The last night

This year, Oct. 5 fell on a Monday. I spent the evening at my son’s baseball game. Two years ago, it was a Saturday night when I tried to use my cracked fingernails to burrow down into the rocky earth for warmth.

After the game, I just couldn’t bring myself to write about it.

What is there to say? I was cold, bitterly cold. I spent the night hallucinating and coming up with all sorts of fantastical “explanations” as to why I was outside and freezing.

So instead of recollecting, I watched my kid play ball. I teared up a couple of times, imagining the things my psychologist told me not to imagine. What if I had died? Would he even be playing ball? And if so, who would be watching, cheering him on?

Yesterday, Oct. 6, I awoke with a sense of … lightness. For on this day, I was found.

I want to write about that feeling later, after I’ve had some time to process it.

What I can say, right now, is that I am so glad this anniversary is now past. Well, almost. This time two years ago, I was out of the ICU, but still not allowed to get out of bed and walk. I was, however, healing.

Many times, these past two weeks, I’ve longed to be back in that hospital, sedated and comforted by the presence of firm and compassionate hands. Instead, I’ve made a couple of trips to my psychologist and gotten a prescription for a benzo.

But again, I remind myself that I am here. I. Am. HERE. Alive. Sitting in the living room with my kids and husband and reassuring everyone that dinner is almost done.

Last year, I recognized this anniversary by watching my newspaper series run.

This year, I’ve made other arrangements. You can expect some great photos on Facebook soon.

Meanwhile, good night. Enjoy your time with your families. Hug those pesky kids and, if even your husband is being a totally annoying dude, hug him anyway and tell him you love him.

(Because one day, you, too, might have to remember during each and every argument that Dude freaking saved your butt by hiking out of the desert in search of help while you flailed around under a mesquite tree. Trust me, it’s irritating, but damn, I love the guy for everything he did to get me out of there.)

So on this night … God bless and good night.




‘I just sat down’

This is the difficult day, Oct. 4. It’s the day that I sat down beside a mesquite tree and told my husband to leave me in the desert.

This wasn’t an emotional scene. In fact, we were very matter-0f-fact about separating.

He could still keep going. I couldn’t.

I was the one who told him to go.

Later, Rick told me that if I had cried or shown any sign of fear at being left alone, he wouldn’t have been able to leave.

But I was done. And I could see that he wasn’t.

It just made sense to split up.

For two years, however, I’ve mentally flogged myself for “quitting.” Or, as Texans put it, for “sitting down.”

I was a mother trying to get home to two children. I’d hung in there for 2 1/2 days. And I am not a quitter. What kind of mother just … gives up? What kind of mother just sits the f*** down?

And then last weekend, I took my son to see Everest. I’ve read Thin Air. I’m well aware that the movie wasn’t true to the book.

But the scene in which guide Rob Hall refuses to leave his client, Doug, got to me.

Rob could’ve made it. If he’d left the dying Doug behind and headed down, he would have made it home to his pregnant wife. But he wouldn’t go. And Doug, in the movie, anyway, wasn’t in any condition to tell Rob to get the hell out while he still could.

At the time that Rick and I parted ways, the only thought running through my mind was that Rick still had a chance. And if he made it out, the kids would still have one of their parents.

And maybe, just maybe, if he made it out, I would live too.

I wasn’t thinking about it then, but the fact is that McFarlands thrive on missions. Give ’em a goal and they’re unstoppable.

Looking back … the best thing I ever could have done to have ensured our survival was to send Rick out on a mission.

Get out. Get help. The kids are depending on you. I am depending on you.

But it wasn’t until watching the movie last weekend that I finally understood that I made a mother’s sacrifice. I was willing to give up my life if it meant that my kids would see their Daddy come home.

The thought of them losing both parents? I just couldn’t conceive of it.

I have the most amazing husband in the world. But I see now that I short-changed myself.

Yeah, I sat down. But I did so knowing that it was the only way to make my husband go. To leave. To turn his back on me.

