while she calmed; I rocked her gently, my shirt wet from her tears.

Her breathing slowed and eventually we went inside, back into the Family Room, to the table where we had sat collecting DNA samples a few months ago. Those long, thin sticks in their white boxes had led to this moment. I held Manuel’s file. We all sat down at the table and I asked Mrs. Céron if she wanted to know what had been identified. Of course she did — the mothers almost always wanted to know everything. There were six remains, all brought to our office on December 4, 2001. We went through the paperwork one by one. There were fragments of long bone; a portion of his upper torso, with part of his left arm still attached; a rib fragment; and his right hand. Unfortunately, all of them were from the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island where all the debris from Ground Zero was taken to be examined again for any human remains.

Remains from Fresh Kills were difficult for families. For one thing, it meant we had no information whatsoever about where the remains had been found at Ground Zero. There was also psychological dirtiness around remains from the landfill. More than one person had been angry about it, “Scraps from the dump” a mother once spat out as she tossed the paperwork back towards me.

Related image
Wreckage from Ground Zero being barged to the Fresh Kills Landfill where it was sorted and searched for any human remains or personal effects.

While I talked, her daughter helped translate some of the words. Mrs. Céron’s English was good, but it couldn’t hold up to words like “partial torso.” I’d had this problem more than once, and often had resorted to crude drawings and pointing fingers at parts of my own body. Even if you were fluent in a language, who knew the word for innominate or clavicle? Many of the words I used I didn’t know before 9/11.

She was crying, of course, and her daughter was crying. The young woman — I never found out who she was — also cried. People usually apologized to me for crying, and I always said, “This is a sad place. It’s OK to cry here.” Which was true — it was. Sometimes if someone was crying particularly hard, I would ask, “Do you want me to stop?” but they never did and so, for the most part, I just pushed over the box of Kleenex and kept going.

When I was finished, she told me she wanted to go to Memorial Park. I didn’t want to go to Memorial Park. I was tired. I wanted release from work — it was just a precious few hours before I needed to be back. We got up, walked down the stairs and out the front door of the building, turned left and then turned left again to go down Thirtieth Street. As the white tent that covered Memorial Park came into view, Mrs. Céron started to stumble. I put my arm around her shoulders and tried to hold her steady. She was in a daze. It took us fifteen minutes to get down the block. It was starting to get dark.

When we arrived I realized I’d forgotten to check the computer to see which trailer his remains were in. When multiple remains were identified to one person we put them together, because, well, Jesus. I left her standing in the middle of Memorial Park with the two women, and ran to the trailers where the anthropologists who, among other things, released bodies to funeral directors worked. Four or five people were gathered around a portable television. I asked one of them to look up the information for me. Trailer 7. I dashed back out and under the tent.

I walked Mrs. Céron over to the right trailer. She began to sob even harder. She fell against the silver trailer, moaning. I held onto her shoulders and helped her to sit down on the platform used to gain access to the back of the trailers and to hold wreaths of flowers. I walked over to a bench by the opening to the tent and took a votive candle in a glass holder from one of the ubiquitous red bins the chaplains kept there. I lit it and walked over and sat it by her on the wooden platform. She picked it up and held it near her heart. From time to time she would fall into the trailer and kiss it; her lipstick marks stayed after she was gone.

For a while, her family and I stood back and watched her cry. Her back was to us, so we could see her shoulders shaking, but her face was obscured — it was pressed against the cold metal of the trailer door. Her moans became longer and louder. I looked at her daughter and told her I thought it was time for us to go. She nodded in relief and walked over to her mother. She leaned over and spoke to her and her mother turned and grabbed onto her. She screamed into her chest. “My son. My son. My son.”

The unknown young woman went and sat with them. She reached out to take Mrs. Céron’s hand. Mrs. Céron lunged towards her and fell into her arms, while still holding on to her daughter. They were all rocking back and forth, pulled back and forth by the waves of grief. My heart started to pound. It was getting darker outside things were starting to feel out of control.

I walked over to the three of them and told the daughter to go and get their car. I gave her directions on how to drive around the block and use the access road to get to the base of Thirtieth Street where she could drive in under the tent. She left in a half run. I took her place next to her mother. I held her. I ran my hand over her hair. “I know, I know, I know.” She started to come back to earth. We sat like that for a long time, waiting in the gloomy darkness, the burning candle reflected in the metal of the trailer doors.

Eventually, Vanessa came back. I nodded for her to move to her mother’s side and she did, replacing the young woman. We stood her mother up, but she couldn’t hold her own weight. She collapsed forward and I grabbed her around the waist to keep her from falling to the ground. We sat her back down and made eye contact over her head (both of us, I’m sure, looked scared). We tried again, and this time we were anticipating the weight, so we kept her standing.

