Remembering 9/11 in literature

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies,

and The Making of a Medical Examiner,

by Judy Melinek, M.D.and T.J. Mitchell

The author, Judy Melinek, M.D., wrote this  account of her training as a forensic pathologist, a physician specialist who investigates sudden, unexpected or violent deaths. Her husband, T.J. Mitchell co-authored.

When she applied for a position in New York City at the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), Dr. Judy Melinek never imagined that decision would plunge her into the nightmare of September 11, 2001. She was at the ME office that day when the Twin Towers were attacked and fell, killing thousands of people.

The main job of a medical examiner is to investigate death by examining a corpse- an autopsy. They look for evidence of cause of death, was it due to disease or trauma, and time of death, was it recent or remote. They hunt for signs that the death was self or other inflicted. Sometimes they may even need to establish the identity of the corpse.

Such was the case after September 11. She and the other staff collaborated with the team of investigators who worked night and day identifying remains of the victims, a task she vividly describes in the book. This was basically their only job, since the cause of death was for the most part irrelevant, and impossible to determine. Sometimes they had only a small body part, as little as a finger, to extract DNA to identity a victim. Such identification was critical to bring closure to the families who lost loved ones, people who left for work that day, and never came home.

Dr. Melinek describes not only the science of what she was doing, but also the emotion behind it; how she and the other medical examiners and staff felt about their work. She describes how it affected her relationship with her husband and young son, the problem of explaining to him what she was seeing and experiencing on a daily basis. She didn’t have the heart to tell him how many trailers full of partial bodies there were, after he saw just one and was shocked.

She also discusses other cases she worked on.  As a forensic pathologist, Dr. Melinek  understands why and how people die, and therefore also knows how people can avoid dying unexpectedly. Pathologists tend to be blunt, straightforward and to the point, as when she writes,

  • “So don’t jaywalk.
  • Wear your seat belt when you drive.
  • Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise.
  • Watch your weight.
  • If you’re a smoker, stop right now. If your aren’t, don’t start.
  • Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad.
  • You know that yellow line on the subway platform? It’s there for a reason.
  • Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.” 

Working Stiff moves at a quick pace, in a conversational style. When she uses medical jargon, she explains it in simple terms. She describes the cases she investigated in detail so those with weak stomachs (no pun) may want to skip this read.

Having experienced her father’s unexpected death when she was 13 years old, she was no stranger to it, and she learned more from the 262 autopsies she did during her training. As she says in this engaging memoir,

To confront death every day, to see it for yourself, you have to love the living.” 

Dr. Melinek also blogs at Forensic Pathology Forum 

The Statue of Liberty

Other authors have written about the medical consequences of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 in these books and articles.

City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11

mounted police officer
a New York City police officer and his horse represent the city proudly

by Anthony DePalma

“In City of Dust, Anthony DePalma offers the first full accounting of one of the gravest environmental catastrophes in United States history.

The destruction on 9/11 of two of the world’s largest buildings unleashed a vortex of dust and ash that blotted out the sun and has distorted science, medicine and public policy ever since. The likely dangers of 9/11’s massive dust cloud were evident from the beginning, yet thousands chose not to see. Why? As the sickening results of exposure became evident, many still refused to recognize them. Why? The consequences are still being tallied in the wasted bodies and disrupted lives of thousands who gave their all when the need was greatest, but whose demands for justice have been consumed by years of politics and courtroom maneuvers.

Separating reality from myth – and doing so with exceptional literary style and grace, DePalma covered Ground Zero for The New York Times for four years. DePalma introduces heroic firefighters, dedicated doctors and scientists, obsessive city officials, partisan politicians, aggressive lawyers, and compassionate judges and reveals the individual decisions that destroyed public trust, and the desperate attempts made to rebuild it.

The dust that was the World Trade Center has changed everything it touched. This is the story of that dust, the 9/11 disaster after the disaster, and what it tells us about ourselves and our future.”

