Portraits of Grief
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ROBERT MacNEIL: Some 3,000 people died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, far fewer than originally estimated — nonetheless, a devastating tally. In the days after September 11, family and friends of the victims kept up hope that their loved ones would be rescued from the rubble…
WOMAN: His name is Moise. He was dressed as a chef when everything happened.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Discovered in a hospital…
WOMAN: If anybody sees him or knows anything, his name is Andrew Stern.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Perhaps found wandering the streets with amnesia.
WOMAN: Please, if you can give me help with my sister. She has been missing since 9:00 in the morning.
MAN: My brother Tom Knox.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Grief stricken, they posted their flyers throughout the city, creating galleries of missing persons nearly everywhere you looked. As hope dimmed, the flyers became memorials, and also as the inspiration for a monumental series in The New York Times. The paper had been struggling to come up with a way to write about the victims who were presumed but not yet declared dead.
JONATHAN LANDMAN, Metropolitan Editor: On Friday after the attack, we just decided to start using the posters that people had started putting up around the city.
ROBERT MacNEIL:Jonathan Landman is the paper’s metropolitan editor, Christine Kay, assistant editor on the metro desk.
CHRISTINE KAY, Assistant Metropolitan Editor: We began the conversation of, okay, let’s try to find one aspect of the person’s life, whether it was a passion or the personality; this one thing you could really flesh out the person.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And so began the Portraits of Grief [Takes you to The New York Times site for the series]. The portraits offered glimpse of lives curtailed, of people who, as the series introduction put it, “set off for work on a dazzling September morning and something unimaginably horrible happened.” The pieces have become obsessive reading for millions of Americans, myself included. More than 100 Times reporters have worked on the series. Janny Scott, David Chen and Anthony DePalma have, among them, written 100 portraits.
Mr. Feeney, 28, at a conference at windows on the world September 11. Tutored an illiterate adult, worked for campus security, a dorm counselor, representative on the university’s board of trustees and worked for Habitat for Humanity. Even after he moved to New York, he kept up the pace of his activities. He was a rock climber; he was a scuba diver, a kayaker and avid inline skater. Loved gliding through Central Park.
Robert Sliwak, who was a bond broker at Cantor Fitzgerald lives on in his three children. That’s what his wife says to help them and her get through these days. Last Friday was their father’s birthday. He would have been 43. And they went out for pizza to celebrate. The kids all had soda, a special treat, and they raised their glasses and toasted him.
Vivian Casalduc lived to make her families eyes light up. She made gingerbread for a giant candy land each December shredded with coconut snow and the houses studded with lollipops and licorice. She would make it the first two days in December and let everybody look at it all month long. “On Christmas morning, she would let everybody ransack it,” said her daughter.
JANNY SCOTT, Reporter: It was really, by the seat of our pants in the beginning and I think that the style of them evolved since then.
ROBERT MacNEIL:What has evolved to me as one reader, is a kind of way of looking at an individual through the things that make him or her lovable to their… Is that… Does that…
DAVID CHEN, Reporter: It rings true, I think because when we talk to the families, invariably, they will not sort of summarize the person’s resume. And all the other things that we tend to talk about in sort of this type “a” city…
ROBERT MacNEIL:It also makes the people live. It produces the kind of details that appear in a novel.
ANTHONY DE PALMA, Reporter: Sure. What you try to do is to show a part of that person’s life rather than tell about it — and to do it in an almost familiar way, not the formal style of the “New York Times”, which would be in an obituary, and it allows people to connect, people who are desperate to connect to all that’s happened in some way or another.
ROBERT MacNEIL:People not related.
SPOKESMAN: Not at all.
SPOKESMAN: People also say that they wish they had known this person after reading this particular profile. I find myself sort of smiling, actually, at some of the anecdotes that the families tell me.
ROBERT MacNEIL:On his birthday, insurance executive Herman Broghamer allowed himself to be dressed in alpine shorts and lederhosen as 15 couples roasted him to the strains of “The Sound of Music.”
Ralph Licciardi could stuff his ear lobe into his ear and then wiggle the ear until the ear lobe fell out.
