It was my first job as a lawyer in a big firm, not too many years ago. A DC-10 had crashed into some airport buildings in a large Latin American capital. It was an American airline, and the pilot, confused by ground fog, had mistaken an active taxiway with the standard landing apron handed off to "heavy" jumbo jets like the one he was flying - - - those of 13,000 tons or more. All one hundred and forty-five people on the plane were killed, as were fifteen in the tiny buildings the landing gear had grabbed and lifted like a rodent in an eagle's talons.
We lived in a Sheraton in the middle of the city and were involved for months in working out the settlements with the families. It was the first I'd ever learned of econometric forecasting and actuarial ratios. Damages to the victims' families could involve calculations based on where their relative was sitting; how much more pain and suffering - - - shock, really - - - someone with a clear view out a window had to endure as opposed to a person in a rear seat, in the center, with no idea of what was happening even in the instant of their death.
The biggest difficulty was identifying remains. We had to work with marginally competent forensic pathologists and coroners, but the fingerprints and dental records yielded accurate matchings: one hundred and ten conclusives, and approximately fifty probable ID's, or "probs" as they were called - - - identification with forty to sixty percent likely accuracy.
This was enough (it had to be) to satisfy almost every one of the families. These were pious, lower-middle class Catholics from the peripheral suburbs, and it was important to have a body to bury, some physical thing to eulogize and commemorate, and to put into the ground and provide a memorial for later visitations. The press coverage had been lurid, and the restoration of dignity to these peoples' loss had become a preoccupation, if not an obsession.
It was then that we found the extra body. Three days after the last funeral.
A completely unrecognizable torso had been wedged between the main ground building and a smaller, adjacent shed that housed turbines and compression machinery. Since the plane had fragmented on impact, it was no more likely the body had been a ground victim than a passenger. It threw all fifty probable IDs into disarray. Every family had gotten a body or part of a body - - - there were no empty-handed survivors - - - but clearly now two of them had divided a single person, and there was no way of telling who without unraveling everything. The forty to sixty percent uncertainty had jumped by . . . . how much? By one. But one multiplied by that many, and coming at the worst of all possible times.
What do you do with an extra body in a settled, completed, apparently deciphered mass disaster? What would keep us from not telling the fifty families who had buried, possibly, the wrong sister, mother, husband? But for exactly the same reason, how fair would it be - - - what would be served - - - by sending out a new wave of doubt in the barely containable, in the only recently contained sea of these peoples' grief?
Fifteen years later I still wake thinking about it. For months afterward I contemplated quitting the law altogether. The night sweats come only three or four times a year. But the dreams are vivid: I am at the doors of the families' tiny corrugated houses, and their faces are twisted with the question of why I have returned.
In the end we left things exactly as they were. The capital police, through it was their own decision, took our advice to bury the body in an unmarked utility grave in one of the provincial military cemeteries.
Sometimes the rights and wrongs of a single action burn forward and backward through time with an equal intensity, like the rays of Borges's all-containing Zohar, and you are immobilized. Almost all Greek tragedy contains this truth, and therein lies its perennial magnetism. But you are immobilized, and you must transform that immobility into something akin to true decision. There is the scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" where Allenby cannot resign himself to a troop commitment that he knows is necessary but will cost him many men. "Do nothing," Lawrence tells him. "It is often best."
About the author:
Richard Wirick lives in Venice, California, where he practices law and writes. He is the West Coast correspondent for the British journal Mind, and his stories, essays and poems have appeared in Northwest Review, Indiana Review, Texas Review, L.A. Weekly and other journals.