(Amazon review)

Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors

by Dr. Robin Stern and Courtney E. Martin

“Written in conjunction with the documentary Rebirth, a full decade in the making, an uplifting look at the lives of nine individuals whose lives were forever changed by the largest tragedy our nation has ever faced. 

In Project Rebirth, a psychologist and a journalist examine the lives of nine people who were directly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. Written concurrently with the filming of the documentary, it is uniquely positioned to tackle the questions raised about how people react in the face of crippling grief, how you maintain hope for a future when your life as you knew it is destroyed, and the amazing ability of humans to focus on the positive aspects of day-to-day living in the face of tragedy.”

(Amazon review)

NYFD engine
honoring the brave NYFD firefighters who rescued survivors and those who lost their lives doing so

At Morgue, Ceaselessly Sifting 9/11 Traces

“Outside the chalk-white tent, the whistle of traffic along the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive signals the forward movement of a city. But inside, 16 refrigerated trailers hum in a ceaseless chorus, giving voice to the dead whose remains are contained in their hold.

The trailers hummed as time separated the city from the 11th of September: as the smoking mountain of what had been the World Trade Center became a yawning hole; as 1.6 million tons of debris were sifted through on a Staten Island landfill; as commemorative services caused heads to bow. They hummed and they continue to hum, a mantra-like reminder that talk of closure is premature.” (excerpt from newspaper article)

Public health and medical disaster responses: The untold story of 9/11

By Kelly B. Close, MD

former National Coordinator of Disaster Volunteers for the American Red Cross

“You never know when your life is going to change.

My red business suit was almost buttoned, and I was rehearsing my presentation for the Milford, Connecticut Red Cross board of directors, even though my mind kept wandering to my wedding just nine days earlier in Walt Disney World. An urgent call from my new husband to come to the television interrupted my wedding day dreams.

As soon as I saw the images of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, I knew that my plans for the day – maybe even my life – had changed.” (excerpt from article at ems1.com)

Triumph Over Terror

by Bob Ossler with Janice Hall Heck

“What do Ossler’s insights reveal about finding meaning and purpose in the thick of chaos and personal tragedy?

Chaplain Ossler chronicles the best of humanity—acts of courage and goodness in the midst of unimaginable devastation. As terrorist attacks continue to assault humanity, Triumph Over Terror reveals how your spirit can triumph over terror’s reign, and how you can help others suffering from trauma and loss.”(Amazon review)

(This blog post contains several affiliate links, a commission is paid if used to make purchase. Thank you.)

One World Trade Center
One World Trade Center, photo taken 8/16/2013 by Dr. Aletha

I appreciate all of you who follow this blog; there are numerous other blogs to choose from so I am honored you chose to spend some time here. A special welcome to all my new followers from this past month.

To start following Watercress Words , use this form to get an email notification of new posts . Please find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn. Thanks so much.

Dr. Aletha 

an open book with pages folded to make a heart
photo from Lightstock.com, affiliate link

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In Oklahoma, a time to mourn and a time to dance

With  other students from a local  ballroom dance school, I competed in a dance sport competition in Oklahoma City.

An annual event, the Oklahoma Challenge Ballroom Dance competition draws dancers from Oklahoma, surrounding states and as far away as Toronto, Ontario. Many return every year to compete against dancers who have now become dance friends.

The competition occurs at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City and we stay at an adjacent hotel. Nearby is the Bricktown historic district with trendy restaurants, hotels,clubs, shops and the Chesapeake Arena, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team.

Also not far away is the site of the biggest “challenge” the city and our state has ever faced- the 1995 domestic terrorist attack on the Murrah Federal Building. On a spring morning in April, a terrorist parked  a rental truck on the street in front of the building; the truck contained a  5000 pound bomb made of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.

A morning of terror

At 9:02 am April 19, 1995 the bomb exploded, destroying one side of the federal building, damaging several adjacent buildings, injuring 680 people and killing 168 people, including 19 children.

Until September 11, 2001, it was the deadliest terrorist attack on United States soil; it remains the worst domestic terrorist attack.

