Some of the lower floors had been finally uncovered after several hours, the soldier remarked to himself. There was something to be said for having determined men helping to dig and haul, even if the authorities did not like having civilians do so. A determined man in search of his family worked ten times as hard as a paid soldier or fireman.
There was even a priest among them, looking rather odd hauling rubble in his cassock. The man working with him seemed much more appropriately dressed, wearing jeans and a sweater. Even he had the look of a student about him, not that of a construction worker.
Earlier, the priest had sent a small boy in an ambulance with a grandmother who was accompanying her husband. The husband had had a heart attack from the fear of being trapped in an apartment with no stairs, the front door having been blasted away along with the corridor. So far, most of the survivors they had rescued were those whose apartments had not collapsed.
One man had frantically worked his way to the edge of his floor to yell over the roar of the workers that he needed help quickly. A crane had been sent up to fetch him and his wife, who was soon to give birth. A frantic night it was and they had barely ventured into the rubble.
He heard a shout and turned to see several firemen calling over the priest. They were obviously religious, the soldier noted grudgingly. If they took the time to pray for everyone and everything, they would never get the wreckage cleaned up. God had let the bomb go off, so what did He care? He did not exist as far as the soldier was concerned, and thus the pointless rituals these firemen were going through only took up time. They would find many dead bodies. What did they expect, that the priest would set up an assembly line? With firemen carrying the bodies as though on a conveyor belt?
The soldier went over to the commotion, hoping to remind the firemen to get back to work. He could care less if the priest did what he liked, provided he stayed out of the way, but the firemen had a job to do.
Hardened soldier that he was, he did not find the scene as horrifying as the rest of the civilians and even the firemen, one of whom was weeping. What struck him was that this scene was being played out in the city, in the suburbs where everyone assumed things were safe and secure. It was not happening on the frontier, in strange foreign places where warfare and death were daily life. He had seen many a man cry over the body of a dead child, but never here. Not like this.
“Get yourselves read – keep digging,” he ordered the firemen, who nodded at him and slowly went back to their work.
The soldier turned and did likewise, unable to look at the priest, who knelt among the rubble cradling a small girl in his arms.
“Nellie, my dear Nellie!” he sobbed.
The young man who had been helping him, the one the soldier had pegged for a student, picked up a doll from the bed, the toy as motionless as the child who had clutched it. Then he too knelt, making the sign of the cross and staring up at the stars, just visible beyond the overhang of the roof. Something shifted underneath him and he turned his attention to it.
Gazing at him lovingly was a battered but glowing Mother of God.