The flutter of their wings. The fragility of their presence.
The magic of their existence.
That’s what Cal Corson thought about on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when over 3,000 souls perished in the terrorist attacks on American soil as the world watched in horror.
The fourth-generation funeral director found the disaster so incomprehensible that he had no choice but to break a promise.
As the day unfolded and a heavy cloud enveloped lower Manhattan, turning the pristine September morning into a nightmare from which there was no awakening, he walked into the downtown store where his wife, Karen, worked and told her that he had received the call.
He asked for her blessing to go on a mission with his fellow volunteers from the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, the agency that works under the jurisdiction of local authorities in places where mass casualties occur.
He also wanted her forgiveness that he had not kept his word to step down from the organization as he had promised her he would after working the crash of Korean Air flight 801 in Guam on Aug. 6, 1997, killing over 200 passengers and crew members.
“I didn't mean to lie, but I had broken my promise,” he said, vocalizing his wife's concerns for his wellbeing.
A decade after the fateful morning, when America lost its naiveté, Corson believes he would not have volunteered had his wife and family not given him the go-ahead. But sitting in his nook in his basement next to a bookshelf packed with patriotic paraphernalia, a United We Stand decorative license plate, a couple of post-9/11 posters, a music box with replicas of the twin towers, and a family photo, it is hard to imagine a force that truly could have stopped him.
“I would have argued the permission,” he said as if answering an unspoken doubt. “Because we all wanted to do something that day. I don’t care if you were a kindergartner or 88 years old. That was the thing I could do. At that moment, we all came together in a very unique and special way.”
Later that night, Corson and Mike Phillips from Vinton, headed for the military base at St. Joseph, Mo., to meet the remaining members of DMORT 7, the Midwestern team they belong to.
They drove almost the entire way in silence, each man engulfed in his thoughts.
“It was an eerie feeling,” Corson said. “Not a car, not a truck, the whole way there, no planes in the air.”
After a 10-hour wait at the base, they were briefed they would be going to the Pentagon, but a few more hours on the tarmac changed that assignment again: they were told to return home.
For now their help was not needed.
“I don't mean this in a morbid way, but the fatalities of that event were not as astronomical as they could have been,” he said, “so they [the military] could contain all the assistance by themselves.”
The drive back home was even quieter, if deeper silence could be imagined. “We were sad we could not help,” he said.
It wasn’t until the early hours of the next morning that Corson finally made it home.
Then he found out that the tragedy had struck close to home, taking the life of someone who had grown up down the street from him. Karen Kincaid, a Waverly native and a Washington lawyer, had perished in the attack on the Pentagon.
“Then I was doubly crushed,” he said. “For her loss, for the sympathies that we had for her family. I felt doubly crushed because I had a living connection to it. So then your mind really starts to wonder, who else, what other ties are there?”
Four weeks later, Corson got to deliver on his duty when his team was mobilized again.
He found himself in the medical examiner’s office in New York City, working side by side with detectives and forensic scientists trying to match items provided by family members of the victims with the remains found at ground zero.
“It was a homicide investigation,” he said. “About 2,900 people died, and about 20,000 pieces of human tissues were recovered. A lot of people were never found. In all those buildings, do you remember seeing chairs, desks? A lot of those souls perished to a point where there was nothing to identify.”
Just thinking about the enormity of the human loss proved to be a tough task for a guy whose life revolved around caring for the dead.
“It helps to realize that even the smallest piece of human tissue represents the whole body and the whole body died, but not that person,” he said. “We just have to wait for somebody loftier and more knowing than us to explain it to us some day, and we have to be patient. If God thought we could handle it, he could explain it to us. We can’t handle it and that makes us feel really mortal that he cares for us and he is going to keep the news and let us know some day. People don’t die. Their bodies do and that’s the gist of my belief. The shell is the cocoon, if you will, it is really the only tangible thing that we have of that individual even though that individual is more than that. The butterfly is alive and well.”
A self-described grunt in the trenches who stays on task to do the right thing, Corson grappled with anger and emotional pain as he put on his professional hat to carry out his duties.
“It wasn’t an anger against an entity, it wasn't an anger against a group of people, country, religion,” he said. “I was mad at people, individuals. They tried to kill a dream, they tried to kill an institution. They tried to kill an intangible. You can’t do that. Impossible. They certainly did not kill the dream. So it’s hard to be angry. It’s more pathetic, it goes against every grain of kindness, decency where people are arbitrarily murdered to try to bring down a philosophy.”
During his stint at the medical examiner's office, Corson got up at the break of dawn and boarded a special bus, which took a different route every day, to ensure the safety of the crews.
“They wanted to harm the rescuers to put an exclamation point on this,” he said of the fears of further attacks. “We were buffered from all that. You do your job and if you are not willing to do that, go home. And to the best of my knowledge, nobody went home.”
At the end of a long day, Corson munched on a sandwich he grabbed from the deli across the street from the Manhattan hotel where his team lodged. To shake off the stress of the day, he sipped Amstel Light beer sitting on the edge of the bed, as he watched news coverage of what was happening just down the street from where he had worked during the day.
Corson said that his faith was strengthened daily by what he witnessed.
“I saw God everywhere,” he said. “People say where is God in all this? Why couldn’t he have done something? I saw him all over the place. God works through us.”
Then, making the sign of the cross across his chest, he continued:
“Why couldn’t God fix this? He did. He took care of it before he rose. That’s how come we don’t bury people, we bury bodies. Why did he let it happen? We let it happen.”
The most transformational part of his experience, he said, was working with two detectives he refers to as Patrick and Louis, who, like the thousands of firemen, police officers and Port Authority personnel, had no other choice but to continue to live and work in their wounded city.
“We kinda waved in and out, we went home and a fresh group of DMORT came in,” he said, a note of regret sneaking in his voice. “We eventually got to leave to go back to our pristine, uninterrupted, uncorrupted area. We got to go back to normalcy, somewhat.”
As he wrapped up his tour, he asked the two detectives if they wanted him to convey any special message to his family and friends in Iowa.
“Tell everybody thanks,” they each told Corson. “That helps the heart heal.”
One tour of duty in New York was plenty for Corson, who, 10 years later says he is still weighing how the experience has changed him.
“I got full pretty quick,” he said. “But you know, your heart can break as often as you allow it to heal. That’s my quote. I like that.”
At some point, he added, it gets harder to heal.
“I’ve seen the greatest tourist attractions in the world – it was the people of New York,” he said. “It’s gone from an open wound to a scar and now you can hardly see it any more but it’s still there. You can’t feel it, but you know right where it was. If somebody asks for help, I can assist, how could you not, but I’m not a moth to the flame any more. The flame’s got to come to me. And that’s a big difference.”
A more visible difference, now the butterflies are tattooed on his wrist, along with the tree of life.
“I did resign, just a few months before Katrina,” he said. “I guess I kept my promise with just a little bit of a detour.”