Last e-mail messages from tragedy
October 16, 2001
THAT WAS the last time the outside world heard from the 29-year-old financial analyst before he disappeared into the rubble of his former office building.
His friends have since saved the message to their computer hard drives and peek at it when they feel the sting of missing him. His mother says she takes comfort in knowing that her son had such happy thoughts in his final minutes. His fiancee, Karen Carlucci, on the other hand, refused to look at it for many days.
“It’s nice to know he was thinking about the wedding,” she said, “but to read his exact words . . . to me it would just be more painful.”
IThe attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon may have demolished offices and scattered papers, but they did not destroy all records. E-mail messages, voice-mail recordings and other electronic traces of people were routinely preserved by computer networks or telephone companies, in the interest of backing up data should the power go out or a computer fail.
These e-relics often captured a moment in time that is both beautiful and chilling to the people who discovered them.
Some family members and friends of the victims are posting what they find on Web sites with names such as www.thewtcmemorial.com or www.newyorkworldtradecentermemorial.com, which have become virtual shrines for the presumed dead.
SAVING VOICE-MAIL MESSAGES
Verizon Communications Inc. recently announced it would make copies of voice-mail greetings or messages available to anyone who wanted to preserve them. So far, it has put 99 of them onto tape, about half of them for customers in the D.C. area. AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS Group also said they had received inquiries.
Unlike past generations, when a person’s desk might contain formal letters or other records prepared for posterity, the digital remnants often are preserved without much thought. As a result, they can represent a mundane, contemporaneous account of a person’s life, a glimpse of how people actually lived, not how they want to be remembered.
After Sept. 11, “e-mail messages and other things that were written or said rather quickly and hastily have turned out . . . to have far more meaning than anyone ever imagined at the time they were creating them,” said psychologist Tony Grasha of the University of Cincinnati.
Carlucci has compiled a scrapbook that contains pictures of her fiance with his dog, Chavez, the jade and sticks Frank brought back from his frequent travels abroad, and many of his e-mails, including his last message about the tuxedos.
John Kavanagh, who grew up with Frank on Long Island and was to be the best man at his wedding, remembers that he received the final e-mail almost instantaneously. He hit “reply” and told his old friend what a great time he had had at the bachelor party in Atlantic City the weekend before. Then someone told him about the terrorist attacks.
“I wrote just seven minutes after he did. I don’t know whether he got it or didn’t get it. It would make me feel better if he did,” said Kavanagh, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., because it would mean he had had a chance to say goodbye.
The computer technician has been charged with a task that, in its own way, is almost as grim as that facing the firefighters and other rescue workers digging through the rubble of the World Trade Center. He has been going through backup tapes and other recorded data stored off site, trying to restore important correspondence and records produced in the office buildings before the attacks.
In the process, Dave Friedman, 40, a systems analyst for Fred Alger Management Inc., a money-management firm, has unearthed a pile of e-mails that re-create the bustle of activity in the company’s offices right before the attack.
There are the jubilant e-mails from two guys bragging about being “$75 richer” thanks to a football pool they just won. A letter from an executive trying to make travel plans. And no-nonsense missives from members of the research team trying to get set up a meeting time to talk about stock picks.
Now all of those men are missing.
Friedman, a 15-year veteran of the financial analysis company, knew all of them and said he had to stop many times while reading the e-mails to keep from breaking down.
“To read their words and know they’re not with us anymore . . . it’s been very difficult,” he said.
Often, the center of a white-collar worker’s universe is a desktop computer, which typically contains all manner of records about a person, from financial data to histories of Web sites visited.
“Computers are now such intensively personal objects, even more so than clothes,” said Simson Garfinkel, an Internet scholar and author of “Database Nation.”
A WRITER’S NOTES SAVED
Jack Grandcolas knows what he’ll find when he boots up wife Lauren’s computer in the coming weeks: a massive collection of meticulously organized files for a book she was working on about empowering women. He can almost imagine the words she used, the outlines of chapters, the memos she wrote to her collaborators.
Lauren, 38, who worked in sales for Good Housekeeping magazine, died when United Airlines Flight 93 plunged into a field near Pittsburgh.
Her husband said he’s determined to help get the book published but he has mixed feelings about having to look through her work. One part of him believes it will help him feel closer to her; another feels that reliving all the details may be too much.
“The pain of going into that is something that I’m gearing myself up for,” Grandcolas said from the San Rafael, Calif., home they shared.
At her memorial service, he played a videotape of her sky diving. She was smiling. In private, he plays a final answering-machine message in which she tells him that there’s “a little problem” with the plane she’s on but that she’s “fine” and “comfortable.”
These things, Grandcolas says, capture the essence of who she was more than practically anything else. “She was incredibly calm and courageous,” he said.
A VOICE PRESERVED
Kara Hoorn, 20, knows her brother’s cell phone is lost in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Yet she keeps paying the bills because she wants to be able to call his number and hear his electronic greeting, stored on the phone company’s network. What she hears is always the same: “Hi. You’ve reached Brad Hoorn’s cell phone. Please just leave me a message. Thanks.”
“That’s all we have left of his voice,” said Kara Hoorn, a college junior.
Her brother Brad, two years her senior, had graduated this spring from Yale University and was working as a research associate at Fred Alger. He is among the more than 4,500 people still missing after the World Trade Center plane crashes.
Even though he lived nearly 700 miles away, Brad Hoorn and his parents and sister, who live in Richland, Mich., communicated almost daily, often through e-mail and instant messages because it was cheaper than talking on the phone. His mother, Kathy, has printed out many of the messages.
“Me and him would instant-message all the time,” Kara said. “I never saved them. I wish I did.”
Even so, she said she’ll never forget his last message to her, sent in real time over the Internet the night before he was lost, in which he used her childhood nickname: “i love you karse.”
Despite the electronic medium’s power to so accurately capture a person’s image or words, however, some say there’s still something missing.
INSTANT MESSAGING COMES TO HALT
Charlotte-Anne Lucas, an editor from TheStreet.com, was exchanging instant messages with one of the financial news site’s columnists a few minutes before he disappeared into the trade center. Her conversation the morning of Sept. 11 with Bill Meehan, the chief market analyst for Cantor Fitzgerald Securities, was brief. She asked him if he was on track to file his midday column for TheStreet.com. He answered: “Yup.”
A few minutes later, Adams saw on the television that planes had crashed into the towers and jerked her head back to her instant-message screen. It told her, “Wmeehan100 signed off at 8:49:35.”
It wasn’t like seeing someone die in person, Adams said, but in some ways it was just as chilling.
“It was incredibly powerful to me even though — or maybe because — it was a message that was automatically generated by the computer. It gave me an ominous feeling that he had died,” she said, crying.
Since that day she has been saving more and more instant-message exchanges and e-mails, she said, perhaps because of some subconscious fear that other people, too, would suddenly disappear.
Yet she talks in contradictions about the notes. Personal, yet impersonal. Warm, yet cold. “The messages,” she said, “are haunting.”
By Ariana Eunjung Cha, Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company