Nothing Left by John M. Wills

We stood at the apex of the hill, looking down across the expanse of field that yielded yellow wild grass and several stands of trees. The autumn season had yet to morph the colors of the summer leaves. A beautiful contrast of gold and green made for a serene scene on this Pennsylvania hillside. The azure sky was highlighted by a brilliant sun, which had already done its job of melting away the chilly morning fog and now wrapped nature in a comfortable, warm embrace. Were it not for the scar on the complexion of this vista, it would have been the quintessential postcard.

I turned to my partner, Steve. “Where is it; where’s the wreckage?”

“I don’t know—could they have possibly carted away the debris already?”

We both scanned the area but came up with the same result—nothing left.

Steve Spruill and I were FBI agents assigned to the Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was head of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at both Quantico and the Washington Field Office. Steve held a master’s degree in social work and was a certified Employee Assistance Professional. Before that he had also worked as a street agent at the Washington and Oklahoma City field offices.

We had driven to the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville, in Somerset County, to serve as EAP counselors. Just the day before, I had worked the midnight shift at the Pentagon crash site as a peer counselor, making myself available to anyone who found the grisly work of recovering bodies and evidence to be overwhelming. I wasn’t sure that I could steel myself sufficiently to offer my colleagues comfort, but I asked the Father for strength and hoped my years as a Chicago cop and FBI agent would help me in this endeavor.

For most of us, the events of 9/11 had yet to sink in; they were just too difficult to comprehend. The fact that a handful of ragtag renegades could wreak such havoc, murdering several thousand Americans, was a notion that none of us could have ever imagined. We looked down and saw our fellow agents, alongside many others from assorted federal agencies, on their hands and knees digging in the charred earth. They were engaged in an activity that could only be described as sacred. They were recovering the human remains of those heroes and martyrs who had perished aboard UA Flight 93 while resisting crazed madmen who, I thought, surely had been recruited by Satan himself. As we watched these men and women toil while dressed in white hazmat suits, I noted the scene was eerily similar to astronauts working on the lunar surface.

We made our way down to the crime scene adhering to the prescribed route so as not to contaminate any evidence or disturb any remains. As we encountered these selfless workers—who had volunteered to take on this haunting task—I recognized several agents and civilian employees I had met throughout my stints in the Chicago, Detroit and Houston field offices. We acknowledged each other with nods and smiles, but conversation was uncomfortable. Many, it seemed, were in shock. They were fixated on the task at hand, to the exclusion of all else, so that their minds were occupied with work. They couldn’t handle the reality, indeed, the magnitude and consequence of the crime scene they had come to process. When we did speak, it was mostly sarcastic remarks and anecdotes—the kind of gallows humor cops have always resorted to when they find themselves unable to deal with the horror of the moment.

We made ourselves available by simply hanging around wearing our dark blue shirts with “EAP” emblazoned in huge gold letters across the front and back. We handed out our contact info in case someone wanted to be more discreet about venting or sharing feelings, and then made our way down the road to the temporary morgue that had been established in a National Guard facility.

Like ants in a child’s ant farm displayed on top of a dresser, people moved drone-like through a maze of hallways and rooms, immersed in their jobs. Dental records were compared, DNA samples were taken and preserved, and bone fragments and pieces of burnt flesh were prepared for later identification. Grisly work to be sure, but work nonetheless. This total focus on the task is how cops protect their sanity; this is all that keeps them from screaming and running from the room, unable to face the reality of how evil can cause one man to destroy another.

The day’s activities mercifully came to an end, but my emotions were as unsettled as boiling water in a heated pot. How does one turn off the sights, sounds and smells of human destruction? How do you flip a switch to make it all disappear? Steve and I grabbed a meal and then retired to our rooms—just a tiny break from a nightmare that, for me, would never end.

The next morning found us back at the site. A man who has since become a good friend and spiritual mentor joined us. Reverend Dean Kavouras was an ordained pastor in the Lutheran Church and also served as a chaplain for the Cleveland Police Department and the FBI. He was a wise, compassionate soul who’d seen his share of tragedy and death during his thirty years of service. I was glad to have him on board. Although some are able to share their burden with a colleague, others find comfort confiding in a man of the cloth.

