Co.Design

At 9/11 Memorial, Name Placements Reflect Bonds Between Victims, Thanks To Algorithm

Instead of being listed simply alphabetically, the names at the 9/11 Memorial are listed to reflect friends and co-workers — a juggling task that was possible only because of a powerful algorithm.

[In remembrance of 9/11, we're reposting some of our coverage of the ground zero memorial and the museum.?Ed.]

On that terrible morning, when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Victor Wald, 50, was working in his 84th floor office at the small brokerage firm, Avalon Partners. Like his colleagues, he raced for the exits, and scrambled down the stairs. But, having suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, he collapsed in exhaustion on the 53rd floor, as frantic workers from the building's upper floors hastily passed him by. Harry Ramos, 46, the head trader at the small investment bank, May Davis Group, who worked on the 87th floor, saw him on the stairs, and stopped.

They had never met, had no friends or relatives in common. But Ramos saw Wald and said, "I won't leave you." Ramos managed to coax Wald down to the 36th floor, where they sat together as the building collapsed.

Names

"I won't leave you," he said. Minutes later, the two died.

When the National September 11 Memorial opens this fall, on the tenth anniversary of that world-changing day, the two friends? names will be inscribed next to each other on the granite wall surrounding the Memorial Garden's fountains.

Their adjacency is product of a masterful bit of programming undertaken by the New York media design firm Local Projects, which took 1,800 requests from families of the 3,500 9/11 victims, and created an algorithm that let them be grouped by affinity: firefighters with firefighters, cops with cops, all the members of each of the flights, first responders, or just pals.

Names

This afternoon, as President Obama made his way to Manhattan to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site, the 9/11 Memorial President, Joe Daniels, unveiled the web site that displays the final arrangement. Names.911memorial.org provides wayfinding for each of the victims. It also provides brief biographical information provided by next-of-kin. The same application will be available on mobile smartphones, tablet computers, and electronic kiosks when the plaza of the Memorial opens on Sept. 11, 2011.

"It's the connections in our lives that matter the most," said Daniels at this morning's breakfast meeting on the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center, overlooking the 9/11 site. "These names, inscribed in bronze, are the heart of the experience."

"It's the connections in our lives that matter the most."

Conventional memorial design dictates that names are listed alphabetically or chronologically. That makes people easy to find, but tends to dilute the meaning that attaches to affinity. With this new program, bands of brothers, families, and co-workers, can be remembered as part of a group that meant the world to them in life and united them in death.

"It's about making meaning not just for the people who know the individuals, but for the people who are going there," says Jake Barton, Local Projects' founder. "In that way, people can learn the human relationships and stories underneath the names themselves." If, for example, you see the 650 employees from Cantor Fitzgerald together, you realize that an entire company was nearly wiped out. Had they been arranged alphabetically, that bit of meaning would have been lost.

"The Memorial Finder, covers the gap," says Barton. "It tells you the specific panel and number, where you can find an individual, but begins to reveal the connections between the names themselves. As you move around the site itself, a smartphone app will reveal adjacencies as well as the stories behind the names." While the project makes intuitive sense, wrangling 3,500 victims? names was anything but simple.

"A couple months after the project was completed, we heard that two computer scientists who had seen the original RFP rejected it, saying it couldn't be done," Barton says. The wizard behind the algorithm is Jer Thorp, a freelance programmer who worked with LocalProjects on the challenge (and also the same person who created The New York Times's superb 3-D Twitter tracker.)

Memorial-homepage

Names

Wrangling 3,500 victims? names was anything but simple.

Some of the adjacencies are particularly poignant. Two brothers, firefighter John T. Vigiano II, and police officer Joseph Vincent Vigiano, both died that day. On the memorial, John's name appears at the end of his unit; next to it, Joseph's name begins a list of the men in his unit. The two brothers' names, therefore, will be forever linked. "It means a lot to my in-laws to have their only two sons' names near each other," says Maria Vigiano-Trapp, who was married to John.

In another case, all the members of a family, with mismatched last names, were able to be placed together, including the tragedy's youngest victim, Christine Hanson, age 2 1/2. The Memorial, designed by architect Michael Arad, will open on Sept. 11, 2011 for families; it will be open the following day for visitors. A reservation system for the site will be launched in early July, with timed passes, to avoid congestion at what is, after all, still a busy construction site.

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15 Comments

  • michael burke

    Let's tell the truth here, shall we? The names would not be there at all if the architect and the memorial jury had their way. The names were supposed to go underground. Furthermore, they were so supposed to be randomly placed to satisfy the architect's complete cluelessness to the fact that the deaths were not random but indiscriminate; the story here of Victor Wald and Harry Ramos he was completely oblivious to. It was the architect's and the jury's intent not to list the firefighters or police officers who died together; they did NOT want them identified in any way. It was only after years of fighting by the 9/11 families that got those names together and above ground. What Joe Daniels neglects to mention is that the word "firefighter" is not part of the memorial nor the word "police officer." Nor the acronyms FDNY or NYPD or PAPD. It does not identify Fire Chaplin Father Mychal Judge as "Father." This article gives the age of Christine Lee Hanson, 2; the memorial does not. 

    The entire point of the memorial is to diminish and deny the full significance and magnitude of the day - so nobody blames anybody for anything.  

    And, by the way, it also does not acknowledge the attacks and only identifies these victims as "lost" to causes unknown. 

    The jury made it all about our pain, our loss, our healing - all about us so we do not notice that gee, it's not about 9/11.

    It's a sham; a con; a lie.

  • Jeg Zem

    Jeff and Team - I think we all are esstatic that you preserved with your design You have brought the very human friendships into prespective...Live, Love, and Never Forget!

  • Jeg Zem

    The design is utterly fantastic - a living tribute to those who lost their lives and a grand tribute to the families.  this is an amazing artistic feat well done and extremely comforting for all of us as well.  Thank you.

  • AZComicGeek

    @Jenna C  The point of a Memorial is to remember the fallen. WTC One is the response that soars towards the future. You have to expand your view to the site as a whole and not focus on just the memorial waterfalls. Move forwards but never forget what we left behind.

  • Lhazelden

    Reading this touched me profoundly: the combination of staggering intellect and spirit offered by Jer Thorp and his team provides comfort and renewal. Eternally grateful.

  • Carlos

    Now that they are done with the memorial, hopefully they will stop milking 9/11 and the deceased will be able to rest in peace...

  • Amanda Sampey

    you can't criticize someones artistic vision.I see where that artist wanted to go with it and grasp its concept.The work is beautiful and heartfelt.I think the dark edge gets the point across this is such a huge loss of life.there is absolutely no reason to celebrate it with flowers.Those deaths should always be remembered ,and the gravity of this situation should continue to be felt  for what it was . A TRAGEDY!

  • Danny Garcia

    This is a painstaking work that is well lauded. The solemnity and the technical blends perfectly to form an amalgam of peace and serenity.

  • jenna c

    The design of this memorial is complete waste of money and lack of vision in the designers. They could have done something so brilliant and creative rather than focussing on the death aspect of the event. Even a basic stunning flower garden would have been better looking than this dark and dungeons  water fall. 

    But what's the point, so many big egos are involved and they all want to prove that they are doing something great. The point is to focus on life and living and not create monuments keeping in mind only death and destruction.

  • Adip Puri

    absolutely brilliant and sensitive of the people behind the algorithm - and makes the monument more than just a testimony of the event and the memory of people who lost their lives - but a 'real' memory of living people who live d loved interacted - salute!!

  • Sanju Shah

    It always makes my eyes wet when i read any story like this. I want to see the world in a best possible place to live in Universe and only human can make it possible.