NEW YORK - This past Tuesday, the sun arced across a cloudless sky, the breath of fall rustled trees, and the number of people killed in the World Trade Center disaster dropped by 40. Just like that: Forty fewer souls to imagine rising from the dust; 40 fewer people to include in nightly prayers.
Until now, the number of dead was 2,792. That number, 2,792, stood firm for more than a year. It was the number recorded in almanacs and history books. It was the number of the names of trade center victims that children uttered at September's second-anniversary ceremony.
Now strike that number from your mind. Replace it with 2,752.
After what officials call an exhaustive investigation that spanned the world, the city has removed more names from the official tally of trade center victims. The reasons are the same as in the past: the location of people thought dead; duplication; insufficient data; fraud. In many cases, investigators could not prove a supposed victim ever existed - a jarring concept, given that some names are embedded in the collective memory.
Remember Paul Vanvelzer and his two sons, Barrett, 4, and Edward, an infant who was thought for a while to be the disaster's youngest victim? It seems now that the Vanvelzers, reported missing by a California woman claiming to be a relative, may have died without ever having lived.
But what do we do with this information - this 2,752, down from 2,792? Do we grieve less? Are we happy? What does it mean?
"The question is, `Does it make it any less tragic?'" said Jonathan Greenspun, the commissioner of the Mayor's Community Assistance Unit. "The answer is, `No, it doesn't.' "
The worst and the best
The change in the number is more than a mere adjustment in a dispassionate tally. It reflects the singular horror of the trade center collapse, so thorough in its destruction that the exact number of victims remains elusive more than two years later. It reflects the worst in human nature: the many people, seeing opportunity in disaster, who reported fictitious deaths in hopes of collecting benefits.
But it also reflects the best, city officials say, as personified by investigators so intent on determining the true and sacred number of the dead that they properly took their time, even if it meant that a few fraudulent names, or the names of the living, were sprinkled among those of the many dead. Better that, they reasoned, than to exclude the name of one true victim.
More than a few of these 40 cases centered on missing persons' reports filed by people who lived overseas. Bryan X. Grimaldi, the general counsel for the New York City Commission for the United Nations, offered an example of the nettlesome problems faced by investigators: A woman in Nigeria does not hear from her son in the United States for five years; she learns of the Sept. 11 attacks and reports her son missing; then investigators cannot find the woman.
"What do you do?" Grimaldi asked.
Perhaps in another case, in another tragedy, the matter would have been dropped. But in the case of Sept. 11, Grimaldi said, "we have really exhausted all efforts, and by extraordinary means. ... We took it as far as we could go."
The mission to specify the exact number of trade center victims has been necessary: partly for history, partly for the distribution of death benefits - and partly to satisfy a communal desire for a number whose exactness might bring some comprehension to the incomprehensible. But that number, and whatever finality it would bring, has been elusive.
In the first days after the terrorist attack, the city estimated that more than 6,300 people had been killed. That number quickly dropped, sometimes by the hundreds, as officials winnowed out duplications and false reports. In acknowledgment of the matter's importance, the city created a task force called the Reported Missing Committee, which included representatives from several city agencies, including the Police Department, the medical examiner's office and the city's Commission for the United Nations.
All the while, the intense emotion attached to numbers was palpable. Chief Charles V. Campisi, head of the New York Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau, once predicted, "I think it will be less than 5,000, but only by the grace of God." And Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani once dismissed efforts by reporters to determine an exact number as a "macabre" endeavor.
The number kept dropping - to about 4,500, and then to about 3,900. Along the way the Sept. 11 attacks lost the awful distinction of being the bloodiest day in American history. That was reserved for the Battle of Antietam, at which at least 3,650 Civil War soldiers were killed and thousands more wounded on a single day.
Down to 3,300, and then, by the first anniversary, to 2,801. Soon the number dropped again, to 2,792, where it remained until this week.
The city will retain its records on the 40 names dropped from the list, just in case new evidence develops. But with only three more open cases, officials think that they are close to determining a final number of trade center dead - somewhere, it seems, between 2,749 and 2,752.
How should that make us feel? The fewer the better, perhaps; the fewer the better.