A day of remembrance

On April 19, 2000 ,the Oklahoma City National Memorial was dedicated ; the Museum opened a year later.  I have visited several times, and always come away having seen and learned something new. If you ever travel through Oklahoma, I recommend you put this on your must-see list. When you come,  here are some of the images you will see and experience. 

OKC memorial and federal building in the distance

the West Gate of the memorial looking northwest toward the new federal building

Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum entrance

Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum entrance

window at the museum

window from the museum overlooking outdoor memorial


Memorial pool and chairs

168 lighted chairs sit on the south lawn of the Memorial.


gold statue shaped like a chair

There is a gold chair for each person who died from the bombing that day.

A lifetime of honor

In the days ,weeks and months following the attack ,we learned all the details about the bombing- the perpetrators, the victims, the rescuers, the survivors.

168 Oklahomans lost their lives there that day, including 19 children.

My husband and I visited the site after the wreckage was imploded and the site was fenced off. The fence became a makeshift memorial, as people left mementos of all kinds- dolls, stuffed animals, photos, pictures, flowers, crafts, flags, shirts, letters.  

We have visited again since the official memorial  and the museum were established on April 19, 2000. Sections of the fence were left intact, and people still leave mementos; others became part of the museum collection.

2016-03-07 12.05.50 2016-03-07 12.08.17 2016-03-07 12.12.19 2016-03-07 12.11.04

A long section of the original fence has been left intact, as well as parts of the original federal building wall.

sections of damaged wall

sections of damaged wall

Until 9/11, it was the deadliest act of terrorism on United States soil.

"We search for the Truth" written on a wall.

On the wall of the Journal Record Building which was also damaged by the blast; the museum now occupies part of it.

The perpetrators were caught and brought to justice. The driver of the truck was convicted, sentenced to death, and died by execution. The another remains in prison for life.

That day in Oklahoma City showed the best  in our state and our country as people, some with no training , risked their lives to help rescue people who were injured and trapped inside. Firefighters and police came from all over the United States to help. People donated food and first aid supplies.

children and adults visiting a wall decorated with handprints

Schools regularly bring students to visit the memorial and museum

colorful hand painted tiles from children

Tiles hand painted by children were sent to the city as a show of support and sympathy.


bright colored flowers along a wall

Pansies are popular in Oklahoma in the fall and spring.

I was proud to be an Oklahoman then and now, and still grieve for the lives we lost that day.

The Survivor Tree

The Survivor Tree, an American elm, survived the blast and is part of the Memorial.

 

statue of Christ with head bowed

statue of a grieving Christ, in the courtyard of a church across the street from the memorial

 

There is

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

Ecclesiastes 3:4, ESV 

Remarks made by Governor Frank Keating at the Memorial Dedication , April 19, 2000

“We remember that moment that is framed forever by these twin gates. Our place of remembrance is filled with those symbols (ribbons, angels, flags) and also filled with love-the love of countless Americans whose ideas and support and contributions helped create this beautiful memorial.

On April 19 five years ago the flag of our nation was flying over the Murrah building. It is flying over our memorial today, and flies proudly in our hearts.

For those who perpetrated this act, we have one message:

In America you can speak and vote and complain, but there is no right to maim and bomb and kill…and if you think you’ll bring that flag down, there is your answer.

We are all Oklahomans today, and we are all Americans. May God continue to bless our beloved land. “

quote from The Official Record of the Oklahoma City Bombing, published by Oklahoma Today Magazine 

In a previous post, I shared how that day unfolded for me.

I will never forget the Oklahoma City bombing.

remembering the heart of health

I appreciate all of you who follow this blog; there are numerous other blogs to choose from so I am honored you chose to spend some time here. A special welcome to all my new followers from this past month.

To start following Watercress Words , use this form to get an email notification of new posts . Please find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn, links are on the left side bar here and the Home page. Thanks so much.

