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Portraits of Grief - 2002-09-09

The twin towers of the World Trade Center, each with 110 floors, anchored scores of businesses. It held a workforce of 50,000 people drawn from every corner of the earth. Since September 15, 2001, The New York Times has run brief profiles each day of some of the World Trade Center victims, drawn from remembrances of family members, co-workers and friends.

"Oh, there's another one. Oh my God, another plane just hit!"

It was a bright sunny day in New York last fall, when two jets slammed into the World Trade Center. The final death toll was not as high as first thought, but the numbers were devastating. Ultimately, almost 3,000 people died there. For days after the attacks, desperate, grief-stricken relatives searched the streets of New York, and city hospitals in hopes of finding their loved ones.

"I have to see my brother. I want to see him. If it's a dead body at this point, it doesn't matter. If it's a dead body I know he's okay now. I know he's up there. I know he's okay. I have to find him. I want to know that he's okay."

Families posted photos and created makeshift bulletin boards, on street corners. "The third morning I went in, because I was the one who was supposed to be writing the story about the dead," said Janny Scott, a reporter on The New York Times newspapers' metropolitan desk. "I said we are not going to be able to do this. Let's just take these flyers, and start writing about these people one by one."

And, it was out of this experience that The New York Times began to create its memorable series "Portraits of Grief", and the book Portraits 9/11/01. Janny Scott wrote the introduction to the book and many of the profiles.

"We originally started out with six of us assigned to take these flyers, call families and try to write short profiles, capturing the essence of these people," Ms. Scott explained. "An editor on the metropolitan desk said instead of making them telegraphic and full of all sorts of biographical details, like a traditional obituary, why not just focus on a single fact or story or anecdote that somehow brought them to life."

The portraits put a human face on a casualty count so large as to be difficult to comprehend. Those who died in the September 11 attacks were fathers, daughters, people who were planning weddings, expecting babies. Bond traders died. Restaurant workers died. Secretaries and window washers died. Firemen died.

Firefighter Kevin Hannafan joined the recovery effort the day his brother Thomas' body was found in the wreckage. This is part of Thomas Hannafan's portrait, written in The New York Times.

"Kevin was part of a search team, including members of Ladder 5, that found the bodies of Thomas, 36, and four other members of his group in the mound of trade center rubble. Kevin carried his brother's helmet out of the wreckage. 'It was the proudest moment of my life,' he said. 'It means a lot for firefighters, in firefighter tradition, that members of their company carry them out. That day, I was part of that company.'

There was insurance executive Michael Egan. His sister Christine was visiting him at the office that day from Canada. They called his wife as the planes hit the towers.

Mrs. Egan said her husband always called her, no matter where he was. He called that morning, too. "You made it," she said. "No, we're stuck," said Mr. Egan. Then, still on the phone, she watched his building collapse on television. "He had to call," she said. "But all we could say is, 'I love you, darling.'"

There are over 1,900 profiles in the Portraits of Grief. More than 100 reporters eventually took part in the project. Some reporters worked on the profiles for days and cycled out to different assignments. Others wrote for weeks. One reporter who lost a cousin in the World Trade Center found that writing helped her work through her own grief. Business reporter Connie Hayes says it was an emotional experience to pick up the phone and call families and friends of people who were presumed, but not declared dead. "In the beginning we were all kind of speechless," Ms. Hayes said. "We didn't have anything to say and there was nothing we could say to make people really feel better. But, in a way, telling these stories seemed to make some of the families feel that they were doing something to help their loved ones and I was just grateful to be helping with that."

The profiles resulted in much comment from readers and family members. For Janny Scott, it was the profile of Robert Mayo.

"He was a fire-safety officer, meaning he was hired by the company that ran the Trade Center, and he worked for that company on contract. He had been outside the buildings and gone back in believing it was his job to do that. He had spoken to his wife from outside the building and said that he was going back in. And she had wanted him not to and he had done it anyway and had been killed...he had a son, who's about 11 or 12 and every morning he would get up to go to work very, very early, three or four in the morning. He lived out in New Jersey and he would have to drive into New York. So he didn't see his son in the morning so he would write him notes, scribbled on the backs of envelopes or pieces of scrap paper and leave them on the breakfast table"

"On Sept. 11, Mr. Mayo's note to Corbin included a losing score. "He wrote, like, 'Sorry. I love you. Have a good day, I'll see you later,'" Mrs. Mayo recalled. "The notes were always on scratch paper or the back of an envelope, nothing fancy. I would kill for a few of those notes now," Mrs. Mayo said.

For reporter Anthony de Palma, response came from his story about two firemen.

"One of the ones that was the most technically difficult to do and also the most rewarding was a pair of firemen who were exactly the same age, who were the sons of firemen, who had entered the academy within six months of each other, and who, believe it or not, had the exact same first, middle and last name, Michael Edward Roberts " said Mr. de Palma. "And so, as I came upon these two men and tried to pursue their own stories, it reflected the universality of the event."

"At times it seemed he was in two places at once because there was another firefighter, same name, same age, same background. The only time their families met was at their funerals."

The profiles transformed the people lost in the World Trade Center from statistics, into vibrant individuals. The bonds of family, and community are palpable in each story. We are drawn into a still photo of lives lost, as they were lived. The 18th-century writer James Montgomery (1771-1854) wrote: "Tis not the whole of life to live, nor all of death to die."

These portraits of grief capture the unrecountable complexity of life in motion.