And for that … I. Am. Proud.




1743670_10204353787032168_6083542445130168527_nThis. This photo.

This is a mother, praying over her teenage son in the ICU. This picture has gone viral. Why?

Because we mothers know what it is to love a human being beyond infinity. We know what it is to offer ourselves in exchange for a life, to be willing to die for a child.

Look at her. This mother. Her son, once just a fluttering inside her stomach, once the baby scrounging for a nipple, once the little boy who collected rocks or bugs, once the little boy who shared all of his secrets with the main woman in his life …

She kneels before his bed and prays. She begs God to bring him back to her. She just wants one more conversation, one more hug, one more chance to let that boy know that he is her everything.

Please remember this mama and her boy in your prayers.



More effective than pleading a headache

So six weeks or so into the Legislative session, I became Patient Zero at the Capitol.

I roamed the hallways and committee rooms, hacking and wheezing, with handfuls of tissue stuffed into my purse.

Those lucky enough to encounter me on a regular basis soon succumbed. I infected co-workers, lawmakers and reporters.

One day, I approached a member of the Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau to ask if his roommate, a mutual friend, was feeling better.

“I heard she was sick,” I said.

“So it was you,” he said, backing away. “You’re Patient Zero.”

“It’s OK,” I assured him. “I don’t think … *cough* … that I’m contagious … *cough* … anymore.”

“Uh-huh,” he replied. “Riiiight…”

And then he vanished into the media room. Which locked emphatically behind him.

Weeks passed. Still, I continued to collapse into coughing fits. When I ran out of cough drops, people from other state agencies gave me peppermints and candy. Anything, really, to shut me up.

Now just a couple of years ago, I would have high-tailed it into the doctor’s office, where I would have presented the staff with a list of possible diagnoses, all of them dire and, usually, terminal.

But that whole near-death-in-the-wilderness thing cured me of my lifelong hypochondria. Because really? If you can go out for what’s supposed to be a pleasant hike and find yourself in the throes of renal and heart failure a week later, you realize that there’s not much point in trying to pinpoint what might be your ultimate cause of death.

It could be a spider bite. It could be lung cancer. *cough*

In our household, I am normally the one nagging Rick to go to the doctor.

This time, it was my husband issuing pleas that I make an appointment.

For myself.

“I don’t have time,” I argued, honking into a Kleenax.

He looked at me and shook his head.

“What?” I protested. “It’s my new mating call.”

I honked again and arched an eyebrow.

“You’re already keeping me up all night,” he noted dryly. “And not in a fun way.”

I felt his pain. I wasn’t getting much sleep either. Did you know it’s possible to reverse-snore? Like, instead of making noise when you inhale, you make these hideous mucousy sounds when you exhale?

Yeah. I’ve been all sorts of sexy, let me tell you.

Anyway, today I finally ventured into my doctor’s exam room.

“This has been going on for how long?” he asked incredulously.

Bear in mind, I have more than once burst into his office in a panic.

(Questions I have asked my doctor: “Are you sure I don’t have lymphoma?”

“So these are migraines and not a sign that a bulging brain aneurysm is about to burst?”

“Are you sure it’s mono and not Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Tuleremia?”)

Now here I was, all sorts of casual, lounging on the exam table while he looked at x-rays of my lungs and sinuses.

“Given how you sound and the fact that you’re running a fever, I would have sworn that you had walking pneumonia,” he mused.


“Well. I’m going to start by treating you for bronchitis and sinusitus.”

“OK,” I replied.

People, I came home today with a whole passel of drugs, which will either knock me into sedated oblivian or turn me into a ravenous, raging fiend. Or maybe they’ll just cancel each other out.

Regardless, I promise: The days of Typhoid Cathy are coming to an end.

It will be safe, once again, to enter my office.

And my husband might actually find me somewhat attractive again. Unless, of course, he’s too busy catching up on all that missed sleep.




