By DONNA URSCHEL
Thanks to television footage and digital photographs, America and the world knew immediately what happened to the buildings at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. What we did not know, what the images could not tell us, was who those people were inside the Twin Towers.
"You can take a picture of a plane hitting a building, you can take a picture of a building falling down, but you can't take a picture of a person's dream, of potential that was lost. And that was something we, as writers, could do with words," said New York Times reporter Anthony DePalma.
DePalma and other Times reporters created a powerful and unforgettable series of short articles illuminating the lives of men and women who died at the World Trade Center. The widely acclaimed series, "Portraits of Grief," appeared daily during the early months after the attack and continues to run occasionally.
As of Sept. 18, 2002, the Times had profiled 2,280 of the 2,801 victims. Of these, 1,910 profiles have been compiled in a new 558-page hardcover book titled "Portraits 9/11" that is available for $30 in bookstores nationwide and in the Library's Sales Shop.
DePalma joined New York Times Metro editor Jonathan Landman, assistant Metro editor Christine Kay, and reporters Janny Scott and Jan Hoffman in a panel discussion of the series at the Library on Sept. 18. They revealed how the series came about, how it was written, and how it affected the country and the reporters themselves. Jeremy Adamson, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division, moderated the panel.
Landman attributed the success of the series to the skill of the reporters and their ability to interview family members and write poignantly, but not sentimentally, about the victims. In the past year, 170 different reporters contributed to "Portraits of Grief." During the first few months, 15 to 20 reporters worked on the series at any given time.
"The craft is everything here," said Landman. "Without doing these well, they would not have been as effective."
The series grew out of an unsolvable problem: the inability of the Times to obtain an official list of the dead from the New York Police Department or the mayor's office (in fact, an official list of names was not released for almost a year). Because Times reporter Janny Scott could not write the story she was assigned every day to do about the victims, she wrote another story about the missing-person flyers posted around the city by those seeking information about people who had not shown up after the bombing. Some flyers listed a name to call; some had only a phone number.
"I went to the Metro desk and blurted out that we should take the flyers and start writing about them, one by one—'If we can't call them dead, then we can call them missing,'" Scott recalled.
Quickly, her suggestion was adopted, but it was assistant Metro editor Christine Kay's idea to focus on a single detail in the victim's life that would be emblematic of the way the person lived. She had been in charge of an earlier series of unconventional profiles called "Public Lives." "The strongest moments in those profiles occurred when the reporter could distill a passion, an eccentricity, or a quirkiness in the character of the person. I thought if we could do that with the missing people, it would make them less abstract," Kay explained.
"These were never supposed to be obituaries," she added. "These weren't bio stats or about people's professional accomplishments. These weren't people, the majority of them, whom you would write an obituary about in the New York Times."
They were the dishwasher, the executive, and the firefighter, who were all treated in the same way, on an equal playing field, she said.
The Times staff compiled an unofficial list of victims from the flyers, and reporters, researchers and all available hands were assigned to trace survivors who knew the missing. Reporter Jan Hoffman said, "Typically what you would get was a name and a phone number. I wouldn't know who was going to answer the phone, if it was going to be a mother, a son … So you just reach out into the darkness and try not to be egregious, particularly in the early weeks when people were disbelieving, traumatized and undone by grief, and overwhelmed at the prospect of stitching together a life that's been shattered. It was, at best, a delicate business."
On one occasion, the person answering her call screamed back, "I'm not dead!"
Finding a source sometimes required persistence and detective work, as in the case of Igor Zukelman, whose name DePalma had picked from the list of victims. "There was no phone, no address, and no one knew who he worked for. … But as a reporter, you know there aren't that many Zukelmans in the area," he said.
DePalma found three, and with the help of a Russian community center, he was able to track down the correct Zukelman family. DePalma read the Dec. 15, 2001, profile he produced, "Igor Zukelman: Ugly Car, Beautiful Dream," an unforgettable portrait of a hopeful young immigrant who had saved money to buy his first car: "Nobody but a scrap yard scout would give it a second look, but to Igor Zukelman, the rather tired eight-year-old Toyota Cressida was a steel chariot, a three-dimensional symbol of his cherished dream of becoming an American."
