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At Death’s Door

By France Griggs Sloat

For nearly four months, Joel Feaster II was surrounded by death. An agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Manhattan office, Feaster spent his working hours at the morgue where all victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center were brought for identification and evidence collection. It was a gruesome job.

“There is nothing to prepare you,” he says. “A body bag would be put on the medical table, and you’d open it and try to identify what was inside.”

For Feaster, who graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs, dealing with the tragedy was a life-changing experience.

“You just go into a zone,” he says. “I tried treating it like a scientific job, not really placing the value of the human in the bodies that were coming in. But when the flight went down in Queens in November, all those victims came in because we thought that, too, was a terrorism case. So we were doing complete autopsies on the bodies of airline victims, and that, for me, was the end of the scientific approach.”

Feaster’s first view of the Sept. 11 attacks came as he emerged from the Holland Tunnel into New York City. That night, he reported with a team to the medical examiner’s office and stayed for the next 15 weeks. His boss tried to pull him out a couple of times, but Feaster, a father of three young children, wanted to stay so there would be continuity in the process of receiving, examining and identifying remains.

“I felt I was doing what I could to pay last respects,” he says. “It was amazing the amount of prayer that was going on. It brought you back into focus and grounded you again. It let you know not everything in life was bad, which is easy to do when you’re surrounded by all this death.

“I still maintain these people in their deaths were being taken care of. They were blown into hundreds of pieces, some of them, and even their smallest parts were treated in a dignified and respectful manner.”

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