She called me mija … ‘My daughter’

1379680_10151919907945239_1506049872_n“It’s OK, mija,” crooned the petite, dark-haired woman as she scrubbed nearly a week’s worth of grime from my battered body. “You will feel better when you are clean again.”


My daughter.

The woman’s hands were firm, yet gentle. She plucked the twigs from my snarled hair. And then she washed it three times.

“Look,” she said, showing me the rinse water after the third shampooing. “It is clean now.”

All morning, she had lurked outside my hospital room, thwarted time and again by doctors and nurses who insisted on blood draws, breathing treatments and tests.

Finally, when the medical staff departed, she shooed my husband from the room and set to work.

Often, I flinched and moaned when her washcloth skimmed over the cactus needles still embedded in my hands, torso and legs.

“I am sorry, mija,” the woman murmured. “So sorry.”

But she wasn’t just sorry for the pain she inflicted. She was sorry that I had suffered at all. I could hear it in her voice.

Word had spread quickly through hospital hallways that the woman lost for five days and four nights in the Chihuahuan Desert was in the Telemetry Unit at the University Medical Center of El Paso.

My caregivers didn’t judge me. That first night, they kept me alive. And then over the next several days, they tended to my wounds. They marveled that I had survived.

When I walked again for the first time in five days, one of the physical therapists asked me to autograph the cane I had used.

All of these people believed that if I had been given a second chance, well … then there was hope for all.

Not everyone shared this attitude. Over the next year, even as I thanked God daily for my second chance, I learned what it is like to be second-guessed.

“But why didn’t you …?”

I get it. It’s totally human to want to second-guess others. Doing so makes us feel better, safer.

“Well, that would never happen to me because I would never…”

Yeah. Well. Until it does. Because you did.

We are none of us infallible. And most of us, most of the time, are pretty good at figuring out where we went wrong. And we accept responsibility for the consequences.

Your pointing finger does nothing but remind us of our own former smugness … and how it leads to downfall.

My arrogance almost cost me my life. Karma? She’s not just a bitch. She’s a bitch on wheels with lightning strikes etched on each spoke.

When I think of the woman who washed my hair, my body … apologizing as she did so … I marvel at her grace.

I was lost and then found. I was dirty, and then cleansed.

On this Easter, my advice to you … to me … is this:

Don’t second-guess the actions of someone who — trust me, here — already has been thoroughly humbled.

Instead, help that person appreciate and take advantage of his second chance.

After all, second chances are few. They should be celebrated. Not questioned.




Living without fear

I tell people that what happened in the desert in late 2013 was a transformative experience.

It was the worst — and best — thing that ever happened to me.

Worst, because I almost died. I almost lost the chance to see my children grow.

Best, because the experience taught me that you can’t let fear dictate your life’s course.

And so it is that I — a lifelong journalist — started a new job in a new field last week.

I knew I needed a change. But until I started my new job, I didn’t realize just how much I needed something different. Something challenging.

And I’ve found that once you start making big changes, it’s easier to keep embracing the new.

Suddenly, I’m thinking about new schools, new houses, new hobbies.

I feel so alive. So invigorated.

And I wonder if that’s why God let us stumble through the desert close to death.

Maybe you have to accept death in order to embrace life.

I don’t know.

Regardless. I am so grateful to still be around. I am so happy to have a chance to try something out of my comfort zone.

What I do know, after last year, is that life is meant to LIVED — not endured or survived.

So happy new year, all! And God bless.




Gloom, despair and agony on me

Remember that old Hee-Haw ditty?

Deep, dark depression, excessive misery
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all
Gloom, despair, and agony on me

This has been one helluva holiday season in our household, let me tell you. Rick’s cousin, a man as close to Rick as any brother, died a few days ago. He was terminally ill. We knew he didn’t have long. But oh, how we had hoped that Gale would be able to see one last Christmas.

It wasn’t to be.

We had planned to attend Gale’s funeral today as a family. But on Friday, our poor girl-child finally came down with the flu that had already felled the E-man, myself and Hubs. It’s been 10-plus glorious days of good times around here, folks. Fever, chills, hacking and general misery.

