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Rosaleen Tallon (Photo by Adam Rountree/AP)

Remains of the day

Remembering 9/11 | What happened to ordinary men and women at Ground Zero helps explain why the road to reconstruct the World Trade Center has been long and torturous

Issue: "Remembering 9/11," Sept. 10, 2011

To begin to understand the pain for families who lost loved ones on 9/11, even 10 years later, Rosaleen Tallon need only read from the medical examiner's report that accompanied the return of her brother's remains:

"Sean P. Tallon . . . torso and extremities. Head absent. Reddish arm hair, multiple spine fractures, pelvic fracture, legs fractured, knees dislocated, ankles fractured and dislocated, right hand missing. Received in separate bag: head and broken helmet. Eyes not present. Decomposing."

Inside the cooling, smoking bowels of Ground Zero where Tallon-a firefighter-died when the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, workers found the following possessions, and returned them also to Tallon's family: a radio, bunker pants and jacket (Sean P. Tallon written on them), Pathmark discount card, extra-large blue shirt with "Tallon" embroidered on it and the certified first responder patch on the shoulder, blue boxer shorts, blue work shorts, boots, and two white socks.

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As Tallon dryly read from the medical examiner's report at a briefing last February in Washington, D.C.'s Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, dark-suited businessmen and women in the packed reception room let tears stream down their faces. In front of me a woman's shoulders heaved and she slumped forward in her chair, burying her head in her hands while Tallon spoke. I asked her later if she too had lost a loved one on 9/11, but she shook her head no. A decade on, the gruesome details of what happened to ordinary men and women at Ground Zero bereaves not only families of victims but any who revisit the day's immeasurable trauma.

Sean Tallon was 26, a Marine reservist completing his first probationary year with the New York Fire Department. He was assigned to Ladder Company 10 (the "Ten House") directly across the street from the World Trade Center's twin towers. The only son of Irish immigrants, he was living at home pending completion of his training year. His sister, now 39, describes him as "fair-haired and handsome" and "also a real wise guy" who liked to play Irish jigs on the button accordion with his dad. Sean's father, who worked directly across the river from lower Manhattan, saw the planes strike the towers, saw the flames and knew his son would head directly into the buildings, saw the buildings collapse and knew his son was crushed within.

Yet nearly half of the victims who died in the twin towers were never identified. When the city's medical examiner's office in February 2005 announced that it was closing all investigations, having exhausted efforts to identify remains despite using advanced DNA techniques, it successfully had tagged only 1,630 of the dead. Of the 2,753 who died in the World Trade Center, only 293 bodies were found intact, and only 12 could be identified by sight.

At the same time, the medical examiner's office had recovered over 21,000 body parts at the site, including 200 linked to one person. Those who knew victims discovered that the grief of losing a loved one was compounded by the heartbreak of burying only body parts, or having no one to bury at all.

That in part explains why 9/11 family organizations remain active a decade later, and why Ground Zero remains the battleground it became the day Islamic jihadists flew planes into its towers. For many family members and friends, it is the only cemetery they have to visit. "Ground Zero is sacrosanct to New Yorkers and all Americans," said Tallon, who serves as family liaison for Advocates for 9/11 Fallen Heroes. "It's hallowed by the sacrifice of those innocent victims."

Given Ground Zero's multiple layers of ownership and control, its location at the center of the world's most lucrative financial district, and its reluctant role now as a national memorial, it's perhaps no wonder that much of the last decade has been consumed in battles over how to rebuild.

The controversy that erupted in 2010 over a proposed mosque just two blocks from the 16-acre site was only the latest fight. Before that, families of the victims for years tangled with city and state authorities over an appropriate remembrance at the site, given the pressure for owners to recoup money lost from office leases there.

Leaseholder Larry Silverstein pushed for redesigned twin towers as a way to get back the 10 million square feet of office space he lost on 9/11. Architects for the new space-three skyscrapers besides the grand 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower-repeatedly lobbied to expand the office spaces, impinging on the grounds for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

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