Unavoidable Encounters with Technology: Web of Hope

On September 11th, 2001, I responded the best way I knew how — by building a website. But what gave solace to some brought only false hope to others.

William Shunn

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In September 2001, I was invited to contribute an essay to ON Magazine (previously TIME Digital, a monthly supplement to TIME), for their front-of-book column “Unavoidable Encounters with Technology.” After a few rejected drafts (one of which you can read here), this is the version they finally accepted, though it was still reworked before appearing in December 2001 — what turned out, as far as I can tell, to be their final issue.

Close-up of a wall papered with flyers for missing 9/11 victims, together with hand-drawn messages of hope and unity.
Wall of prayers at New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital, 2001

We were only trying to find out if our friend Ellie was okay.

I live in Astoria, Queens, and after the shock of seeing a second plane hit the World Trade Center on live television, my wife and I dragged out our bicycles and rode to Roosevelt Island for a look. It was a beautiful day for a bike ride, but we pedaled in numbed horror. Everywhere people stood silent in the streets, looking south. At southern tip of the island, we watched the distant towers burn, watched the impossible smoke billow like blood in water. No one spoke among the dozens of spectators. Even police officers stared helplessly. The only sounds were water and sirens, water and sirens.

We returned home before ten — just in time to see the first tower collapse on television. Our friend Ellie lived right there, only a few blocks from the towers. Frantic we tried calling her while I checking email. No word from Ellie, and no answer at either of her numbers.

We held each other in front of the television as the second tower fell. The phone was useless, circuits overloaded.

Friends out west, early risers, sent email to ask if we were okay. In reply I sent a message to my entire contact list. I told everyone we were fine and asked the folks in New York City please to write back and check in. I felt blind. Email was the only lifeline.

Over the next half hour messages trickled in, and monitoring them helped distract me from the horror unfolding across the river. One friend reported that she was fine but couldn’t reach Ellie. Another checked in not just for…

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William Shunn

Writer, poet and puzzle maker. Hugo and Nebula Award finalist. Author of The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. He/him/Bill.