Jealous much?

Normally, by this time, the smell of a freshly cut Christmas tree would permeate our home.

This year’s holiday scent is lemon Lysol.

So today, while Rick and the E-man headed down to south Arkansas for the funeral, I prodded our poor girl into an urgent-care clinic. Once in the exam room, the nurse asked her to put on a face mask.

That, peeps, is when I finally lost my tentative grip on sanity.

At first, I just chuckled.

My daughter looked at me quizzically.

“It’s just that … well, you look kind of like a Sneetch with that mask on,” I explained — before doubling over and laughing.

Girl-child gave me one of those slitty-eyed looks so perfectly executed by preteens.

“You know,” I gasped. “Sneetches. Dr. Seuss. They have those snouts…”

“Yes,” she said, “I know what Sneetches look like.”

Her expression suggested that she was not the person in the room in need of a doctor.

I kept laughing. Until I cried. Hell, it’s a wonder I didn’t pee my pants.

“It’s just … I mean … this just totally summarizes our holiday season … ”


“We’re missing Gale’s funeral so that you can wear a Sneetch snout and get retested for the flu that we already know you have just so we can get some Tamiflu and maybe get you well by Christmas .. even though we don’t even have a tree or decorations up or presents or …”


“Ooooookaaaaay,” Daughter said through the beaky mask.

“I’m sorry!” I snorted. “I’m sure there’s a special place in hell for mothers who laugh at their sick children … their sick children with SNOUTS!”


By the time we left, I had finally composed myself enough to explain that while some holidays don’t turn out quite like we expect or want, you just have to learn to roll with life’s punches. Don’t bother asking, “Why me?” Don’t get angry. Don’t get depressed.

It’s life. It’s messy and yet it’s glorious.

I mean, I’m HERE. I’m not a set of skeletal remains in the Chihuahuan Desert.

We’re together, and my husband, kids and I share a sense of humor that, while a little twisted, allows us to get through situations like … well, like this one.

Anyway, when we got home, I started looking through posts from my old blog and found one that illustrates how finding the humor in a bad situation can carry you through the bad times.

And, after all, the darkest hour is just before dawn.

So here’s a post from 2007. Enjoy:


A Christmas of Calamities

Desperate times.

I was actually eager to come to work this morning because – omg, two days without Internet access and my fingers had started to shrivel and fall off … because, you know, I clearly didn’t need them anymore.

On the Eve of Christmas Eve, the power in the master bedroom went off. Hubs fiddled with the fuse box and got part of the room powered up, and then there was this pop and a hideous burning smell.

“Fire in the attic!” Hubs yelled. “Call 911 and get the kids out of here!”

My daughter, Tootie, and stepdaughter were already up, having smelled something strange in Tootie’s room. I snatched a sleeping E-man out from his bed and we all headed outside.

Minutes later, the first fire engine pulled up. The E-man was agog.

So was his mommy, during the few seconds, that is, that she forgot the house might be on fire.

Firemen! Oh, goody! Merry Christmas to me!

Then all rationality returned when I remembered the state of our bedroom — which, given that we had just returned from a weekend away — looked as though 20 sugar-fueled toddlers had romped through it.

And yes, fleetingly, I did wonder: Could I maybe dash in and tidy up before they start, you know, putting out flames?

As it turns out, there was no fire. There is, obviously, a problem with our wiring. An electrician is coming tonight. Meanwhile, we have no power in that part of the house. And since the previous homeowner did terrible things with the phone lines underneath the house, the wireless unit thingy is operational only in our bedroom.

I’m not sure who was more horrified by the realization that we would be without the Internet — me or my stepson.

“You mean I can’t get online?” he asked over and over. “At all?”

Hey, buddy, you’re supposedly grounded from MySpace. I’m the one who’s going to be suffering here.

By Christmas Eve, Hubs was curled up on the couch, hacking and whimpering under an afghan, while I hurriedly assembled and wrapped toys.