We took a step forward and her knees buckled out from under her. We pulled her upright, but she was starting to slip out of her coat towards the ground. Again I grabbed her around the waist and held on tight. We lurched towards the waiting car. I called out to the young woman to open the back door, and eventually we folded Mrs. Céron into the back seat of the car. She fell over towards the far window, sobbing. I stood there for a moment with her daughter.

The car they were driving was old and battered. Mrs. Céron had not applied for or received any of the financial assistance available for family members who had a loved one die on 9/11. The idea of getting money for his death disturbed her, and for most of the benefits, she would need the death certificate she wouldn’t get. Now that he was identified, though, getting a death certificate was beyond her control.

I leaned down next to the back seat to talk to Mrs. Céron, “I’m going to say goodbye,” I told her. She pushed up to a sitting position and turned and fell against me. She was crying against my heart. “I am so lost,” she said. “I know,” I told her, and after a while, I started to pull away. She was gripping my shoulders. I had to lift her hands off of me and I stumbled backward when freed. I stood alone in the darkness, surrounded by death, while the car drove away.

I continued to see her after that, but we never identified more remains. Eventually, in May of 2005 we reached the end of the identification process. Well, it wasn’t the end because the process still continues as DNA technology improves, but it was the main ending. We wrote a letter to families explaining that we were done and included a form they could fill out to let us know if they wanted to be notified if we identified remains in the future. A group of us went to the mailbox in front of the medical examiner’s office and put the first letters in the mailbox. I turned, went inside and handed in my resignation.

My husband and I left New York and moved to Richmond, Virginia, my hometown. My touchdown to the real world after three and a half years of work at the medical examiner’s office was difficult. As soon as I was safe, all the trauma rained down on me. I came awake the first day pleading for my own death. My recovery has been difficult and it is still happening.

I talked to Mrs. Céron one more time, maybe two years after I left New York. I had written a book about my experiences, I had an agent, and I wanted to get her permission to publish what I’d written about her and Manuel. I posted a message on Manuel’s online memorial space asking for someone to pass my contact information on to her.

She called a few days later. She talked and cried for three hours. I think I said fewer than fifty words. There was good news, though. She’d had one of those rare additional identifications after the process was done and I had left. They had found Manuel’s left foot. She wanted to see the foot, but six years after 9/11 there was no seeing the foot. Decomposition had wrought its damage and all the unclaimed remained had gone through a drying process for permanent storage.

But there was a photograph of the foot, taken on the day it first arrived at the temporary morgue set up in the basement garage of the medical examiner’s office after 9/11. It turns out that Manuel and his mother had a long-running joke about how similar their feet were. I don’t know how they were similar, but they were distinctive and they were alike. When Mrs. Céron saw the photograph she knew that Manuel was dead.

It may seem like a ridiculous thing to see a mother knowing her son is dead as a light in the darkness, but it was. You see, for most people, the person they loved got up on 9/11, walked out the front door and disappeared. It was hard not to have hope. I talked to a number of wives who hoped their husbands had used 9/11 as a chance to escape their lives and were running a bar in Mexico somewhere. There were constant rumors of World Trade Center victims being in comas in hospitals, waiting to be discovered.

When we published the list of names to be read on the first anniversary of 9/11, it was after a series of meetings with a variety of agencies including the NYPD and the FDNY. The process to get a death certificate without remains was rigorous, so those names were on the list and if you’d been identified, we assumed you were legit. But this left dozens of people who were on the RM list (Reported Missing) that didn’t have either outcome.

I put together big binders with all the information we had on each of these folks and the list was gone through carefully. Many of the people on the Reported Missing list had been found on 9/11, but no one called to let public officials know. So, if you reported your husband missing, but he later called from the hospital where his wounds were being treated, he was still on our list.

When we completed the list a press release went out explaining what had happened. It created a storm of phone calls. When the newspapers said that people had been taken off the list because they had been found to be alive and at a hospital, people thought they meant we were currently finding 9/11 victims currently alive in hospitals.

An identification helped with this anxiety that your son was alive and you couldn’t find him or your sister was suffering somewhere alone or your husband had run off on you, which was horrible, but at least he was alive. So, for Mrs. Céron, the identification was a gift. She felt connected to Manuel because it was his foot, and she knew that foot, and she also felt saved from the horror of him being both alive and not alive.

I sat in my home and listened to her talk, sorry that she was still so grief-stricken, glad she was better than before. I never got to ask about using her son’s story in my book, but that’s fine because I decided not to publish it and I write the story now with changes to protect her and Manuel’s privacy.

I sometimes think about one of the death investigators coming into the conference room after seeing Mrs. Céron in the lobby cringing from exposure to the grief field that surrounded her. “The saddest mother in the world is here,” they’d tell me and I would sigh, get up, go through the locked door into the lobby to see what awaited me.


Started August of 2012, Finished September of 2019
Katie Sullivan | shewrites@katiesullivan.com
Licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Creative Commons License