                              Dr. Aletha 

Working Stiff -a book review to remember 9/11

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies,

and The Making of a Medical Examiner,

by Judy Melinek, M.D.and T.J. Mitchell

Working Stiff, a book

The author, Judy Melinek, M.D., wrote this  account of her training as a forensic pathologist, a physician specialist who investigates sudden, unexpected or violent deaths. Her husband, T.J. Mitchell co-authored.

When she applied for a position in New York City at the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), Dr. Judy Melinek never imagined that decision would plunge her into the nightmare of September 11, 2001. She was at the ME office that day when the Twin Towers were attacked and fell, killing thousands of people.

The main job of a medical examiner is to investigate death by examining a corpse- an autopsy. They look for evidence of cause of death, was it due to disease or trauma, and time of death, was it recent or remote. They hunt for signs that the death was self or other inflicted. Sometimes they may even need to establish the identity of the corpse.

Such was the case after September 11. She and the other staff collaborated with the team of investigators who worked night and day identifying remains of the victims, a task she vividly describes in the book. This was basically their only job, since the cause of death was for the most part irrelevant, and impossible to determine. Sometimes they had only a small body part, as little as a finger, to extract DNA to identity a victim. Such identification was critical to bring closure to the families who lost loved ones, people who left for work that day, and never came home.

Dr. Melinek describes not only the science of what she was doing, but also the emotion behind it; how she and the other medical examiners and staff felt about their work. She describes how it affected her relationship with her husband and young son, the problem of explaining to him what she was seeing and experiencing on a daily basis. She didn’t have the heart to tell him how many trailers full of partial bodies there were, after he saw just one and was shocked.

She also discusses other cases she worked on.  As a forensic pathologist, Dr. Melinek  understands why and how people die, and therefore also knows how people can avoid dying unexpectedly. Pathologists tend to be blunt, straightforward and to the point, as when she writes,

“So don’t jaywalk.

Wear your seat belt when you drive.

Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise.

Watch your weight.

If you’re a smoker, stop right now. If your aren’t, don’t start.

Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad.

You know that yellow line on the subway platform? It’s there for a reason.

Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.” 

Working Stiff moves at a quick pace, in a conversational style. When she uses medical jargon, she explains it in simple terms. She describes the cases she investigated in detail so those with weak stomachs (no pun) may want to skip this read.

Having experienced her father’s unexpected death when she was 13 years old, she was no stranger to it, and she learned more from the 262 autopsies she did during her training. As she says in this engaging memoir,

To confront death every day, to see it for yourself, you have to love the living.” 

Here is a link to Dr. Melinek’s blog

Forensic Pathology Forum 

Statue of Liberty
Lady Liberty lifting her torch in New York harbor


 

Links to other  literature about the medical consequences of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001

City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11

by Anthony DePalma

“In City of Dust, Anthony DePalma offers the first full accounting of one of the gravest environmental catastrophes in United States history. The destruction on 9/11 of two of the world’s largest buildings unleashed a vortex of dust and ash that blotted out the sun and has distorted science, medicine and public policy ever since.

The likely dangers of 9/11’s massive dust cloud were evident from the beginning, yet thousands chose not to see. Why?

As the sickening results of exposure became evident, many still refused to recognize them. Why?

The consequences are still being tallied in the wasted bodies and disrupted lives of thousands who gave their all when the need was greatest, but whose demands for justice have been consumed by years of politics and courtroom maneuvers. Why?

Separating reality from myth – and doing so with exceptional literary style and grace. DePalma covered Ground Zero for The New York Times for four years. DePalma introduces heroic firefighters, dedicated doctors and scientists, obsessive city officials, partisan politicians, aggressive lawyers, and compassionate judges and reveals the individual decisions that destroyed public trust, and the desperate attempts made to rebuild it.

The dust that was the World Trade Center has changed everything it touched. This is the story of that dust, the 9/11 disaster after the disaster, and what it tells us about ourselves and our future.”

