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Monday, 5 August, 2002, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
Attack on the wires

An impromptu 'Survivors' Website' started by a science fiction writer on his home computer may change the future of emergency communication planning.

Beyond the immediate epicentre of death and destruction on 11 September, it seemed almost everyone in New York City, America and the world was worried about anyone and everyone they knew who happened to live in the Big Apple.

And it didn't matter if they worked on Wall St or sold hot dogs at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx - if you lived or worked in NYC on that day - you were likely to be the object of anxiety across your entire personal network of friends, family, or acquaintances.

Even before the towers finally buckled and collapsed on 11 September, NYC was gripped by mass shock, fear, and confusion.

An outgrowth of which was an unprecedented need to communicate.

Communication blackout

But when the towers fell, essential components of the city's communications infrastructure were destroyed as well.

In the early hours of the disaster, millions of New Yorkers experienced a nearly complete communication blackout.

Most TV and radio stations shared the transmission antenna atop the WTC.

The wireless network for lower Manhattan was crippled by the loss of its antennae - many of which were atop the Trade Centre as well.

Two million voice and data lines which served lower Manhattan residents and businesses were crushed by falling debris.

Major news websites on the internet were crashing due to the unprecedented volume of hits.

Small miracle

And most remaining phone lines were rendered useless by overloads.

Getting a phone call through to a friend or family member in NYC that day, was a small miracle.

But individual e-mails were getting through. The internet which was designed to survive a nuclear attack was performing largely as advertised.

Bill Shunn is a struggling science fiction writer who watched the smouldering towers from his rooftop in Queens.

Fearful and frustrated by his inability to reach many of his friends elsewhere in NY by phone, he started sending e-mails to see if the people he knew were alright.

E-mails started arriving as well. One of the first e-mails Bill received after the attack was from a friend named Ellie Lang who lived in Battery Park City directly across the street from the WTC.

She simply assumed that Bill would be trying to reach her and she wanted to let him know that she was fine.

Not perfect


The website was filling a very practical and emotional need - a need that had never before existed on such a dramatic scale.


Producer David Shulman
A steady trickle of e-mails continued to arrived for Bill from friends all across the country - all wanting to know if he was OK and asking if he knew whether or not a mutual friend was too.

Rather than have to respond to each e-mail, Bill decided to create a simple website with his name and all the names of friends he had heard from and knew had survived.

In turn, visitors to the website were invited to leave the names of any other people who they had heard from and knew were okay.

It was about two hours after the initial attack and the website was filling a very practical and emotional need - a need that had never before existed on such a dramatic scale.

Word about the website spread quickly and the hits snowballed.

One of the US news websites, MSNBC, heard about the 'I'm OK' website and posted a hotlink on their homepage.

Within a matter of days the list of names on Bill's survivors' website grew to the thousands and the hits were in the millions.

But the website was not perfect and Bill decided to pull the plug on his own creation.

By its nature, the information being posted could not be verified, and there were pranks.

False hope

Some people desperately trying to reach others misunderstood its purpose and listed the name of someone they were looking FOR generating false hope for others looking for that same person.

In spite of its flaws, the site set a creative precedent.

Within a couple of days there were several other 'I'm OK' style websites with the needed improvements.

In particular, a student group in Berkeley California created a more reliable format which required people who posted information about someone else, to verify their relationship to that person.

Recently, the US Senate approved funding for a major programme to improve the nature of emergency communications - and 'I'm OK' style websites are likely to be an official component of future planning.

Attack on the wires went out on Monday 5 August on BBC Two at 1930BST

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Attack on the Wires:
How a website helped reunite survivors with their loved ones

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