Workers struggle to rebuild paper data from towers

War On Terrorism

November 04, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- Attorney Sam Eber scoured the edges of the World Trade Center rubble, his eyes darting over wads of dirty paper in search of any familiar shred.

Somewhere amid the billions of sheets that rained down as the twin towers collapsed are files for a divorce case.

"There are 10-year-old phone records showing the husband calling his girlfriend," Eber said. "The phone company doesn't have them anymore. My client didn't make copies."

Along with the loss of life and property here Sept. 11 came the destruction of the little scraps of paper that encapsulate a person's daily life: phone logs, financial ledgers, Post-It notes, college diplomas.

Computer technology was supposed to have prevented this. And to a degree, it did. Computers saved terabytes of business data, which were backed up routinely in whirling databases miles from lower Manhattan.

Yet it has become painfully clear here that the paperless life remains a fantasy. The loss of mere paper -- and the ephemeral information scrawled, stamped or typed on it -- has created an unexpected chaos that ranges from the serious to the trivial.

Dozens of half-completed cases are stalled in New York courts. "The courts in Manhattan, they're all way behind," said Judge Jonathan Lippman, chief administrative judge for the New York state court system.

Federal investigations are on hold as officials scramble to re-create evidence turned to ash. Investigators at the Securities and Exchange Commission, whose office disappeared in the collapse of World Trade Center 7, which stood next to the towers, have lost the paperwork for more than 300 active cases and thousands of those that were archived.

The SEC's New York office oversaw investigations of stock fraud, market manipulation, insider trading and organized crime. Some information -- plaintiffs' names and contact data, copies of court filings and lists of evidence -- was stored electronically.

Phone records, informal notes from interviews and scrawled reminders on documents or memo pads that helped the agents build cases all were stored on paper.

SEC officials declined to comment on specific cases, saying only that all of those housed in its destroyed New York facility will move forward -- eventually.

The local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal job discrimination laws, was in the same building as the SEC. It had evidence on 1,200 active cases. With the exception of the case number, the allegation, case status and contact information of the people involved, the files all were stored on paper.

After the attacks, the local EEOC staff squeezed into borrowed office space and got to work. They started by contacting plaintiffs, many of whom were panicked about the status of their discrimination lawsuits.

"Do you still have your file? You do? Great!" an EEOC worker said to a plaintiff. "Can you make a copy and mail it to us?"

The agency now expects to re-create at least half of the active cases, and even that will take more than six months, said Spencer Lewis, director of the New York district.

Lewis has contacted dozens of people, searching to duplicate 10 years' worth of information that he had stored in spiral notebooks. The papers listed every call he had made since 1991. Each log had tidbits scribbled by the number, little morsels of inside intelligence of business and law.

He's sent e-mail to co-workers, asking for contacts he spoke to in 1998. He's called friends, asking for phone numbers of attorneys long retired and copies of in-house magazines published decades ago.

Across town, Alfonso S. D'Elia, president of the architecture firm Mancini Duffy, knows that somewhere there is a Post-It note with a list of things he is supposed to do.

D'Elia also knows he will never get the note back. When the plane hit the World Trade Center's south tower -- where Mancini Duffy had its headquarters -- he was driving to work.

Some other lost papers, such as college diplomas, carry enormous professional weight.

"A Harvard law degree or a Stanford MBA is not just a degree," said attorney Roman Popik, whose office was on the 21st floor of the north tower. "It's like having a World Trade Center address. It says everything about who you are. Without it, you're just ordinary."

Although Harvard has yet to receive any calls from graduates who worked in the trade center, officials expect an onslaught of requests for reprints in coming months.

"There's already a system in place to handle that," school spokesman Michael Armini said.

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