A Tragedy Captured in Digital Amber

September 7, 2002

When disaster struck on Sept. 11, 2001, we did what people always do in times of crisis: We reached out to loved ones and others in our communities for reassurance, for news, for dialog. But this was the first national catastrophe to occur in the Information Age, in a world wired for a radical new information-exchanging technology called e-mail. Over the ensuing days, we realized that by responding to these events via e-mail, we were participating in a vital new arena of the national discourse — and that this discourse was recorded, at least for the moment, inside our computers. To preserve this fleeting record of our collective experiences and reactions, Gregory Dicum and Bryan Bell put out a call for people to send them the e-mails from this intense period that had the most personal significance for them. The following are a selection of excerpts from the e-mails they collected, as well as from the e-mail dialog they engaged in themselves.

– – –

Date: Saturday, September 22, 2001 10:25:57 AM

From: C.T. [financial industry worker, New York City]

To: [numerous recipients]

On Tuesday morning, I arrived at work 10 minutes early. I sit on the northwest side of the 32nd floor of the World Financial Center with a panoramic view of all of Manhattan north of the WFC. People in NY are notoriously late arriving at work (we make it up on the back end of the day), so the floor was not very crowded. I was the only person on the north side of the floor.

I turned on my PC, and while I was waiting for it to boot up I stood looking out my floor-to-ceiling window at a gorgeous NY day. Within a few seconds, the nose of a huge passenger jet was coming right at me. The wings were rocking back and forth. If you don’t live in NYC, you probably wouldn’t know that our air space is totally restricted. There is absolutely no such thing as a fixed wing aircraft flying southbound over the island at any altitude, let alone that low.

My first thought when seeing the jet was “Oh, s—t, what is that guy doing flying so low?” Then I realized that the aircraft had to be in mechanical distress. I was praying that it would gain enough altitude to clear our building when the pilot pulled the nose up. At the very last second, the jet veered to its left out of my sight line. I instinctively turned around to the south as the plane passed by, and about five seconds later I heard the impact.

I didn’t have to see the impact to know exactly what had happened. Usually, nothing fazes me at all, but at that instant I knew hundreds of people had just died. I started running to the east side of our building facing #1 WTC screaming at the top of my lungs that a passenger jet had just hit the Trade Center….

….I looked 32 floors down to the WTC Plaza which I ordinarily would have been crossing at that very moment. It is usually teeming with pedestrians coming from the eastside subways heading for the North Bridge to the US Custom House and the World Financial Center. It was a tangled mass of gray metal from the building and the plane. There were no visible signs of life.

– – –

Date: Thu, 13 Sep 2001 13:02:53 From: M.L.

Subject: apocalypse now

To: [9 friends and family members]

….When the first plane hit, I was 4 blocks away at home, I’d just had breakfast and I was sitting down to do some work.

I heard a screech and huge explosion… I thought it was a plane going through the sound barrier right overhead. I looked out of the window — there was a polling station across the street and people were handing out pamphlets — and everyone was screaming and clinging to each other. I turned my head to where they were looking and saw the huge hole and explosion in the first tower. At that point I thought it was just a horrific plane crash, a small plane had malfunctioned and hit the towers. The only way that I could tell that it was a plane was the silhouette of the wing on the building.

I went up to my roof and was watching the smoke pour out (there wasn’t that much fire at that point from the first crash). I was shaking, it was so surreal but I never expected it to be anything more than an accident, looking at the wreckage, you couldn’t expect that it would get any worse. After about 15 mins I went downstairs to listen to the radio, thinking that the fire was just going to keep burning. Then I heard the second explosion and I rushed back up to see flames and smoke pouring from the second tower. At that point I knew that it wasn’t an accident and it had to be a terrorist attack.

As the fire spread through the building people started to jump from the building — which was the sickest, most horrendous thing that I have ever seen, or ever want to see — their arms and legs were flailing everywhere and as every person jumped there was a huge scream from everyone watching.

I started to get worried that it might be a chemical or biological attack and thought it would be best to get out of my building, so I put on some jeans, grabbed my computer and got out.

It’s an overused phrase, but on the street it was a war zone: everyone was running around screaming and crying with their hands over their faces, like you see on the images of bomb scenes in the middle east. It’s really hard to convey the level of fear that you could feel. I really felt that it was the beginning of WWIII. You couldn’t tell what was going to happen next, I didn’t know if there were going to be missile attacks. I definitely felt that the attack wasn’t over, at any second I expected jets to fly over head and bombs to start raining down, or for a nuclear attack (I know it’s not exactly rational, but what can I say?). It’s so strange to live through something like this, bad as it seems when you see this stuff on tv, it bears absolutely no relation to being in it. . . .

