After Sept. 11, "agencies did not do precisely what was required vis-?vis records loss," said David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, in an email to The Associated Press. "Appropriately, agencies were more concerned with loss of life and rebuilding operations — not managing or preserving records."
He said off-site storage and redundant electronic systems backed up some records; but the attacks spurred the archives agency to emphasize the need for disaster planning to federal records managers.
Said Steven Aftergood, the director of the project on government secrecy at the watchdog group the Federation of American Scientists: "Under extreme circumstances, like those of 9/11, ordinary record keeping procedures will fail. Routine archival practices were never intended to deal with the destruction of entire offices or buildings."
Only the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District formally requested help from federal archivists after discovering stored case files kept had been damaged by mold and water.
The EEOC had to reconstruct 1,500 discrimination case files, said Elizabeth Grossman, supervisory trial attorney for the agency in 2001 at the time of the attacks. Cases were delayed for months. Computers had been backed up only as of Aug. 31, 2001. Witness interviews had to be conducted all over again.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the region's airports, bridges and the World Trade Center, had much of its archives and the contents of its library — which had closed in 1995 as a cost-cutting measure — in the building.
But a decade later, it only has "a general idea" of what documents were destroyed, Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman said, including most of its video and photo archives, board meeting minutes and the compact that created the bi-state agency. It was kept on the 67th floor of the north tower.
"We do not have a detailed list" of the missing records, Coleman said in an email. The agency meticulously stores thousands of tons of steel from the building and other wreckage of the trade center in a hangar at Kennedy Airport.
A meeting had been scheduled — on Sept. 11, 2001 — between the agency and a group of libraries that had wanted to claim parts of the Port Authority collection, stored in the north tower. The meeting had been postponed at the last minute, said Ronald Becker, the head of special collections at Rutgers University Libraries, who was supposed to attend.
Not everything was lost. Copies of inventories had been sent out to the libraries that had sought to take parts of the collection, and as workers sifted through the rubble at ground zero, they found remnants of a photographic collection kept by the agency. Tens of thousands images were restored from what had been a collection of one million before the attacks.
One photo contact sheet — a picture of the Port Authority's aviation director — was discovered by a recovery worker two days after the attacks. It was given to the Sept. 11 museum, along with office IDs, letters and other bits of paper that were recovered in the rubble in the days and weeks afterward.
Jan Ramirez, the curator of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, said there was no historical consciousness surrounding the site before it was destroyed.
"It was modern, it was dynamic. It was not in peril. It was not something that needed to be preserved," she said.
"Now we know better."
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