The World in a List

On September 11th, I responded the only way I knew how — by writing code

My first thought was to assure everyone I knew that my wife Laura and I were fine. The next was to assure myself that our friends were okay too.

This was 10:30 a.m. on September 11, after the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. The phones were overloaded, and we had already received several emails asking after us. We live in Queens, not far from the East River, and though our jobs have sometimes taken us to downtown Manhattan, we were both safe at home that morning. I sent a message to my entire contact list, letting them know our status. I asked the folks in affected areas to write back and check in.

Over the next half hour messages trickled in; monitoring them helped distract me from the horror unfolding across the river: I’m safe at home on the Upper West Side. I watched the explosions from my office window. Let me know if you hear from my sister.

My friend Teresa checked in not just for herself and her husband, but for a short list of people she had already heard from. “Tabulate lists of names of people heard from and circulate them,” she wrote. “I’ll send you mine.”

And that’s how it started: a simple attempt to let our friends let each other know they were okay.

Rather than circulate cumbersome, obsolescent lists, I added Teresa’s tally to my own and posted the result to my Web site. I sent the URL to the same group of friends and asked them to send me their reports.

By noon I had thirty or forty names, and I was updating the list by hand every few minutes. Occasionally my wife would summon me to the television to observe some fresh catastrophe, but I spent most of my time hunched over the computer, staving off panic and grief by disseminating tiny bits of good news and hope. The earliest feedback was a balm: “Bill, your sign-in has brought me relief and comfort.” This from the man who couldn’t raise his sister by phone.

I replaced the manual tally with an automated message board around 1:30 p.m. Laura and I left to buy groceries, and by the time we returned an hour later the list had burgeoned to more than a hundred names, including many strangers.

Messages from across the country appeared in my inbox, some from users who had inadvertently posted the names of the missing as survivors. I worked as fast as I could to delete erroneous reports, to screen out profanity and hate speech, and to implement a much-requested search function.

By midnight the URL had spread so far that high traffic rendered the board unusable. I had to close it down, freezing the list at 2,500 entries, and shift the burden of data collection to other unofficial registries.

The next day, five hundred emails offered me thanks, blessed me, called me an American hero. A CNET reporter said my efforts were a mitzvah. Another hundred messages asked what I knew about missing loved ones, or begged me to reveal who had posted a son or daughter’s name to the check-in list. Dozens more demonized me for the list’s inaccuracies, or for the ugly jokes and racist diatribes that had sneaked on.

Thursday night the faces those who blamed Internet lists for offering false hope confronted me on CNN. I sat in a pub on the Upper East Side with a basket of fish and chips, each bite turning to lead shot in my throat. Some of the names I recognized from email. At last I pushed the food away.

It was Teresa who brought me perspective again. In her weblog, she posted a moving selection of messages culled from the list, a collection of “stories told in short.” I came to believe what I built on Tuesday, imperfect as it was, was right and necessary for that moment in time.

Now I read through the list and no longer find it a rebuke. Outbursts of terror and grief share the page with avowals of love, hope, and faith. Clots of insensitivity lodge among eloquent pleas for understanding, closed fists of hatred among prayers for surcease from pain. I find raw eruptions of anger and confusion cheek by jowl with moments of brilliant, shining joy.

It’s much like the day we all lived through, and the world we all still live in.


This is an earlier draft of an essay that appeared, in different form, as “Web of Hope” in the December 2001 issue of On Magazine. The “I’m Okay” Registry is still available to view online.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated William Shunn’s story.