The Aftermath The Human Toll Looking for a sign, clinging to hope
Sister wilts when officials ask for brother's dental records
By LISA PRIEST, The Globe and Mail
Friday, September 14, 2001
NEW YORK -- The day began with hope as Debbie Ally set out find a sign -- any sign -- that her brother had been rescued from the mountain of rubble that was once the World Trade Center.
She started off with what she thought was evidence: a list of names she plucked off the Internet from an unknown source, including that of Nezam Hafiz, her 32-year-old brother, who was posted as "fine" and "okay."
"We don't know where to find him, but this is a good sign, don't you think?" asked Mrs. Ally, who started yesterday's search full of determination and energy, despite two hours of sleep the night before.
Mr. Hafiz's girlfriend, Ramona Singh, was not so sure. Racked with worry, she wondered if the posting was really just a cruel joke, because how could anyone possibly know the insurance worker had survived the worst terrorist attack in America?
As have thousands of other New Yorkers, Mrs. Ally and friends started a frantic search for a loved one, racing from shelter to shelter, hospital to hospital and to the armoury, a massive, makeshift missing-persons centre, heavily patrolled by police and reservists.
Outside of the armoury, Mrs. Ally lined up in a queue dotted with grief-stricken families that snaked around one side of the building on what should have been a welcome lazy, hot, late-summer day. Instead, they stood on concrete under a blazing sun, clutching photographs of their loved ones, some of the 5,000 people still missing.
Inside the armoury, there were no more answers than outside; just dozens of questions typed on four pieces of paper. Some of the queries were easy to answer: Mr. Hafiz was wearing a green polo shirt and khaki pants when he set off with Ms. Singh Tuesday morning for his job on the 94th floor of Tower 1 of the World Trade Center.
And he wore an engraved gold bracelet that he never took off -- could not take off -- and a Movado watch. As for the rest, he is a brown-eyed robust man of five feet, eight inches (172 centimetres), who weighs 165 pounds (75 kilograms), and has a wide grin of shiny, white teeth.
Then, the worst question of all.
"They asked where they could locate his dental records," said a dejected Mrs. Ally, who fumbled for the name of his dentist. "I'm feeling very, very sad."
Despite that sadness, she, Ms. Singh and several other families decided to hit all of the city shelters, guided by names and locations hastily scribbled on a piece of paper. There was no use going to the city's hospitals -- they had already gone to all of them once, some even twice.
When they made their way to the first shelter, it had been shut down the night before. Workers from the second shelter, set up in a fashion building, did not know why the family had shown up in the first place; it was really for travellers unable to get out of the city or for people who needed a place to stay.
Still, Mrs. Ally wanted to check the list of names, and as she quickly scanned down to the letter H she saw there was no Hafiz.
Undaunted, they went to a third shelter located in a high school. On the front, a sign read "American Red Cross Disaster Relief" and inside, there were soft drinks, sandwiches and clear plastic bags bursting with used clothes.
After spending an hour there with workers and talking with others who had made similar journeys, they wondered if the worst was yet to come.
"I think it is hopeless," said Saheed Adam, the missing man's brother-in-law, outside the shelter. "I don't think we are going to find him because if he was alive, we would have found him by now. . . . It's really been a wasted trip. We're not getting anywhere."
Still, they decided to try just two more shelters, because maybe -- hope against hope -- they would find Mr. Hafiz or someone who knows him.
Everywhere they went they flashed a photocopy of his picture and the telephone number of his father, who was in Queens awaiting word. But no new leads turned up and by early evening, exhausted, frustrated and utterly dejected, they decided to call it a night.
At his Queens home, Mr. Hafiz's father, Cecil, only received one telephone call. It was from a Red Cross worker who gave him a number to check for recovery effort updates.
"I don't know how I'm going to cope, to tell the truth," Cecil Hafiz said, sobbing. "I'm sitting here, waiting for news that my son is alive, that my only son is alive."
News that his son was alive had not come by last night, and he realized it may never come. But Mr. Hafiz said he is finally ready to make the trip he has put off.
This morning, Mr. Hafiz will make his way to a makeshift morgue in a La Guardia Airport hangar, to check that one last place that could hold the clue to his only son's whereabouts.
"It will be very sad, but in life, you can't know what to expect."