Even from a distance, through the gray air and the diesel fumes, it was easy to see that she was a woman, lying there on the hydraulic lift in a long black dress.
It seemed too cold for anyone to be wearing just a dress, and no shoes, no hat over her thick brown hair. Men in heavy boots, bulky coats and watchcaps slid her onto a litter, and whisked her up the snowy hill into the green tent serving as a makeshift morgue.
So it went along one stretch of the Potomac Saturday. One by one, the divers brought up the passengers of Air Florida Flight 90. As they lay there, in sight of the viewfinders and the telescopic lenses and the binoculars trained on them from a little distance away, the horror of what had happened to Flight 90 hit home again. It was hard to think of ice-bound wings and ethyl glycol and the technical aspects of the recovery operation when confronted with the faces of the dead.
For days, the occupants of the ill-fated plane had lain in a dark, watery limbo. Authorities had long ago abandoned hope for the passengers who had boarded the flight, yet the death of each could not officially be confirmed. The water was so murky that divers searching for the bodies had to feel their way along the plane's ruptured metal like strangers in a dark house unable to find the lights, and so cold that the divers had to quit yesterday when ice froze the exhaust valves on their air tanks.
But over the weekend more than half the passengers of Flight 90 came back to the world, looking in the brief moment before they were carted off to the morgue like human beings. Divers from the Army, the Coast Guard and the Navy found them, unbuckled their seat belts, swam to the surface with them in a column of oxygen bubbles and rolled them into the yellow metal lifts of Army Corps of Engineer boats. At last, Flight 90's passengers were released from the underworld of the Potomac, the realm of the bass and the carp and the catfish.
At last they were back in the light.
Though some bodies showed signs of massive trauma to the upper torso, many seemed from a distance to be unharmed, merely asleep, their faces quietly composed.
There was a balding man in a gray suit, with tan shoes, a maroon garment raised over his waist. His arms were bent at the elbows, and his hands were locked in a gentle curve as if he were still holding onto the end of an arm rest. The workers on the barge and pontoon bridge straightened his legs but could not unbend his arms. They wrapped him in plastic.
There was a younger man, shirtless, with a heavy brown beard and with his hands clutched beneath his chin.
There was someone cradled in the lift of boat BD-6 lying on a bed of ice. On Wednesday there were eight; on Thursday, two more. On Friday there were seven. Saturday, 30 people were raised from the water; yesterday, one.
With the bodies were personal effects, the flotsam of catastrophe frozen in the ice. Army teams, fighting ice floes in black rubber boats, fished a pale blue sweater from the river. Two woman's sandals, a bra, a white bucket, a brown shoe, a handbag, a tie were fetched from the ice.
A small crowd watched the divers and the morgue, kept back from the bustle of the encampment by a rust-red fence. It was hard for the spectators to explain why they stood for hours in the raw river wind. There was something haunting in the image of the crews standing on the pontoon bridges staring into the river, the yellow and black lines disappearing beneath the surface, the divers sinking amid trails of bubbles.
You knew the frogmen were gliding slowly past the windows and the aisles of a jet where dozens of passangers sat trapped in water and darkness. You could not help but remember the times that you had waited at the end of a runway to take off, suppressing fear and superstition. Watching the personal effects fished from the river, you would be reminded of a tie, a shoe, or a pale blue sweater of your own.
Down near the water's edge, one man stared for 20 minutes as the divers came back with another body. He shook his head.
"What a way to go," he said.