(Amazon review)

mounted police officer
a New York City police officer and his horse represent the city proudly

Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors

by Dr. Robin Stern and Courtney E. Martin

“Written in conjunction with the documentary Rebirth, a full decade in the making, an uplifting look at the lives of nine individuals whose lives were forever changed by the largest tragedy our nation has ever faced.

In Project Rebirth, a psychologist and a journalist examine the lives of nine people who were directly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. Written concurrently with the filming of a forthcoming documentary, it is uniquely positioned to tackle the questions raised about how people react in the face of crippling grief, how you maintain hope for a future when your life as you knew it is destroyed, and the amazing ability of humans to focus on the positive aspects of day-to-day living in the face of tragedy.”

(Amazon review)

NYFD engine
honoring the brave NYFD firefighters who rescued survivors and those who lost their lives doing so

At Morgue, Ceaselessly Sifting 9/11 Traces

“Outside the chalk-white tent, the whistle of traffic along the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive signals the forward movement of a city. But inside, 16 refrigerated trailers hum in a ceaseless chorus, giving voice to the dead whose remains are contained in their hold.

The trailers hummed as time separated the city from the 11th of September: as the smoking mountain of what had been the World Trade Center became a yawning hole; as 1.6 million tons of debris were sifted through on a Staten Island landfill; as commemorative services caused heads to bow. They hummed and they continue to hum, a mantra-like reminder that talk of closure is premature.”

(excerpt from newspaper article)

Public health and medical disaster responses: The untold story of 9/11

By Kelly B. Close, MD

former National Coordinator of Disaster Volunteers for the American Red Cross

“You never know when your life is going to change.

My red business suit was almost buttoned, and I was rehearsing my presentation for the Milford, Connecticut Red Cross board of directors, even though my mind kept wandering to my wedding just nine days earlier in Walt Disney World. An urgent call from my new husband to come to the television interrupted my wedding day dreams. As soon as I saw the images of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, I knew that my plans for the day – maybe even my life – had changed.”

(excerpt from article at ems1.com)

Triumph Over Terror

by Bob Ossler with Janice Hall Heck

“What do Ossler’s insights reveal about finding meaning and purpose in the thick of chaos and personal tragedy? Chaplain Ossler chronicles the best of humanity—acts of courage and goodness in the midst of unimaginable devastation. As terrorist attacks continue to assault humanity, “Triumph Over Terror” reveals how your spirit can triumph over terror’s reign, and how you can help others suffering from trauma and loss.”

(Amazon review)

(This blog post contains several affiliate links to let you help support this blog at no extra cost. Thanks. )

exploring the HEART of history and health

I took the photos in this post on a visit to New York City, one of my favorite vacations.

I appreciate all of you who follow this blog; there are numerous other blogs to choose from so I am honored you chose to spend some time here. A special welcome to all my new followers from this past month.

To start following Watercress Words , use this form to get an email notification of new posts . Please find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn. Thanks so much.

                              Dr. Aletha 

Remembering the Oklahoma City bombing- Tuesday Travels

 

April 19  is the anniversary of the 1995 bombing  of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which remains the deadliest domestic “homegrown” terrorist incident in the United States.

I lived there in the 1970s while in medical school and residency at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center and visit frequently. These are my memories of that day.

“I will never forget the Oklahoma City bombing”

On April 19, 1995 I was seeing patients in my family practice office  in Tulsa Oklahoma when my medical assistant  told me a bomb had exploded in Oklahoma City, 90 miles away. We didn’t have computers, smartphones or internet so I turned on a radio and heard news reports that shocked and saddened me.

A massive bomb had exploded at the Federal building in downtown Oklahoma City , something I thought only happened overseas. Who would bomb a building in Oklahoma?  we all asked ourselves. Several employees heard from friends or relatives who lived in or near OKC, as we call it; some said they felt their homes shake several miles away from the blast site.