“I think I hab a feber,” he sniffled. “Can you beel my borehead?”

It’s been joy, joy, joy around these parts, let me tell you.

So. Hubs remains ill. We still have no power. No Internet. *sob*

But hey, I can now say I’ve had firemen in my bedroom.

If only they hadn’t been greeted by the sight of my old, stretched-out maternity bra dangling from the closet door, which, of course, is conveniently located next to the fuse box.




Ever since getting lost in the desert, I pay attention to stories about missing people.

Well, more attention.

I’ve always had an interest in helping to find the lost.

Now? Even more so.

That’s because last year, I joined their ranks.

Here’s the thing. People LOVE to criticize those of us who get lost. They talk about how we were unprepared or deserved what we got. They talk about how we should be charged for “what taxpayers had to pay” in our search and rescue.

Never, however, do they imagine that they or their loved ones could one day be one of the lost.

It doesn’t take much.

A wrong turn while hiking. Alzheimer’s. Dementia. A car accident. A small child who gets out of the house when a parent isn’t looking.

And there you have it.

A lost person.

I can tell you from personal experience that all a lost person wants is to be found.

I hoped and prayed to be found alive. But as death drew ever closer, I prayed simply that my body would be found.

That, I knew, would help my family during their grieving.

Several weeks ago, I decided to drive down to Texas to participate in a boot-camp fundraiser for one of the many groups that helped find me and bring me home.

TEXSAR, which is made up solely of volunteers, is one of the entities that showed up at Big Bend Ranch State Park after I went missing.

Anyway, I decided that I wanted to participate in their fundraiser Saturday.

Which, as it turned out, fell on the day after these men and women had had to search for one of their own — a sheriff’s deputy who was swept away in a flash flood.

Her name is Jessica Hollis. She was inspecting low-water crossings to determine whether barricades needed to be set up. She also was a member of a SAR dive team.

If anyone should have survived that flood, she should have.

Her body was found on Friday. TEXSAR’s fundraiser was on Saturday.

I had been following the story of Deputy Hollis. Once you get lost in the wild, you tend to pay attention to stories about other people who run into trouble.

I was crushed when I learned that she had died.

At the same time, thank God SAR teams found her body.

That’s what I prayed for in the desert — that if I wasn’t found alive, that my body would be located so that my family would know what happened.

Members of TEXSAR, I know how much you wanted to find that deputy alive.

But as someone once lost out there, alone, I can tell you that she would be ever so grateful to know that her body was located. You have given a family what they most needed: answers. And their loved one.

Alone in the Texas desert, I wanted my family to know what had happened to me. I wanted them to have something to bury or cremate.

I wanted to be found. Even if it was too late.

Too often, we look at the missing and criticize them for becoming lost. We forget that any of us might, at one time, lose our way.

Thank God for the volunteers who search for those of us who lose our paths.

Thank God for those who dedicate their time and energy to finding the lost.

10646864_10202813158112856_2246406867260431041_n 1908084_10202813182073455_6861339703856667765_n 10701957_10202813185753547_8926557706748673309_n 10672071_10152665730095239_2919208693892819259_n 10702179_10202813094191258_778203152820189229_n-1

Mr. Kitty: My hero

So tonight, the cat planted himself in the kitchen right in front of the oven.

“What’s he doing?” my daughter asked. “Is something back there?”

“Oh, no,” I breezily assured her. “Our cat’s too lazy to chase anything.”

“I heard some scratchy noises back there awhile ago,” my son chimed in.

“Stop trying to scare your sister,” I said.

“But I did,” he insisted.

“There is nothing behind the oven,” I replied.

Fifteen minutes later …

A horrific screeching noise caught my attention.

“Squee! Squee! Squee!”

I rose from the couch, only to see Mr. Kitty, our overweight orange tabby, trotting into the living room with a small, squealing rodent clenched between his teeth.


“Aiiieeeee!!!” I screamed, leaping onto the couch.

“Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” hollered my son, who also had seen the rodent.

