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Missing-Persons Posters

Street art with awful power.

Missing-persons photos, caught on Polaroid film by Michael Ackerman

After what Walt Whitman called “the huge first Nothing” of annihilation, with the psychic convulsions of a demonic force still redounding in the acrid air, the spirit of the city sleepwalking in purgatorial pain, came the posters. Taped to lampposts, walls, store windows, gathered in great clusters on the sides of hospitals, they were a humble catalogue of the missing, on view for months, intense visual windows onto internal disruption and cosmic pain.

The look and feel of these flyers was unnerving. They were hastily made from whatever information could be gathered: height, weight, eye and hair color, blood type, birth date, contact numbers. There were almost no e-mail addresses, which weren’t universal yet. Nearly every one listed the floor the missing person worked on, and those numbers are still terrifying: The higher the number, the deeper the pit in one’s stomach. Almost all bore pictures, mostly snapshots of family gatherings, group shots, girlfriends laughing together. Most so young. All in limbo. Three weeks after 9/11, I chose three posters [M2] at random and took them home.

Rhondelle Cherie Tankard. Her flyer—on which her first name is misspelled—shows a half-length photo of a strong black woman, and tells us that she was last seen in Tower Two, on the 102nd floor. “Her family is in Bermuda and unable to come to the USA due to flight restrictions,” the text reads. “Please help!” There’s a pager number. Searching online today, I found pages of agonized tributes, prayers, and good-byes from Rhondelle’s friends, family, and church members. One, from just last year, reads as remorseful confession: “I will forever feel responsible for you being there that day.”

Leah Oliver. In her color snapshot, she is pretty, smiling, held tightly by a young man, perhaps the Eric Costa listed below as “boyfriend.” Leah worked at Marsh & McLennan on the 96th floor of Tower One. She was a day shy of 25. An online message about her begins, “Leah, the daughter I never had.” It is signed “Godfather.”

Sean Lugano. “Last seen—88th Floor—Tower 2.” Today, I learn that Sean was captain of the Loyola College rugby team, a three-time All-American. In a photo of a deserted Baltimore sports stadium, the scoreboard reads SEAN LUGANO FIELD.

These flyers exude a terrible voodoo. I’ve never told anyone I removed them from the streets, and after I did, I immediately put them away. Their animistic power and sorrow empty the spirit still and remind me why I hadn’t looked at them again until now. I could not bear to.


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