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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.