“EEEEEEEK!!” my daughter yelled. Bear in mind, she had no idea why we were all clustered together on the couch, screaming.

We fled, still screaming,to the front porch.

“What do we do?” my daughter asked, peering inside.

The mouse, having escaped Mr. Kitty’s jaws, fled under the grandfather clock made by Hubs’ grandpa.

Undeterred, Mr. Kitty crouched in front of the clock, swiping a determined paw underneath.

The chase continued, with the mouse running behind two sets of curtains before zipping underneath the buffet in the dining room.

And there it remains, with Mr. Kitty crouched nearby, waiting…

Hubs is on his way back from shooting the Hogs game.

When he gets here, he will be charged with helping Mr. Kitty finish his first kill.


Someone. Hold me.


‘Closest thing to hell…’

Responders first on scene, last to leave


NEW YORK — Trapped beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center’s south tower, firefighter Jim Thompson scribbled a note to his wife and mother on a crumpled piece of paper:

If you get this letter, know that I love you. Let Kevin know who I am.

Kevin was Jim’s 2-year-old son.

Nearly six hours later, Jim scrambled to the surface after wedging open a door in a mechanical room.

He immediately went back to work, narrowly dodging death a second time when Building 7 collapsed. This time, Jim took cover underneath a parked tractor-trailer.

He spent three days at “the pile” — a looming mass of wreckage that would continue to burn and smolder for months.

A lack of cell service prevented Jim from calling his wife, Irene, to tell her he was safe.

Irene, meanwhile, was frantic.

The last time she’d heard from her husband, he had called on his way to the north tower, shortly after the first plane hit.

“One of the World Trade Center towers is on fire,” he’d told her. “I’ll be late tonight.”

But he didn’t come home that night. Or the next.

When Irene called the fire station, the dispatcher offered little information. “All our units are out, but we don’t know where our men are,” he told her.

Desperate, Irene visited her next-door neighbor, who was a fire captain.

“I don’t know where your husband is,” he said. “They’re sending survivors to the hospital.”

As Irene turned to leave, she saw Jim standing in the doorway, covered in a thick white dusting of ash. She ran to him, flinging her arms around his neck.

“I got a second chance,” Irene said on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She wiped away tears. “My husband came home.”

But 343 other firefighters didn’t.

They came from everywhere, the men and women who raced to the World Trade Center that sunny morning.

Not just firefighters.

Thousands of New York City police officers, EMTs and Port Authority officers also ran toward the burning towers to help evacuate those trapped inside.

About 2,000 of those first responders were injured. Sixty-three of them perished.

So this year, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg — citing a lack of space — decided to exclude them from participating in the 10th anniversary ceremony and dedication of the 9/11 Memorial, many were stunned.

The brother of a firefighter who was killed in the attacks sent a letter to The Wall Street Journal expressing his indignation:

The firemen, being who they are, would never complain or bring attention to themselves, wrote Michael Burke.

I, however, am not a fireman. Just the son of one and the brother of another. To deny the firefighters and our first responders — these most humble and dedicated servants of New York — the opportunity to honor, at Ground Zero on 9/11, their lost brothers and sisters is atrocious.

Many of those who responded that day stayed, even after they realized that their rescue effort had become a recovery of victims’ remains.

They stayed and they searched and they dug with bare hands into blistering piles of metal.

If they couldn’t find survivors, they would locate bodies for grieving families to bury.

Lou Angeli, a Delaware volunteer firefighter and documentary filmmaker, headed to New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, for two purposes:

To help fellow firefighters at ground zero.

And to film their grueling work.

In 2006, Answering the Call: Ground Zero’s Volunteers premiered in New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego — and Mountain Home.

That Arkansas fire department had contacted Lou, hoping he would take his film to their town.

So Angeli added Mountain Home to his list of premiere showings.

Narrated by actress Kathleen Turner, the film pays tribute to all of those who worked “on the pile.”

Upon learning that first responders wouldn’t be participating or attending the city’s 10th anniversary ceremony, Angeli arranged a dinner on Saturday night for those who appeared in his documentary.

