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The Aftermath Of A Hurricane: Grim Witness Reports

tamohHigh up on the unusually brown sand, I come upon the remnants of a woman’s rust-red sweater. Someone has discovered it before me and has weighted it down with a two-by-four. Citizens have been asked to mark recovered materials in that way so that official investigators can examine them. The lightweight merino wool fabric is worn thin from being in the salt water. About half the sweater has been ripped away. What remains is one complete sleeve and part of the front, but there is enough here to suggest that the woman who wore it was small.

The sweater is enmeshed in a dark cluster of seaweed and reeds, so its off-red color looks especially bright in contrast. John Millington Synge wrote that the most beautiful thing in the world is a red rag on a hedge–a fragment of human life clinging like a memory to nature, or vice versa. The picture created by this juxtaposition, he said, was of “the splendid desolation of decay.”

I recall the quotation as a kind of intellectual reflex, but feel only sorrow. On Friday afternoon, I met, in a stationery store in East Moriches, a man who was at the end of his rope. He was one of the first to get out to the crash site on Wednesday night. A construction contractor in his early 50s, he had a fine open face, though his blue eyes were full of grief.

He and a friend had gone out in a whaler ahead of the Coast Guard. He confessed that the two of them were almost exhilarated at the prospect of pulling survivors out of the dark water. “We saw floating bodies, two or three,” he said, “but we let them pass. We were looking for the living. After awhile, we knew that nobody had made it, so we started pulling in the dead. I brought up a woman whose legs were missing. I’ve seen dead people before, but nothing like that.

ahThe Coast Guard sure hadn’t seen anything like it. Nobody says this, but ‘the Coast Guard’ means 18- and 19-year-old kids. When they came upon the bodies they were screaming into their radios for help.” He said he didn’t know why, but he couldn’t stop talking about what he saw out there. He said that his friend hadn’t slept a minute since Wednesday. “We found two more ladies. They were naked.” He spoke with both a hushed respect and puzzlement.

“It was not like their clothes were burned off,” he said. “But they were naked. How does that happen?”Since Wednesday night, the people of this area have either watched the news or become part of it. All have been affected by it. A bulky man who runs the liquor store in East Moriches told me that he would be enraged if it turned out that the downing of the plane was the work of terrorists, but said that all he could feel at the moment was a sadness so inexpressible it brought him to tears.

Like most everyone in East Moriches, Center Moriches, Speonk and the other towns in the middle of Long Island, he is an ordinary working-class American. But his despairing tone of voice is no different from members of the more pampered vacationer class in Westhampton, Quiogue and Quogue. Everyone feels a kinship with the victims, and perhaps suddenly with everyone else. “I cannot bear to watch the families anymore,” said a woman who lives here. “The bodies are so badly decomposed they are unrecognizable. They say they recovered over a hundred, but who are they? That man who lost his wife and daughters. That man who was about to be married in Paris….”

Tire tracks run the full length of the Quogue beach, creating a highway of pebbles and broken shells between them. Flags at the beachfront houses fly at half-staff. The water is the dark silver-gray color of oceans in war movies–an ominous, undulating field. I study the rust-red sweater one more time before I move on. I reach down and take a small section of it between my thumb and index finger, rubbing it the way a child rubs a security blanket. The fabric is worn so thin, it nearly comes apart to the touch. Held up to the fierce sunlight, the stitching becomes a spider web, a gauze, a lattice-work wall. The end of the sleeve catches my eye, and I hold that for a while, my hand enveloping the point where the sweater embraced a wrist. I look at it without thought, and let it drop. This is the picture here at the end of the week: sand, ocean, the detritus of a disaster and people walking up and down, nodding to one another as they pass.

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