Bill Wren, the World Trade Center’s director of fire safety, liked bill wren, the World Trade Center director of fire safety, liked to go to art museums and watch Sister Wendy’s art lectures on TV.
Diane Lipari was so cheerful, friends teased when she woke in the morning, birds chirped around her.
ROBERT MacNEIL:Everybody I know has been terribly moved by these mini- obits as they’ve appeared. Some people I know start their day with them and some can’t stand it because it’s so emotional that they end their day with them.
Janny, how do you feel writing them?
JANNY SCOTT: When I first started, I approached them with some trepidation. You’re bumbling into some stranger’s life at an incredibly difficult time, you’re a stranger over the phone calling out of the blue and asking them to talk in detail, in great detail and hopefully with some emotion and feeling and recollection of events and humorous moments and idiosyncrasies to talk about in detail about a person who has just died. So every time I picked up the phone, there was a certain hesitation, and yet once you got people on the phone, almost invariably, they rose to the task and began to talk in the most wonderful ways and describe these people with such depth and feeling that there was something very invigorating about it.
DAVID CHEN: On the other hand, you know, just speaking for myself, it’s difficult to do it for an extended period of time because each profile is so draining and–
ROBERT MacNEIL:Draining of you?
DAVID CHEN: Yes, it’s very draining.
ANTHONY DE PALMA: The thing about this is that there is no doubt in my mind that this is important work. And so while it’s draining, it does also make it easy in the sense that you know the worth of it.
ROBERT MacNEIL:Oddly enough, the easiest portraits to write, say these three journalists, are often the most difficult ones to report. For David Chen, it was the one about investment banker Chris Murphy, a long lost college friend. Janny Scott’s was the portrait of firefighter Thomas Hannafin. His brother, Kevin, found his body in the wreckage.
JANNY SCOTT: He said “I took the helmet and walked down this long line of rescue workers and followed by my brother’s body in the basket.” And he said, “I was a member of my brother’s company on that day the proudest moment of my life.” That was just extremely hard story to hear told.
ROBERT MacNEIL:Then there was the story of insurance executive Michael Egan and his sister Christine who was visiting that morning from Canada. They called Michael’s wife after the planes hit the Towers.
ANTHONY DE PALMA: And he’s saying, “we’re okay but I’m not sure what is going to happen.” As they were talking, she is in New Jersey watching the television and she watches the building fall while she’s on the phone with him. I lost my breath. I didn’t– I had to say look– she was sobbing. I said, “I’m sorry. At this moment I don’t know what to say, but that I’m sorry.”
ROBERT MacNEIL:Nearly 1,600 portraits have been written. From A, for investment banker Gordie Aamoth, who on Monday, September 10, completed his biggest merger deal ever, to Z for Abe Zelmanowitz, who stayed with his paraplegic manager at Blue Cross/Blue Shield until the Towers collapsed.
Is your aim, if you can, to get everybody?
JONATHAN LANDMAN: Yes. But realistically we know that won’t happen. We have been 20 percent or 25 percent — something like that – are just saying no to us. A certain number we just can’t find. So we will continue to do it as long as we still have people do, but we won’t be able, at some point, not too far from now, to be able to do it every day.
CHRISTINE KAY: If it’s shown us one thing, it is that nobody’s life was ordinary, that everybody is unique in their own way, and interesting.
ROBERT MacNEIL:Howard Kestenbaum was so worried about the homeless, he spent nights in shelters to see what it was like. Katie McCloskey moved to Manhattan in June and wrote in her diary that she had found an awesome job in an awesome place in an awesome city. Mark McGinly’s memorial service was planned for 500 families and friends. 1,500 people came.
Moses Reeves had dreams, big ones. He went after what he wanted. Of course he got the girl, and he and Elizabeth married and had two children, Moses Junior four and Moisha two. A 29-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, he wanted to become the next Emeril, so he took a job as chef at “Windows of the World.” He also wanted to be the next Ricky Martin, so he wrote songs and became lead singer for an up and coming band and made a CD and, boy, he knew how to dance. He had some kind of moves. I wish he could come back. I wish he was with me right now. That’s the only thing I wish.