After the initial shock of September 11, millions of Americans began to sort through their lives—evaluating priorities, reuniting with loved ones, searching for meaning. FBI Special Agent Richard Marx did the same—but in an intensely tangible way. The day after the World Trade Center towers fell, he was sent to New York by the FBI’s Philadelphia Evidence Recovery Team to begin the immense task of sifting through the rubble of what had been a bustling hub of humanity and a center of economic activity.
As FBI Special Agent in Charge, Marx was at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island on September 12, 2001, when the first trucks carrying human remains, personal objects, steel, and crushed debris began to arrive. Just that day, the site had been designated a crime scene—the largest in history. Out of nothing (his “office” had no electricity) Marx developed a plan that dictated how every piece of debris—down to pieces as small as one-quarter inch—would be hand-sifted, sorted, identified and, if appropriate, returned to victims’ families.
Over the next ten months, Marx supervised investigators as they spent a total of 1.7 million hours at the landfill sifting through 1.8 million tons of material. He also recognized the emotional gravity of his responsibilities and put great emphasis on returning personal belongings to family members. The remains of 188 of the 1,215 World Trade Center victims whose remains have been identified and returned to their families were recovered at the landfill. In all, they recovered 4,257 human remains; approximately 4,000 personal photographs; over $78,000 in US and foreign currency; 54,000 personal items, including wedding rings, driver’s licenses and keys; and 1,358 vehicles, including 102 fire trucks and 61 police cars.
Understanding that no crime of this magnitude had ever occurred, and knowing that remnants would have great historical value, with the families’ permission Marx coordinated the distribution of some material to museums. In fact, Marx’s shirt, emblazoned with the words “FBI Evidence Response Team,” hangs at the New York State Museum in Albany for their permanent exhibit on September 11.
The impact of Marx’s work was felt far beyond Fresh Kills. His evidence recovery plan is now used as a model for other agencies and the worksite safety plan he developed has been adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Remarkably, that plan helped ensure that no one on the site suffered significant injuries during the duration of the operation, despite the extraordinarily hazardous conditions.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, Marx volunteered for this challenging assignment. Separated from home and family for nearly a year, he lived with the aftermath of September 11 atop the Fresh Kills Landfill, confronting death and destruction every day. Like many at World Trade Center recovery sites, he often wore a sweatshirt with an inscription in Latin that gave voice to his work. “Opus Dei” (God’s work), it said on the front; printed on the back was “Non Ignara Mali, Miseris Succurrere Disco” (No stranger to evil, I relieve the suffering of others).
And that is Marx’s legacy. By carrying out his momentous task with respect and reverence, he helped the nation heal.
This Sammies honoree was originally recognized as a finalist for Federal Employee of the Year. As of 2004, nominations are no longer accepted directly for Federal Employee of the Year. Instead, all finalists each year are considered eligible for their medal category and Federal Employee of the Year.