A Box of Missing People

A Box of Missing People

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

A Box of Missing People

Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.

Victor Hugo

My younger sister, Marney, and I had planned to celebrate the last few days of the summer of 2001 in New York, painting our toenails and eating good meals, before she returned for her senior year at Stanford. Instead, we sat horrified, watching television, bearing witness to the tragedy unfolding nearby on September 11.

Feeling a need to do something, we headed to a large sports facility at Chelsea Piers where CNN reported volunteers were setting up a family crisis center. A woman with a clipboard took our names and telephone numbers and then sent us home, asking us to return early the next morning to relieve the volunteers who would be there all night.

The next morning, Marney and I woke early and walked the three blocks back to the Piers. We stood on a basketball court full of volunteers divided by skill: doctors and nurses sat at one end, construction teams at another, and the rest of us stood at half-court waiting for our assignments.

I escorted anxious parents and ex-wives and cousins clutching photographs and flyers to an indoor soccer court. From the door of the Chelsea Piers basketball court to the entrance of the soccer court, I learned the parents’ names, the name of the son they couldn’t find, and their first language.

Marney sat behind a sign that read “English & Spanish.” She filled out a handwritten form for the parents of a son who was missing. He was 6'1'', weighed 180 pounds, wore a gold Rolex on his left wrist, worked on the seventy-eighth floor of Tower 1, and had brown hair and blue eyes. He had spoken with them on his cell phone after the first plane hit. Marney wrote down all of these details, including his Social Security number and his parents’ telephone numbers. She handed them a photocopy of a list of hospitals and other emergency contacts. She pointed them to counselors and religious leaders who were sitting at round tables in the middle of the room, speaking softly. And then she placed the paper full of information about their missing son in a cardboard box—on top of hundreds of other forms.

In the afternoon I left my post at the door and joined my sister at the long tables in the soccer court. I observed her with awe. She acted so kindly and calmly, with compassion and authority in her steady voice. She answered questions and gave fearless advice.

I met two men from South Africa who were missing a friend, and they explained that they thought he was at a hospital in New Jersey. They asked me where the hospital was and how they could get there. I didn’t know.

I met a wife. She had heard about a list of victims the hospitals had compiled. She asked me if I had that list. I didn’t. A brother-in-law asked me where they were taking the bodies. He said he heard they were in the ice rink. I didn’t know. I placed the sheets of missing people in the same cardboard box.

My sister created the missing persons database on September 12. At 6 PM technicians began to set up donated computers in a small office. Marney helped to design a Microsoft Excel document to input all of the missing people listed on the forms in the cardboard box. She had watched the pile of forms in the box grow all day, and she tried to make it stop.

We had arrived at Chelsea Piers around 7 AM and lost track of time inside. It was dark by the time we started typing. We were a typing team. We switched tasks on and off; one read the details of the handwritten sheets while the other typed on the laptop. About ten people occupied the small room: some typing, some reading, and technicians working with cables and wires. Over the course of the evening, someone figured out that we held important information regarding people’s identities, so a guard was posted outside the door.

The basic pattern of the database soon emerged: specific companies on upper level floors were mentioned frequently. But what transformed the names into people were their details. Gold watches, scars, shamrock tattoos, wedding bands, and birthmarks. We stopped to list our own personal details. “Remember my scar on my right knee and the mole on my lower back.” We thought of tattoos that would be good identifiers.

We cried at a wedding picture with a red circle around the bride. We burst into giggles at a headshot of a man with crooked teeth. And I began to shake when I saw the photo of a classmate’s girlfriend. I was confused about what we were supposed to feel, and how we should express ourselves.

Gatorade and cookies fueled our dramatically fluctuating energy levels. We were peppy or sluggish, depending on the moment. The ten of us typing were each treated to a session with a volunteer masseuse. She massaged my cramped muscles and my fragile skin; I cried into the headrest.

After we had worked through the forms in the cardboard box, we were handed a set of folders full of more missing person flyers that had been collected at hospitals around the city. Some of the faces were familiar; families had traveled from one trauma center to the next, distributing their missing person papers, and looking for hope.

As we neared the end of the flyers, Marney hit a wall. “I have to go home. I can’t do this anymore.” She apologized unnecessarily and gave me a large hug with weak arms. When she left the little room, I lost momentum. Ugly scenarios ran through my head, and I needed desperately to be by her side. I finished typing the pile of flyers, saved the data to a disk, and handed it off to a man escorted by policemen. I shut down the computer, rubbed my eyes, and shook hands with the other typists. I shivered with cold exhaustion. And in the quiet dark night I ran home to my sister.

Corey Binns

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