Oklahoma mural

A mural representing Oklahoma culture decorates downtown Oklahoma City today

 

 

 

 

As I drove home from work that afternoon I encountered a traffic jam on a usually easy drive; I assumed a car wreck was  tying up traffic. Instead,  cars of people  trying to get into the local Red Cross blood donation facility created the backup; when I finally drove past I saw a long line of people waiting to enter.

I picked up my 10 year old son from school and realized the teachers had not told the students . I explained to him what had happened , as well as you can explain something so horrible to a child.

He looked at me and said, ” Mom, the 5th graders went to Oklahoma City today.” I remembered seeing the charter bus parked at the school that morning for the annual field trip to the science museum in OKC. Since I knew the museum was not downtown, I assured him the children from his school were safe.

Bricktown in Oklahoma City

Bricktown area of OKC with Cox Convention Center and Devon Energy Center tower behind

 

Chesapeake Arena

Chesapeake Arena, home of our popular Thunder Basketball team

 

 

They next morning as usual I turned on the television to watch the morning news while I dressed for work. I can’t believe now that I wondered if there would be any news of the bombing on national television; it had dominated our local news the evening before.

I turned to the Today show and found that it was broadcasting from OKC, as were all the major networks ,and devoted the entire broadcast to the bombing. I think that was my first inkling what a momentous event it was.

They interviewed a doctor from St Anthony Hospital, just down the street from the Murrah Building- he was one of my medical school professors, the first time someone I knew personally was on national television.

 

window at the museum

window from the museum overlooking outdoor memorial

Memorial pool and chairs

Field of Empty Chairs beside the Reflecting Pool – Each gold chair represents a deceased victim.

 

 

In the following days, weeks and months we learned all the details about the bombing- the perpetrators, the victims, the rescuers, the survivors.

168 Oklahomans lost their lives there that day, including 19 children.

 

My husband and I visited the site after the wreckage was imploded, when the site was fenced off.  The fence became a makeshift memorial, as people left mementos of all kinds- dolls, stuffed animals, photos, pictures, flowers, crafts, flags, shirts, letters.  We have visited again since the official memorial  and the museum were established on April 19, 2000.

 

 

 

 

2016-03-07 12.05.50 2016-03-07 12.08.17 2016-03-07 12.12.19 2016-03-07 12.11.04

 

a long section of the original fence has been left intact, as well as parts of the original federal building wall.

 

sections of damaged wall sections of damaged wall

 

 

 

Until 9/11, it was the deadliest act of terrorism on United States soil.

 

OKC memorial and federal building in the distance

The West Gate of Time. the Reflecting Pool  and looking  northwest toward the new federal building in the distance

 

 

That day in Oklahoma City showed the best  in our state and our country as people, some with no training , risked their lives to help rescue people who were injured and trapped inside. Firefighters and police came from all over the United States to help. People donated food and first aid supplies.

 

children and adults visiting a wall decorated with handprints

Schools regularly bring students to visit the memorial and museum; these are visiting the children’s area

 

colorful hand painted tiles from children

Tiles hand painted by children were sent to the city as a show of support and sympathy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was proud to be an Oklahoman then and now, and still grieve for the lives we lost that day.

The Survivor Tree

The Survivor Tree, an American Elm, survived the blast

 

a video remembrance:

20 years later: Remembering Oklahoma City

 

"We search for the Truth" written on a wall.

On the wall of the Journal Record Building which was also damaged by the blast; the museum now occupies part of it.

 

statue of Christ with head bowed

statue of a grieving Christ, in the courtyard of a church across the street from the memorial

 

The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum is privately funded. The memorial is free and open to the public. An admission is charged to tour the museum. According to the website-

 

“The Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation is a private 501(c)(3) organization which owns and operates the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. The Foundation is the caretaker of both the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial and the Memorial Museum. It does not receive any annual operating funds from the federal, state or local government. Museum admissions, store sales, the Memorial Marathon, private fundraising and earnings from an endowment allow the Memorial and Museum to be self-sustaining.”

Thank you for joining me to remember and honor those injured and killed in the Murrah Building and the heroes who rescued them.

                                               Dr.Aletha