Giving Face to Loss
By Hank Nuwer
“Stay the hell out of New York.”
The message blipped onto my laptop screen, sent by a New York journalist acquaintance of mine who was covering the biggest story of his life. If words on a screen could be heard, these would have been shouted.
Life had been tranquil earlier, ordinary. Just two hours into Sept. 11, the day had already proved a long one for me. I had just concluded an interview with a source for a future book, and at about 2 a.m., began driving to a friend’s house near Manhattan.
Once arrived, I slept for three hours, waking to a shower and looking forward to a trip into “The City” for a cable television show that had invited me as a guest.
I put on my suit and patted my friend’s dog Aspen, goodbye.
Then the phone rang.
It was Michael, a relative of my friend. He asked if I’d heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My friend is a pilot and Michael had called hoping to reach him.
“I’m headed into New York,” I said. “I’m leaving now.”
“I wouldn’t go,” Michael replied. “Turn on your TV.”
I hung up and turned on the television just as the second plane hit. Normally Aspen is a quiet dog, but the sounds I made when witnessing the towers in flames scared her and she began to bark insanely.
I called the cable network to ask about my interview. The producer’s telephone voice mail picked up. I sent an email to the producer and then one to an acquaintance, then a reporter at ABC. The acquaintance responded so quickly that I thought the email had misfired. He warned me to keep away from New York.
Later I learned that he had seen those people in the World Trade Center jumping from their upper-floor office windows. He had viewed the video footage brought in by his station’s reporters. He had seen the photos of human blots on the sidewalks that most us have been spared from witnessing.
Still thinking the cable interview might happen, I gathered my things and got ready to take the commuter bus to New York. But an adult nephew of my host came into the house and said: “You can’t get into the city. All the tunnels and bridges are closed.”
I felt helpless. I wanted to do something, anything. So I created a Web site to honor the victims, those who died in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.
I wanted to show them alive and vibrant, as they were before the flames and crashes took their precious lives.
Having a fraternity background, I thought the simple web site I created could best honor the fraternity and sorority members lost in the attacks.
Day after day, month after month, I added victim after victim. I teach computer-assisted journalism and the skill helped me find dozens of victim names. Once I launched the site, I heard from national fraternity and sorority groups, schools, ordinary people—each with a new name to add to the web site.
I began adding scholarships that had been established in the names of many victims. At one point, my site had 25,000 visitors a day.
The site is now closed, but it was up two full years. To all those who helped me get it going, thank you.
To each victim of 9/11, America will never forget you.