NEW YORK — Letters written by Helen Keller. Forty-thousand photographic negatives of John F. Kennedy taken by the president's personal cameraman. Sculptures by Alexander Calder and Auguste Rodin. The 1921 agreement that created the agency that built the World Trade Center.
Besides ending nearly 3,000 lives, destroying planes and reducing buildings to tons of rubble and ash, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks destroyed tens of thousands of records, irreplaceable historical documents and art.
In some cases, the inventories were destroyed along with the records. And the loss of human life at the time overshadowed the search for lost paper. A decade later, dozens of agencies and archivists say they're still not completely sure what they lost or found, leaving them without much of a guide to piece together missing history.
"You can't get the picture back, because critical pieces are missing," said Kathleen D. Roe, operations director at the New York State Archives and co-chairwoman of the World Trade Center Documentation Project. "And so you can't know what the whole picture looks like."
The trade center was home to more than 430 companies, including law firms, manufacturers and financial institutions. Twenty-one libraries were destroyed, including that of The Journal of Commerce. Dozens of federal, state and local government agencies were at the site, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The first tangible losses beyond death were obvious, and massive.
The Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage, where more than 650 employees were killed, owned a trove of drawings and sculptures that included a cast of Rodin's "The Thinker" — which resurfaced briefly after the attacks before mysteriously disappearing again. Fragments of other sculptures also were recovered.
The Ferdinand Gallozzi Library of U.S. Customs Service in 6 World Trade Center held a collection of documents related to U.S. trade dating back to at least the 1840s. And in the same building were nearly 900,000 objects excavated from the Five Points neighborhood of lower Manhattan.
The Kennedy negatives, by photographer Jacques Lowe, had been stowed away in a fireproof vault at 5 World Trade Center, a nine-story building in the complex. Helen Keller International, whose offices burned up when its building was struck by debris, lost a modest archive. Only two books and a bust of Keller survived.
Classified and confidential documents also disappeared at the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into it on 9/11.
A private disaster response company, BMS CAT, was hired to help recover materials in the library, where the jet plane's nose came to rest. The company claimed it saved all but 100 volumes. But the recovery limited access to information related to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, as the U.S. prepared to launch an attack a month later.
In New York, CIA and Secret Service personnel sifted through debris carted from the trade center to a Staten Island landfill for lost documents, hard drives with classified information and intelligence reports.
Two weeks after the attacks, archivists and librarians gathered at New York University to discuss how to document what was lost, forming the World Trade Center Documentation Task Force. But they received only a handful of responses to survey questions about damaged or destroyed records.
"The current atmosphere of litigation, politics and overall distrust surrounding the 9/11 attacks has made information sharing and compilation a complex task," said the final 2005 report of the project.
Federal agencies are required by law to report the destruction of records to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration — but none did. Federal archivists called the failure understandable, given the greater disaster.
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