Not knowing what was going to get hit next — people on the street were talking about the attack on the pentagon by this point — I didn’t know where the safest place to go would be, but I wanted to get away from the wtc. I ran uptown away from the towers and managed to get a bus on 14th street about 30 blocks north. As I got on the bus the second tower collapsed (which I could tell was happening only by the huge screams from people walking). I spent the rest of the day in a bar.

Date: 9/11

From: Canada

To: Lower Manhattan

I just wanted to know you and yours were OK. I don’t know if you were in the city at the time… but thought of you and your family regardless.

I saw the whole thing live at work and was absolutely sickened. I think it’s the first time I have ever prayed for vengeance. Take care, and for god’s sake…move to Canada. It’s safer *smile*

Date: 9/11

From: Lower Manhattan

To: Canada

Thanks for checking. Everyone I know is ok and freaked out — sad, nauseated, and/or enraged.

I’m feeling more sad than angry (kind of unlike me), though I feel eager for my country to destroy the countries that are harboring fanatics as soon as possible. I don’t want to see any restraint. I guess we’ll know soon enough what happens next.

Date: 9/14

From: Lower East Side

To: California

Last night I walked around lower manhattan for about 2 hours because I was feeling kind of freaked out, couldn’t get below canal street (could have if I had put on scrubs and shown my medical ID, but didn’t want to see it that badly). The patients have been crying about judgement day coming, telling stories about their relatives in the area, getting called up from the army reserves….

We and everyone I know is fine, only some close calls. The people who have “disappeared” are merely friends of people I know from work, pretty far removed. My residents and I tried to volunteer to help out but there weren’t enough survivors in the whole city to need the help of all the medical people who wanted to help out. It was hard in the office tonight, hearing stories from the patients. One woman’s husband, a sanitation worker, spent the night after carrying body parts from the site; she said he called her saying he couldn’t stop vomiting.

It is unlike me not to be angry — I feel really sad and horrible mostly.

I hope you are well.

Date: 9/14

From: Lower Manhattan

To: Friends and Family

A— D—- K—- was born at 3:05 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11. He weighed 8 lbs., 2 oz., and was 20 inches long. He also has a ton of hair. I’ve attached some pictures for your viewing pleasure. He is a bright spot in what has obviously been a week of real turmoil and sadness.

We hope you all are safe and well and will be able to see the little guy soon.

Date: 9/15

From: Lower Manhattan

To: the United Kingdom

It’s been really horrible and sad and everyone is very depressed and talking about it obsessively, wanting to share their stories, bear witness, etc. My apartment is close enough to the area that it was closed off with police and barricades until yesterday. North of here is weirdly back to normal.

The air has improved since Wednesday, when the wind changed direction and smoke filled the area. It woke me up in the middle of the night, made me think of Auschwitz, where the same sweet smoky burning smell supposedly permeated everything. I’ve been out walking the last couple of nights, seeing shrines, people wearing breathing masks, everything closed up… The part that makes you start crying is the photos people have put up everywhere of their loved ones who haven’t been found yet, who are most likely dead, but their relatives are pleading for some information from somewhere. When you see how the people are of every racial group and age it makes me realize in a whole new way how diverse being “American” is … and I hear that hundreds of British died too — have the papers there been identifying your missing?

I hope you and your family are well.

I am impatient for our military to strike back but am also frightened of the war that is coming.

– – –

From: Salvation Army Major C.M.

To: [numerous recipients]

Subject: The SA & Christian Response to the world around us

Date: Tue, 16 Oct 2001 11:05:28

Friday, September 14

On Wednesday when we first arrived at the morgue [at Ground Zero] two cops came over to us and we said, “What can we do for you?” They said, “Can you get us six American flags?” “Huge ones.” We said, “Of course.” Called Greater New York DHQ and requested the flags. They came a few hours later. We found those two same policemen and gave the flags to them. The one policeman’s eyes started to well up with tears. We asked them what they were going to do with the flags. “Well,” one officer who had tears streaming down his face said, “See those three semi trucks down the street? Well, those trucks have bodies of our fellow officers in them and we want to identify those trucks with the flags.” They took the flags and draped them over the trucks. It was an awesome sight as we all stood there with tears now streaming down our cheeks….

Other than the cops, doctors, nurses, medical examiners we were the only ones allowed to go right down where the bodies were being taken from the truck and examined. I was standing next to a cop and we were watching them take a body bag off the truck. Rather than take the bag into the protected room, they put the bag on a gurney and started to unzip the bag right there. I stood there with that cop and watched them examine the contents of the bag. I could only recognize a charred arm; the rest of the contents were beyond recognition. The cop said, “Do you see that?” I said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you all right?” He said, “Yah.” He said, “Are you all right?” I said, “Yah.” Neither of us looking at each other during that small conversation. I turned to him and he just stood there shaking his head in unbelief. We talked for a few more minutes and then he went back to work. I touched his shoulder as he walked away to let him know I would pray for him.

