The smoke and dust were terrific, all but obscuring the crash site. Flames shot through the plane’s corpse, danced and raged overhead, lit the windows and passed. The smell of jet fuel was everywhere. A trough the length of three football fields had been ripped out of the land, ninety feet wide at its broadest. Nose, cabin, and tail were in three distinct sections, buried, rather than scattered, due to the dramatic incline of descent. The right wing had detached completely, the left was a black crumpled ruin. And the real-time concussions, the aftershock of impact, still sang in the earth, still sent small stones tumbling. And the rifts in the desert appeared as tiny sand pools. And the dirt spilled round as the hot dusty creatures burst aboveground at full tilt and maniacally charged the wreckage. Their pecking order was evident; the fastest and toughest were the first inside—the first-pickers of cufflinks and fountain pens, of ribbons and bows. Seat belts and oxygen masks were savaged in the rush, the carnage completely ignored. One squealed, and there was a sudden frantic pile-on of hairy bodies. In a minute the victor came up grasping a cheap patent leather billfold. After a short, brutal flurry, this little monster used his teeth to tear out a photograph of a sweetly smiling family. He snatched it with his paw, pressed the treasure to his chest, and threw the billfold, with its cash and traveler’s checks and credit cards, to the losers. Crash investigators have one of the toughest jobs on the planet. You never really adjust to it— ever—though it’s imperative to develop a steely exterior, and to always treat it as just a job. Crash investigators for major airlines have upped that career ante considerably. Analytical and technical aspects aside, it’s not just a matter of noting and recording the dead—angles, impetus, collateral consequences—it’s a matter of cataloguing torsos, mutilated faces, miscellaneous body parts, many burned beyond recognition. A museum display in Hell: the plane’s great black ruptured body, split open like a ripe pomegranate, the horror of charred corpses duly strapped in for the unbelievable, some cut right in half by those very seat belts . . . the nauseating stench of a charnel house, the hundreds of wild fixed expressions that not even death, not even flames, not even formaldehyde can repair.