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Online help spawns hope for victims

Freelance computer programmer Bill Shunn put technology to use to help grief-stricken New Yorkers connect with their loved ones in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

It was a small, kind gesture on a big, horrific day.

Bill Shunn, a freelance computer programmer and part-time science-fiction writer living in the Astoria section of Queens, N.Y., was sitting at home Tuesday morning with his wife when they heard the first reports on radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. He was watching television reports as another airplane commandeered by terrorists crashed into the second tower.

Like most other New Yorkers, Shunn couldn't get a connection to phone friends and family. So he went to the Internet and relied on e-mail to communicate, asking about the well-being of different people. Other people had the same idea and began e-mailing him with questions about acquaintances. The widening circle of e-mails soon inundated Shunn, and he decided to create his own "New York City Bombing Check-in Registry."

Because of the day's extraordinary circumstances, extreme server overload ultimately forced Shunn to put up a pared-down, static page containing some updates and links to bigger, better-funded sites compiling information about survivors.

CNET News.com caught up with Shunn on the day after the attack.

Q: Can you retrace the chronology of your involvement?
A: My wife and I heard the very first reports on radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We were watching live when the second plane crashed into the tower, and very shortly after that I began getting e-mails from friends around the country wanting to know that we were OK. We turned on the television and were watching live when the second plane crashed into the tower, and very shortly after that I began getting e-mails from friends around the country wanting to know that we were OK.

And that was because the telecommunications lines into New York City were overloaded?
Right. They couldn't get through on phones, so I composed a message to every address on my contact list to let them know that we were OK. And then I e-mailed people that I knew in New York, asking them to write back to me and let me know they were OK.

So this was an expanding circle of communications?
Yes, and not long afterward, we started to get the names from our friends of mutual acquaintances, asking if we could share information about whom we'd heard from. For a while, I put up an HTML page on my own Web site and sent the URL to everyone who I know, asking them to report in. And then I'd add the information to the list.

Word must have spread rapidly.
I started getting too many e-mails to keep up with--about 20 or 30 messages, with notes about them and their family members. So I decided it would be easier to put the information into some kind of automated form. I worked on it the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. By about 1:30, it went live. My wife and I went out to get groceries, and by the time we returned, the list was up to a couple of hundred entries.

I suppose that by this time, you were getting posts from people outside your circle of friends and acquaintances.
I was getting e-mail from people I didn't know. I later heard that the URL had appeared on Wired and CNET. The hits started increasing throughout the evening and by a certain point in the evening, I began trying to modify (Web page) scripts to add more functionality. I wanted to let people be able to search names and post messages about people who they knew were OK, or put up expressions of sympathy or support--but I wasn't able even to get into my own Web server.

Overloaded or a glitch?
I put up an HTML page on my own Web site and sent the URL to everyone I know, asking them to report in. And then I'd add the information to the list...(Then) I decided it would be easier to put the information into some kind of automated form. My Web host (Pair Networks) let me know they had to disable my scripts because the servers had begun to be sluggish. They said they would go live again if I could put up a pared-down resources page because they had sympathy for what I was doing. By the time I shut things down and put up a static list, we had almost 2,500 entries.

These were all posts about missing family members or friends?
No, not all of them serious. One thing which kept me going into the database was to delete messages from people sending in hate and profanity.

Was there much of it?
It was a lot. I'd say one in every 50 postings.

But for the most part, the postings were legitimate? Yes, it was people who were reporting they were OK. Also lots of requests about information for other people. I also saw a lot of people who were submitting offers of shelter to people who had been left without a place to stay.

Did you also include links on your page to organizations that were doing similar things?
Yes, throughout the course of the day, I was sent links from a variety of places that were doing similar projects and had better servers and more staff. It just seemed to make better sense to be directing people to a few locations rather than a lot of databases that were scattered around. Since then, a lot of people have been writing to me, saying they can provide service or extra bandwidth, or can help with the hosting. I've been directing them to the survivor database over at Berkeley.

Has the e-mail traffic trailed off?
I've continued to be inundated throughout the day with e-mail. I've since set up boilerplate responses. A lot of people are asking if I have information on this person or that. I say, "Sorry I don't. But you can look for them at this Web site." Interestingly, I'm receiving a lot of traffic from overseas, with people sending in wishes of support.

Have you been to the Trade Center area yet?
We haven't been downtown yet, but as I'm talking to you from 5th Avenue and 51st Street, I'm looking down the avenue. From here, you're supposed to see the Trade Center in the distance. All you see now is just a cloud.