– – –

From: M.M.

To: J.E.

Subject: Re: Thanksgiving

Date: Fri, 28 Sep 2001 22:25:51

It is very painful working in Greenwich Village. There are outpourings of grief and desperation everywhere. Union Square has been turned into a gigantic work of folk art, statues, fences, pavement plastered with missing posters and lined with memorial candles and bouquets, flags, poems. Washington Square Arch is a smaller version. Saint Vincent Hospital also has a memorial wall … every block throughout the Village is plastered with missing posters and improvised memorials. Candles and bouquets are placed in front of pizza parlors, the fire station, storefronts. Even though we no longer see the smoke, we smell the burning, a smell of industrial effluvia, plastic burning, tires burning…. The trauma is in front of our eyes and in our nostrils. When we face south, we see an emptiness where 7,000 people died. When we walk north, we sometimes turn around and face the emptiness, the way a tongue will search the socket in the gum where a tooth has been pulled.

I’ve observed that people are reacting in waves. The first wave, shock, horror, numbness, dissociation. The second wave, depression. The third wave, floods of anxiety with many paranoid fantasies. People are buying gas masks and antibiotics and stocking up on canned food and bottled water. The shared trauma permeates the city. People move gingerly, check out how other people are feeling with extra attention. Nothing is normal — not the traffic, the subways, the businesses, the ambiance — So I guess we are okay, but no one is okay.

Fond regards,


– – –

From: B.B. [editor in Berkeley, CA, age 33]

Sent: Wednesday, September 12, 2001 3:59 AM

To: [28 friends & relatives]

Subject: allah, coming strong

….man, what a stupendous, colossal, cue-the-also-sprach-zarathustra FUCK YOU to smack in the face of uncle sam…. the terrorist elite have proven in as dramatic a fashion as possible that they’ve stepped up their game in a major way, in the process shattering the american illusion that we are safe from the consequences of the dirtiest aspects of US foreign policy….

From: E.S. [attorney in Hoboken, NJ, age 33]

To: B.B. et al.

Subject: RE: allah, coming strong

Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2001 10:39:06

I don’t have time to read your masterful political analysis. All I gotta say is, the President’s speech last night should have gone as follows:

I have spoken to the leaders of all of the suspected terrorist countries, and have given them this ultimatum. Give us every suspected terrorist you’ve got within one week or you and your entire country is as good as gone. The U.S. is on it, and the time for measured responses is past. The only way to take out these terrorists is to hit them and any government or civilian support they’ve got harder then they could possibly imagine. Let’s see if Allah can stop our atomic arsenal. Thanks, and good night.

Sender: J.D.H. [neuroscientist in Champaign, IL, age 33]

To: E.S.

Cc: B.B. et al.

Subject: Re: allah, coming strong

Date: 12 Sep 2001 11:11:33

Careful [E.]. Take a deep breath. Inhale. That’s good. Now, please step away from the button.

Two questions:

1) Why do all these terrorists want to bomb us all the time. Is it, as George W. said, because we are the shining example of freedom for the world?

2) After your nuclear assault and the subsequent retaliation against Manhattan with anthrax, what do you think the death count will be? Is this where you really want to go?

From: E.S.

To: J.D.H.

cc: B.B. et al.

Subject: RE: allah, coming strong

Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2001 12:12:46

It’s tough to cool down, since I’ve been so close to what’s happened. I’m still screaming for revenge. I could easily have been at our (now destroyed) New York office yesterday, at One World Trade Center, 89th Floor. And weird as it is, I’m coming to the conclusion that the only way to combat terrorism (once we’ve found the right target, of course), is to root it out entirely. They’ve asked for the fight, and we should bring it.

Sender: J.D.H.

To: E.S.

Cc: B.B. et al.

Subject: Re: allah, coming strong

Date: 12 Sep 2001 11:35:15

Ok, that is sounding a little more like the reasoned [E.] I’ve come to know and love. It’s easier for me to be more dispassionate since I am at distance. I didn’t know your NY office was in WTC 1. Did a lot of your colleagues perish?

From: E.S.

To: J.D.H.

cc: B.B. et al.

Subject: RE: allah, coming strong

Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2001 12:34:17

We got really lucky. As of this morning, there were two people unaccounted for, but they’ve checked in and are alive. Somehow they made it down 89 flights before it all came down. Another “lucky” detail was that the planes hit a little before 9 a.m. and many people were close, but hadn’t arrived at the office.

….[T]he whole scene is still boggling my mind. If I see one more Muslim child cheering in the streets over these deaths, I’m going to go out of my mind. It starts to make me think really crazy thoughts, like “why don’t we just blow up all these children now, rather than having to face them later when they grow up and become suicide bombers.” It’s going to take me a while to settle down.

