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The World in a List
On September 11th, 2001, I responded the best way I knew how—by building a website. But what gave solace to some brought only false hope to others.
In September 2001, I was invited to contribute an essay to ON Magazine (previously TIME Digital, a monthly supplement to TIME), for their front-of-book column “Unavoidable Encounters with Technology.” After a few rejected drafts (one of which you can read here), this is the version they finally accepted, though it was still reworked before appearing under the title “Web of Hope” in December 2001—what turned out, as far as I can tell, to be their final issue.
We were only trying to find out if our friend Ellie was okay.
I live in Astoria, Queens, and after the shock of seeing a second plane hit the World Trade Center on live television, my wife and I dragged out our bicycles and rode to Roosevelt Island for a look. It was a beautiful day for a bike ride, but we pedaled in numbed horror. Everywhere people stood silent in the streets, looking south. At southern tip of the island, we watched the distant towers burn, watched the impossible smoke billow like blood in water. No one spoke among the dozens of spectators. Even police officers stared helplessly. The only sounds were water and sirens, water and sirens.
We returned home before ten—just in time to see the first tower collapse on television. Our friend Ellie lived right there, only a few blocks from the towers. Frantic we tried calling her while I checking email. No word from Ellie, and no answer at either of her numbers.
We held each other in front of the television as the second tower fell. The phone was useless, circuits overloaded.
Friends out west, early risers, sent email to ask if we were okay. In reply I sent a message to my entire contact list. I told everyone we were fine and asked the folks in New York City please to write back and check in. I felt blind. Email was the only lifeline.
Over the next half hour messages trickled in, and monitoring them helped distract me from the horror unfolding across the river. One friend reported that she was fine but couldn’t reach Ellie. Another checked in not just for herself and her husband but for a short list of people she had already heard from—and thankfully Ellie’s name was among them. We nearly cried with relief. It was one ray of light in a smoky, choking cloud.
Good news demands to be shared. I assembled a roster of everyone I’d heard from and put it up on my Web site. I sent the URL to all my contacts, posted it to the newsgroups I frequent. By noon the list was up to thirty or forty names, and Ellie’s brother Ken had written to thank me for word that his sister was alive. “Bill, your sign-in has brought me relief and comfort,” he wrote.
The balm of messages like that one kept me at the computer throughout the afternoon and evening, and improving the list helped to stave off panic and grief. I replaced my hand tally with an automated message board; by nightfall hundreds of listings had appeared. Expressions of support from around the world shared space with vile outpourings of hate, and I worked fast to screen out the latter. When overwhelming traffic forced me to disable the message board at midnight, the roster stood at more than 2,500 names.
Wednesday my inbox was clogged. Many people wrote to thank me, but others sent anguished pleas for information. “On your Web site, Marc Zeplin was listed as a survivor,” read one message. “We haven’t heard from him. Where did you get his name? How can we find him? He is my neighbor’s husband and she is too worried to be told about this.”
I explained that some people had mistaken my site for a search engine, posting the names of the lost instead of the found, but that answer was unsatisfactory even to me. How could a list that was meant to bring hope play such cruel tricks?
Thursday night I sat in a pub on the Upper East Side. I had fish and chips and pint of bitter in front of me, and a television blaring CNN above my head. The cameras showed us the faces of the bereaved, holding vigil in lower Manhattan. A bluff, burly, silver-haired man appeared on screen. He held up a photograph. “This is my son Marc Zeplin,” he said. “We saw on the Internet that he was okay, but no one’s heard from him yet. If you see him, please call this number.” I had to push my food away.
What could I have done differently? I honestly don’t know. The check-in list was my best effort on a day of confusion and fear. It was a tool. Not everyone found it useful. How could they?
Reading through the list today, I’m amazed at what I find. Outbursts of terror and grief share the page with avowals of love, hope, and faith. Clots of insensitivity lodge among eloquent pleas for understanding, closed fists of hatred among prayers for surcease from pain. I find raw eruptions of anger cheek by jowl with moments of brilliant, imperfect joy.
It’s much like the day we all lived through, and the world we all still live in. ∅
The 9/11 survivor registry still lives at my website. Read more about the project at CNET and Fast Company, or see the BBC video below. Marc Scott Zeplin did not survive the World Trade Center attack. Learn more about him here.