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Morgue Employee Returned to Work After 9/11, 2001

Aired September 11, 2002 - 16:34   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: We saw a couple helicopters there moving, whether -- to be perfectly honest, as I looked at them, they didn't look necessarily like Marine One, though that one looks a little might be. It is a smaller helicopter than the those two large Chinooks that we saw a little bit earlier.
The president landed, Air Force One landed at JFK. And on a normal day in a normal circumstance, we would expect the president to be motorcaded into the city. But this is not a normal day and not a normal circumstance. So they're helicoptering him over to a helipad on the Hudson River on the West Side. And then there will be a very short motorcade which will bring the president to Ground Zero.

Many of you, I think, will remember the president's visit to Ground Zero on the first Friday after the attack, a rainy, cold day here in New York. It got a little better in the late afternoon.

And the president, I think, in one of those unforgettable -- at least for me -- unforgettable images of that first week, with bullhorn in hand, surrounded -- he was wearing, as I recall it, just a jacket, not a sport jacket, but just a jacket. And there were construction workers around him. I think there was a union head around him, Secret Service, obviously, local politicians.

The president, with bullhorn in hand, speaking to the rescue workers, and someone shouted, "We can't hear you," and the president saying: "I can hear you. And the people who did this will hear from all of us very soon." And the place erupted.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: That is the day, even some folks within the administration say, the president became the president.


BROWN: I'm sorry.

They're waiting for the president down at Ground Zero. And, as we wait, we move ahead here.

We think that there is no better statistic to convey the utter human destruction that was the Trade Center than this one: 3,000 people died, roughly, and nearly -- this is hard to speak, my friends -- nearly 20,000 body parts were recovered. And they are in a morgue in New York waiting to be identified.

The task of identifying those human remains, all this DNA work that's going on, belongs to the New York medical examiner's office and a forensic anthropologist by the name of Amy Mundorff.

Her story, a hero's story, to be sure, from CNN's Maria Hinojosa.


MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Every day of her life, a small, young woman named Amy Mundorff stares death straight in the eyes.

AMY MUNDORFF, FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST: My work, it's like putting together a puzzle, male, female, how tall were they, what kind of trauma did they have, what did they look like? I think I have the world's best job.

HINOJOSA: The world's best job? Amy works in the New York City morgue, as a forensic anthropologist for the chief medical examiner. On September 11, Amy's office gets a call, the Trade Center's been attacked. She must go to the site. This is what her work is all about, the dead, but she was thinking about her own life.

MUNDORFF: When we were driving down, I was scared. I kept saying, you know, "What if there's a bomb in the plane? What if we get down there and a bomb goes off?"

HINOJOSA: A premonition, perhaps. Minutes after they arrived, the building explodes into rubble and the rubble consumes tiny Amy.

MUNDORFF: I turned around and saw that ball -- that like tidal wave coming up close behind me.

HINOJOSA: Amid the mass panic the voice of her husband, a mountain climber echoes in her head.

MUNDORFF: If you panic, you die. Get yourself an airspace. So I pulled my jacket over my head and I kind of braced made arms against the corner of the wall because I knew I'd be buried. I knew I would die. I just waited to suffocate and I opened my eyes and I vomited. And it was pitch black, pitch black. And I thought I was the only one alive.

HINOJOSA: Bloody, with broken ribs and a huge gash in her head, Amy and her injured co-workers escape.

MUNDORFF: I just kept screaming "I'm alive" because I couldn't believe it still.

HINOJOSA: Any other person might have quit their job right then, might not ever want to go back to a morgue filled with hundreds of bodies, might need time to piece together their own survival in the face of so much loss, but one day later, Amy Mundorff went back to work.

MUNDORFF: I'm the only anthropologist for the city and that's what I do, so I went back. And I wanted to be with people who had been through it and I wanted to help out my office. HINOJOSA: And help all of the families who so desperately needed to know, had their loved one's body been found? That's Amy's job and she couldn't let them down.

DET. JOHN TROTTER, NEW YORK POLICE DEPARTMENT: Well, she was there leading us. Those people were treated with the respect and dignity you wanted that you would want to be treated with.

HINOJOSA: A burly detective, John Trotter, worked side-by-side with Amy at the morgue and though she was in pain, she was still able to give more.

TROTTER: There were times when you have to cry and being a cop, especially the size of me, it wasn't as easy to just break down and let your emotions out whereas with her, it was just -- it was very free flowing. She understood.

HINOJOSA: Understood the life lesson of what it means to be a survivor.

MUNDORFF: Appreciate life because you don't know when it's going to be taken away from you.

HINOJOSA: Maria Hinojosa, CNN, New York.





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