The next morning, Sept. 11, he co-produced a show that featured these first responders for Phoenix Television, a privately owned Chinese broadcasting company.

The show was broadcast live at the Hilton Millennium, which overlooks the 9/11 Memorial and construction of a new World Trade Center.

Ten years ago, these firefighters and law-enforcement officers were down there, feeling their boots melt off their feet as they clambered up and down the smoldering pile.

Sunday, they watched from a distance, four stories up and through thick-paned windows.

For long minutes, they stood shoulder to shoulder, looking down on a place that brought them horror, despair and proof of miracles.

As the supervisor of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Emergency Response Team, Jeff Johns has been called to terrible scenes — 30 “man-unders” that involved recovering mutilated or severed bodies from underneath trains.

But the carnage at the World Trade Center caught him completely off-guard:

A pair of severed hands, belonging to two different people, that remained clasped.

Shoes with the feet still in them.

The thud of yet another body part dropped into a bucket.

I can’t believe this is happening, Jeff thought.

He began working at the pile on Sept. 13. Most days, he went there after work. His shift ended at 11 p.m. He used up all of his vacation days.

But he felt called to the place, mainly because he was driven by the hope of finding a survivor.

Just one. If he could find just one.

After six weeks, he relinquished that hope. Still, he showed up every day for five more weeks.

At the pile, Jeff was a “digger” — someone who looked not only for human remains, but also personal effects that might identify victims: an earring, a key chain, a wallet.

At the front of the bucket brigade, night after night, he dug and dug, moving to the back of the line only when his fingers and hands stiffened.

He never got accustomed to the expression on the faces of all of the cops and firefighters.

These guys were familiar with grisly scenes. They didn’t show emotion.

But each night, when Jeff got off work and headed to the pile, he saw desperation etched on weary, tear-streaked faces.

Unlike many of those working on the pile, Jeff needed to talk about what he was seeing and feeling.

So he e-mailed dispatches to family and friends, describing precarious working conditions, such as 100-foot holes and unstable I-beams that weigh thousands of pounds.

Today I made it into the lower levels, where the food courts and shops were. I expected to see a real chance of survivors … what I saw was the biggest reason why I was on the pile, disintegrate before my eyes … I cannot tell the guys on the upper level what is down there …
One of the items down there was a baby stroller with broken and bloody restraining straps.

For a father of two young children, that stroller was a sucker-punch to the gut.

On Oct. 27, 2001, Jeff wrote:

We are now getting into the most difficult part of the operation, down we go, as the pile on top diminishes, the voids being exposed are too tempting not to go in. We now have plenty of portable lighting, but it’s still a crushed steel oven cave exploration. Outside it’s forty degrees and biting wind.

… Steam, incredible heat, and penetrating chemical smell await those whom would call themselves men. You can’t wear goggles or glasses of any sort, they fog up in seconds, everyone wears a mask, you can’t breathe without one.

It is literally the closest thing to hell anyone could imagine.

By mid-November, Jeff wondered whether they would ever be able to identify the victims of 9/11.

After digging last night, I have concluded that out of the three thousand still missing, we will be lucky to find two to three hundred, the rest have either been burned into ashes or pulverized into bone chips and muscle fragments.

Ground zero is still, by far, the hardest thing on this planet I have ever faced, it just seems to rip your soul out every time.

And I will not stop until the last brick is lifted and looked under.
One night, Jeff sent out an angry e-mail, asking why none of the friends receiving his missives was writing back.

His phone began ringing. Everyone told him the same thing:

“We didn’t know what to say.”

Out on the pile, Jeff befriended a woman, a search-and-rescue dog handler named Sarah Atlas.

Sarah, a member of the New Jersey Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue Team, was deployed to the World Trade Center immediately after the towers were hit.

She brought Anna, a young German shepherd with an innate ability to find people, living or dead.

Sarah remembers the 15-block walk to ground zero with other dog handlers, and how the firefighters called out in relief: “The dogs are here! The dogs are here!”

