By Dave Waddell Windsor Star
There was no life in the World Trade Center rubble after the 9/11 terrorist attack [sic], but there were lives.
Windsor native Dr. Frank Stechey, the first foreign forensic dentist deployed to the scene, was one of those entrusted with attaching names to the bits of bone and teeth that were often all that was left of those lives.
“My first day we were able to identify a firefighter,” said Stechey, the only Canadian and one of only 10 foreign forensic dentists who worked at the scene in lower Manhattan.
“We knew who he was from the uniform. Once we cut that away, there was nothing but a mass of pulverized tissue, muscle and blood.
“That’s what sticks with me, the enormity of the damage and destruction.”
Stechey was in town Monday as the guest speaker for the Rotary Club of Windsor (1918) annual luncheon that kicks off the Salvation Army’s yearly Christmas Kettle campaign.
The theme of his speech was giving hope in the midst of disaster and he credited the Salvation Army’s presence at the disaster for keeping him from becoming another 9/11 victim.
Hope in Stechey’s 9/11 experience was giving families the closure of removing the unknown.
It was more than half the families of the 2,753 [sic] killed that day would get.
In all, the 16 dentists who Stechey teamed with were able to ID 267 victims in his four tours of duty in New York. There were more than 250 forensic dentists working to identify remains.
“We were working right in the pit, fires were still burning and dust covered everything,” recalled Stechey, who arrived five days after the attack. “We were combing through rubble looking for teeth and bits of jaw bone that were one-inch long if we were lucky.”
In particular, the greyish dust still haunts Stechey’s memory. It coated everything like a frost that had to be scrapped [sic] off with a fingernail.
“When you scraped it there was a smell,” Stechey said. “It was the smell of death. The smell of human remains mixed in the dust.”
In the chaos of the exhausting work, it didn’t dawn on Stechey what the emotional toll might be. Then, in a span of 24 hours, the numbness wore off.
Two days after identifying that first firefighter, Stechey awoke to the TV news he’d been watching when he dozed off.
“It was the funeral of the firefighter we’d identified,” Stechey said. “I knew what was in that casket. It was jarring emotionally.
“A lot of dentists who went didn’t make it. Many committed suicide, hit the bottle or had their marriages break up when they got back home.”
Stechey said he began to unravel emotionally that same day when he was in a phone booth calling his daughter back home. He suddenly went silent as he gazed at the posters of the missing on the wall in front of him and saw the victim he’d just identified 10 minutes earlier staring back at him.
“I never thought I’d need the Salvation Army, but they were there 24/7 for us” said Stechey, who will man a Christmas kettle once again this year.
“I would’ve never survived New York without them.”
Stechey has never met a victim’s family and he can no longer read the piles of thank-you letters he’s received from families.
“I can’t watch the anniversary shows after doing that once,” said Stechey, who fills in for his dental colleagues in his semi-retirement and does charity work in Hamilton. “I remember them scanning the names on the memorial. One flashed on the screen, a 29-year-old father of a nine-month-old girl, I had identified. All the emotions came rushing back.
“I can’t go back to New York.”