– – –

Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2001 19:15:14

To: [original distribution list]

From: G.D.

Subject: RE: allah, coming strong

How is this:

>;I still believe in sending an overwhelming, totally

>;disproportionate response aimed at whoever did

>;this, as well as any government that harbors them,

>;sponsored them, or otherwise gave any assistance to

>;them. These terrorists have to be removed, root and

>;branch, and any islamic country that’s moderate

>;should be called on to choose sides, right now.

>;Either you’re with us or you’re with them.

and this:

>;”we make no distinction between terrorists and

>;those who harbor them.”

[George W.Bush]

different from this:

>;”we came to the conclusion that citizens of

>;democratic countries are equally responsible for the

>;actions of their governments” [Osama bin Laden] ??????

If all this “war against civilization as we know it” rhetoric is going to mean anything at all, then we have to act civilized or automatically lose the war. Laws, due process, presumption of innocence — all that shit is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT now that we’re being asked to show the world what kind of civilization we really are, deep down….

>;so yes, we should obviously take out whatever

>;motherfucker pulled this shit

actually, we should identify that person/people, then press charges in the International Court of Law at the Hague, and press for extradition. That’s the difference between being civilized and being a terrorist.

– – –

Date: Sun, 16 Sep 2001 15:41:19+0200

From: U.Z. [German journalist]

To:[numerous recipients]

Subject: Light a Candle

Dear Friends all over the world,

Recently, some 200,000 people met for a vigil in Berlin, commemorating the victims and their relatives and sending thoughts of support to all helpers and rescuers and praying for peace and improved international understanding. In my own hometown thousands have shared the same thoughts and prayers, it seems that everybody is deeply moved by what happened. Some hate-crimes against Muslims in Germany have been reported in the last days and I heard about the same happening in the U.S. What a sad thing, to answer blind hate with blind hate. It is my feeling that the most effective way to curb terrorism in the long run might be to create more justice and safety and a minimum standard of life also in poor, war-ridden countries.

I have made a pledge to try and answer the violence in my own surroundings and relationships, negligible as they may be, by living a conscious, loving, caring and tolerant life. And I know that I am one among very many people all over the world. It is a new experience for me, that the internet can help to maintain such bonds.

Love, [U.]

– – –

Date: Sun, 16 Sep 2001 19:04:40(PDT)

From: J.B. [computer programmer, Charleston, S.C., age 30]

Subject: events of the last week.

To: [numerous family and friends]

….I am by no means forgiving the men who committed these acts of terrorism, but I think it is important that we try to understand them. After all, these men, 18 at last count who were involved in the suicidal hijackings, were ordinary men. The only difference between them and myself is that they found something that they are willing to die for, and I have not yet. I think it is important to evaluate their cause, for I know that nobody, either on the hijacked planes or in the buildings they destroyed, would have been willing to die for that trip or that day of work. These men were given the choice of whether or not to die for their beliefs and they chose, very deliberately, to die and to kill….

From: S.E.

– – –

Sent: Monday, September 24, 2001 11:09 AM

To: [multiple recipients]

Subject: terrorism and poverty

“Open our eyes that we may see.”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 35,615 children died from conditions of starvation on September 11, 2001.

* Victims: 35,615 children (source: FAO)

* Where: poor countries

* Special tv programs: none

* Newspaper articles: none

* Messages from the president: none

* Solidarity acts: none

* Minutes of silence: none

* Victims mournings: none

* Organized forums: none

* Pope messages: none

* Alert level: zero

* Army mobilization: none

– – –

From: J.C.

Sent: Tuesday, September 18, 2001 1:19 PM

To: [numerous friends and associates]

Subject: Baking cookies for firemen

Dear Everyone,

I want to share something with you. This Sunday, on the suggestion of a friend (thanks Michelle B.), another friend and I baked cookies for a local fire station here in San Francisco. . . . It was great fun, the firemen really appreciated the gesture, and everyone just lights up when I tell them about it. And I have been hearing about people doing similar things all over — taking a moment of their day to appreciate or acknowledge something that has been in front of them all the time but they were never really present to before the tragedies of last week.

I’ve heard stories of conversations with family members that never happened before, and mothers noticing the fragrance of their daughter’s hair, and estranged friends supporting each other in ways they never thought were possible. I’ve even noticed that my fellow bus riders are softer, more willing to look each other in the eye or even talk.

Let’s honor those who are no longer with us by creating a new “normal.” A normal where we remember the love we feel for each other before we find fault with each other, where we wonder “what can I do for someone” before we get pissed off that people aren’t doing more for us, where we appreciate what we have before complaining about not having enough.

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