Zukelman became a citizen, enrolled in computer school, married, had a son, and got a job with Fiduciary Trust Company. "He was proud that he worked on the 97th floor where he could see the whole city," Zukelman's brother-in-law Alexander Shetman told DePalma.
Some reporters preferred the telephone for the delicate job of interviewing victims' families and friends. "There is something incredibly odd and intimate about the phone in that situation," Scott said. "It felt like being in a darkened room, where you can't see the face of the person you're speaking to, yet you're asking them to work themselves into a position where they feel comfortable to give you, not just run-of-the-mill stuff, but true and authentic kinds of information."
The reporters took care to tell their sources they were calling from the New York Times, why they were calling, and what they were doing. Hoffman said she explained the purpose of the profiles and the manner in which she would conduct the interview. "I really wanted people not to be frightened," she said. "I wanted them to feel that they were a participant and that we had a common goal. … And I would say to them 'When we hang up, you can always call me back.' Then I learned to say, 'If you like what you read, you take the credit, because it comes from you. If you don't like it, blame it on me, 'cause I'm a lousy writer.'"
Hoffman and DePalma did not press their subjects if they did not feel like talking. "Because of the nature of the loss, I didn't want to nag. Sometimes I would call back and say, 'Is this the time? Are you ready?'" Hoffman said.
Before calling surviving relatives directly, DePalma would "start in the outer circle." He would first talk to a friend, a co-worker or a relative of the immediate family members and ask them to approach the family with the idea of an interview. He, too, would ask people to think over his request and tell them he would call back the next day or whenever they were ready.
Hoffman and Scott asked just enough questions to start the memories flowing. "One of the great lessons I learned as a reporter was when the rambling began not to intervene and not to steer it too much. It took time. It might take an hour or an hour and a half, yet at some point you'd feel them edge into the territory you were after," Hoffman said.
"The most important task was to put them at ease," DePalma said.
Although some families rejected an interview request, most people wanted to talk about their loved ones. "I was struck by the emotional generosity of these victims' survivors," said Hoffman. "I found it actually very heartbreaking work," she continued. "For me, I fell in love with an awful lot of people through the voices of their survivors. I wept with them."
Some reporters, like Scott, who started the series, wrote "Profiles" for a few weeks and then returned to other assignments. It was Times policy to assign reporters to the series in two-week stints. But others, like Hoffman, could stay on the assignment continuously.
"I really felt it was an obligation," said Hoffman. "And I never forgot that the person on the other end of the phone had it harder, worse than I did. I never forgot that. I really felt this was work I had to do, and my comfort level was not the issue."
Landman said the impact of the series surprised the Times staff. "It was extraordinary. Suddenly, maybe two weeks after we started, there came this barrage of letters and e-mails, written in language I had not seen before: gratitude. Usually people who write newspapers are mad about something," Landman said. "These profiles affected people so deeply."
Scott described readers' response to her Nov. 6, 2001, profile, "Robert J. Mayo: Notes to His Son," which she read: "Robert J. Mayo used to leave notes on the breakfast table for his 11-year-old son, Corbin. He worked an early shift as a deputy fire safety director at the World Trade Center, so he got up about 4 a.m. He would drink coffee, check the sports scores and include them in his note to Corbin. 'I love you,' he might add. 'Good luck on your test. …'"
Readers learned that Mayo, 46, and his son were Giants fans. They could never afford tickets, so, wearing Giants caps and sipping sodas from Giants glasses, they watched the games on television. Mayo's note to Corbin on September 11 included a losing score.
Three days after the profile appeared, 30 readers and the Giants organization itself offered to send Mayo's son and wife to the Giants games. Readers bought tickets and mailed them to the Times.
Scott believes the series resonated with readers because it played an important part in the mourning process. She said readers were grappling with the numbing vision of the traumatic attack and the profiles helped them retrieve the people inside and work through the loss.
Readers realized the victims were similar to themselves. "We began to tap into the distinctions and commonalities among people. … We created some kind of mosaic of the cross section of American life," said Hoffman.
Landman said, "All we did was set out to tell a story, about the loss in our own backyard."
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer.