The Chronicle Review

New York's 9/11: An Oral Archive Takes Shape

Gilles Peress, Magnum Photos

Fliers describing people missing from the World Trade Center were hung all over New York after September 11.
August 07, 2011

"I'd never seen anyone die before," says the quivering voice on the recording. She identifies herself as Donna Jensen, a 50-something computer programmer. On the morning of September 11, 2001, she was in her Battery Park City apartment, a few minutes' walk from her office on the 38th floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower. As she prepared to leave for work, she heard a thud. Her television flickered, then came back: "We have reports that a plane has just hit the World Trade Center." Jensen rushed outside. A gash was visible in the facade of the North Tower. Between long pauses, she describes what she saw.

"I looked at what I thought was a piece of debris, and it wasn't. It was a person. He was a young man. Remember, I was very close. I could see him very clearly. He was thin and he had a white shirt with long sleeves and a black tie and black pants and a belt and dark hair. He was facing in my direction. He was coming down head first with his arms up and his legs just out a little bit. I thought he looked so nice. He had gotten up that morning and put on those clothes and he looked so nice. He wasn't struggling at all. He just sailed down."

Jensen's account is part of the 9/11 Oral History Project, an archive documenting the experiences of more than 600 New Yorkers in the immediate and long-term aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Next month, 19 stories—including Jensen's—will appear in a new book, After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years That Followed (The New Press). The collection is edited by Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Center for Oral History at Columbia University, where the archive is housed; Peter Bearman, a sociologist at Columbia; and two radio documentarians, Catherine Ellis and Stephen Drury Smith.

After the Fall features a cross-section of ordinary New Yorkers—priest, professor, street vendor, artist, taxi driver, banker—reacting to extraordinary events. Some were near the World Trade Center on 9/11, others were in distant boroughs. While the archive is not statistically representative of the city, Bearman and Clark call it "substantively representative—hundreds of different eyes looking out from different standpoints, all on different trajectories."

Jay Swithers, one of the first EMTs to arrive at Ground Zero, said a year after 9/11 that he still felt disconnected from reality. (Audio: 1:49)

James P. Hayes, a Roman Catholic priest, talks about spending three weeks at the Ground Zero morgue blessing body parts. Brian Conley, an artist, worried that his dust-covered apartment contained the pulverized remains of his son-in-law, who was a passenger in the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. Jay Swithers, a medic at Ground Zero, recalls being moved by the sight of a severed female hand—manicured, immaculate, diamond engagement ring on the finger—resting in a puddle.

Robert W. Snyder remembers emerging from the subway to the sight of both towers on fire. When the first one collapsed, he ran. Next to him, a woman tripped and fell. "She is shrieking in terror and in pain," Snyder, an associate professor of American studies at Rutgers University, recalls in his oral-history interview. "Her mouth looked like an open wound." He considered stopping, thought of his children, and kept running. It all happened in a split second. "I did what I had to do to stay alive," he says.

Salmaan Jaffery, a banker, emerged from the subway just after the first plane hit the North Tower, where his father worked. (Audio: 5:37)

Several stories in After the Fall reveal the Muslim community's fear of a backlash. Salmaan Jaffery, a Pakistan-born investment banker who witnessed the attacks, describes the precautions he took, shaving his beard, dressing like a "Yankee," and staying in his neighborhood. Re-interviewed more than a year after 9/11, Jaffery says he is considering a move to Britain. "The change in attitudes [in the United States] about Islam, people from the Middle East, all those issues, have made me feel very, very uncomfortable."

The Center for Oral History is located in a spacious two-level, linoleum-floored room atop Butler Library at Columbia. Books and boxes of audio tapes line the walls. Pointing to a battered storage cabinet, Mary Marshall Clark jokes that it might date from 1948, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Allan Nevins founded the center, the first academic institute of its kind. Today the Columbia oral-history archive contains about 20,000 hours of interviews with more than 8,000 subjects, including Fred Astaire, Bernard Bailyn, Gene Kelly, and Thurgood Marshall.

Seated next to Clark is Peter Bearman. He does most of the talking ("Oral historians hate being interviewed," says Clark.) "We could have written one of the 200 little books that came out the day after 9/11," he says, "but our aspiration was to build a really deep archive that can answer questions that people don't know they have yet."

The archive began as a seat-of-the-pants affair. On September 11, the Center for Oral History had two functioning tape recorders and little money. At the suggestion of Jonathan Cole, Columbia's provost at the time, Clark contacted Bearman, who heads the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. They had never met. Clark was eager to start collecting stories about 9/11, but she lacked a methodology for doing so. At that time, she says, oral historians were ill-equipped to document contemporary events. "We had no idea how to migrate around a city and do interviews with strangers," Clark says, adding that "we never went into the field without preparation." (That's changing. In 2013, Oxford University Press plans to publish a volume about collecting oral histories in a time of crisis, to which Clark is contributing a chapter.)

Bearman drafted a grant proposal that attempted to marry oral-history techniques to a social-science-research framework. In that proposal, he posed a deceptively simple question: Was 9/11 a turning point in the lives of individual New Yorkers? Bearman and Clark received an initial $90,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the project. Eight months after the attacks, nearly 400 people had been interviewed. With additional support from The New York Times Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, the project continued through 2005; select subjects were re-interviewed several times. The 9/11 archive now contains 900 hours of audio and video, filling 22,000 pages of transcripts.

Much of the analytical work, however, remains to be done. "We need a sabbatical," Bearman says, to nods of agreement from Clark. Until then, they hope the archive will be a boon for other scholars—not just historians and sociologists, but also trauma researchers. The archive may hold clues to why people respond to adversity in different ways. For some of those interviewed, 9/11 triggered feelings of aimlessness and depression; for others, it filled their lives with renewed purpose. "It's going to really sound weird right now," says Yamira A. Munar, an office worker who dodged falling debris on 9/11, "but I have to say I'm a happier person."

Donna Jensen was interviewed two months after the attacks. She describes feeling a mix of emotions—panic, guilt, fearlessness. ("Hey, I outran the World Trade Center. I am not afraid of you.") She also talks about her growing understanding of the people who fell from the towers. "They didn't jump out of panic," she says, choking up. "They didn't jump out of fear. They jumped because that was how they took their lives back. I think that's why it was so beautiful."


Also in this special issue:
Charles Kurzman asks: Where are the Islamic terrorists?
Evan Goldstein explores an oral-history archive.
Jacques Berlinerblau reflects on Ground Zero.
Peter van Agtmael captures images of 9/11's aftermath.