For 11 days, Sarah and Anna roamed the pile. Again and again, Anna stopped and stared. The sudden halt meant she’d found remains. A bark indicated a “live find.”

There were more silent stops than barks.

Anna and the other dogs suffered greatly at ground zero. One night, Sarah found a conduit that had melted onto Anna’s abdomen.

Just before their departure, Anna collapsed from heat exhaustion. As Sarah waited for a veterinarian to arrive with an IV and fluids, a detective ran up to her.

“Please, please don’t stop looking,” he begged. “You’ve got to find my son.”

“They’re bringing in more dogs,” Sarah reassured him. “This one is sick. She has to rest.”

The detective opened a brown bag, pulled out a shirt and thrust it under Anna’s nose. “Please,” he said.

And Sarah cried. There was nothing else her dog could do.

Eleven months later, after suffering through a bacterial fungal infection in all of her organs and a rare condition that caused the discs in Anna’s spine to erode, Sarah had to put her to sleep.

Anna was only 4 1/2 years old when she died. Many of the other dogs who searched the pile also had to be put down.

Something in that still-burning rubble made them very sick.

First responders also suffered from debilitating illnesses.

Sarah was hospitalized soon after leaving ground zero after experiencing respiratory and heart problems.

Several months later, Jim Thompson, the firefighter who was trapped for 5 1/2 hours under the south tower’s debris, collapsed while responding to a call.

His lungs and throat had been severely burned, doctors said.

Jim kept spitting up blood and “black stuff,” his wife explained.

Doctors predict that the damage will one day lead to cancer.

Jim was forced to take a desk job at the fire station, which he hated.

When he continued to go out on calls, his superiors finally persuaded him to retire. The couple moved to Pennsylvania, where Jim grew up.

Jim’s never talked about what he saw that day in the towers.

And he refuses to show emotion, unless he’s around other firefighters.

Even now, he still suffers from insomnia and nightmares. Anna continues to worry about his lungs and labored breathing.

“He lost 68 friends that day,” Irene said. “Everything’s changed. There’s no going back to normal.”

None of these first responders regrets the long days and months spent on the pile.

Jeff tried to explain why in his e-mails:

It’s been hard, so very hard … on everyone here … there are professional counselors and chaplains at the Salvation Army posts, which is a lot better than no one.

I think we all have made our rounds … no one on the pile is above this … and yet we have not slowed down for a second … I want to be surrounded by people like this for the rest of my life.

Take for example, Tobin Mueller, who, after commandeering a one-table doughnut and coffee stand for ambulance crews, managed to organize a 200-man crew who collected any and every item requested by weary recovery workers, from boots and socks to pizza and gloves.

Donations poured in, forcing volunteers to take over a warehouse on the pier.

Firefighters called the setup “Home Depot.”

Within a matter of days, Tobin, a playwright and musician, even had cruise ships stopping by with supplies handed out by young actresses — who also performed a cabaret for recovery workers.

That, everyone agrees, was symbolic of the support offered to them.

And each first responder can describe a miracle or act of kindness witnessed on the pile.

Sarah received a dog bed from a man whose own pet had died. She also was touched by the elderly woman who loaded a Radio Flyer wagon with ice cream cups for searchers and their dogs.

Jeff remembers being in the honor guard when the remains of “another hero” were found.

Lou recalls a petite, 20-year-old woman who persuaded rescue workers to tie a rope around her ankles and lower her headfirst into a small hole.

Her mission: To retrieve badges from the bodies of two officers in a police car that had been buried by debris.

Those badges allowed workers to identify two more victims.

On Sunday, Lou, Jim, Jeff and several other first responders reminded one another of these miracles as they watched the anniversary ceremony from afar — some of them wearing old uniforms from a lifetime ago, even as others still answer the call.


Sarah Atlas and Jeff Johns reunited in 2010 on the eve of 9/11. This is Sarah’s new search dog, Buscar./Photo by Ben Krain.