This day proved to be difficult, not that the others weren’t, but this was the day the families of the deceased passengers arrived. A temporary shelter that afforded an unobstructed view of the crash site had been constructed at the hill’s zenith. The Red Cross, which had already been operational for several days, would assist in facilitating the viewing. Reverend Dean and several others would lead a prayer service at its conclusion.

As several buses pulled into the compound and parked just short of the hilltop, I stood off to the side to allow the relatives their privacy. I watched each individual exit. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. All ages, sizes, and colors. All bound by the same inexplicable event—their loved one had been stolen from them. Hijacked. Murdered.  They trudged up to the shelter and assembled under the canopy. Standing. Looking. Nothing left.

They came for closure; they came to see where their loved ones had breathed their last breath. They saw a field, once a place where generations had farmed and earned their living. Now it would forever serve as a shrine to American heroes. They stood quietly as the men of God prayed over their family members.

Later, I watched once again as each one boarded the bus that would take them far from this unforgettable scene. Many faces bore tears and agonized expressions, others appeared unfazed, but I recognized that shell shocked “thousand-yard stare.” I’d seen it plenty of times throughout my thirty- two years of police work. The reality of this unspeakable horror had caused them to shut everything out—it was easier that way. That single event, watching the families, has kept me awake on many occasions. I will never forget the abject sadness and despair that was palpable in those moments. It hung heavy in the air, like a rain cloud ready to burst. As the buses made their way from the compound, my thoughts turned to my own family. I lifted a prayer to Him, that this experience would make me a better husband and father.

The next day, Sunday, was the last day of the operation. Reverend Dean put together a last-minute service that went off as if it had been planned for weeks. There were handouts for readings and hymns; Dean had even found an organist. We held the ceremony at the command post. Some of the one hundred fifty agents in attendance sat on folding chairs, others stood on a bluff, which rose slightly above the scene. Dean’s pulpit was a steel staircase leading to a trailer. We rigged a makeshift microphone taped to a copper pipe, and his vestment was, appropriately, an FBI raid jacket.

Despite all of the field expediency required to set up this service, it turned out to be as solemn an occasion as any church could offer. In fact, the participation seemed to be unanimous, notwithstanding the differences in religious leanings. Everyone sang; everyone prayed. It was one of the most inspiring, cathartic services that I had ever participated in.

On Monday, we said our goodbyes to Reverend Dean. Steve and I journeyed back to the FBI Academy, although it was a little while before we returned to our normal duties as instructors; I would serve the next month at FBI Headquarters helping to analyze phone calls from the Middle East prior to 9/11, trying to establish a nexus between the calls and the attack. The memories of that killing field in Somerset remain indelibly etched in my mind. The faces of the family members will never be forgotten, nor will the realization that there was…nothing left.

john m willsJohn M. Wills is a former Chicago police officer and retired FBI agent. He writes both nonfiction and fiction in the form of novels, short stories, articles and poetry. John is an award winning author who created The Chicago Warriors Thriller Series. He has published more than 100 articles in both print media and online and is working on his fifth book. An avid reader, John writes book reviews for The New York Journal of Books and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He has had short stories published in several anthologies, and has written the Foreword for two books: Child Finder: Resurrection and American-Thinking II. John’s recent novel, TARGETED, won 1st Prize from the Public Safety Writers Association conference in Las Vegas. John is an authorized NCAA speaker on the dangers of steroids, and holds a certificate as a personal trainer. Website: www.johnmwills.com

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  • It’s a tough scene to describe, John, and you did it beautifully. It reminds me of responding to the scene of Flight 800 in July 1996, where I worked for approximately 8 weeks, handling the world-wide media. I’ll never forget seeing some of the pieces of luggage recovered, intact…teddy bears…gym bags…all these things intact — yet 230 persons didn’t make it. I saw several victims in the makeshift morgue, and I couldn’t help but think how they had every reason to believe they would have landed safely in Paris, but never made it out of NY. Family members, classmates, co-workers, newlyweds…I’ve never taken a flight since then without thinking of these victims. You never forget it.