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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Exhibit Puts a New Face on Sept. 11

January 05, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — They are headstones in a cemetery without grass.

The 175 torn and weathered pages form a tapestry of human loss comparable to those other modern rosters of death, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

The images drawing crowds to the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum--"Missing--Last Seen at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001"--are familiar to almost everyone. Yet seeing these artifacts of tragedy up close carries a power so overwhelming that viewers have burst into tears.

"A businesswoman came in today, smartly dressed," said Louis Nevaer, the exhibitor behind the display of the famous missing persons photos that blanketed New York in the days after the World Trade Center disaster. "After a while, she dashed to the door, crying. We've had to put in chairs upstairs for people who need to take a break."

On the first leg of what promises to be an international tour, the collection offers an intimate look at an American tragedy most of the outside world saw only on television.

"This is poignant beyond words," said Mary Lou LaBarge, visibly moved as she left the museum earlier this week. "We didn't feel the immediacy of it out here."

To LaBarge and other visitors, seeing the fliers up close brought the World Trade Center tragedy home. Some of the papers are faded, others still bear duct tape that attached them to light posts, street signs or walls. Others look like they were rescued from the trash.

For Nevaer, communicating the tactile sense of the tragedy to those outside New York City was an important part of what he was aiming for when he created the exhibit.

"I find a helplessness among people here," said Nevaer, a 39-year-old author and activist from New York. "You were all sleeping when it happened."

The reason he brought the exhibit here first, he said, was that the planes that crashed into the towers were bound for California.

"In a sense we're completing that journey," Nevaer said.

If it's a journey completed, it's an extraordinarily melancholy one. The handbill-sized fliers tell the stories of people like Daniel Lopez, who borrowed a cellular phone to call his sister from the 78th floor of the north tower after the first plane hit. "I'm OK, but will remain here to help evacuate people. See you soon," he said.

"These were my brother's last words," the sister wrote under the picture of Lopez. "He was always the type to help somebody in need."

There is Roger Mark Rasweiler, the subject of what is believed to have been the first flier posted in the hours after the tragedy. His daughter went to the art department where she worked and ran off 500 copies of his picture, which she posted around the city. And then there is "Isabel," for whom Nevaer seemed to feel a special affection.

A note on the flier says simply, "Needs medicine." There is no last name, no phone number. "We went through the New York Times listing of the dead, but could never find her," he said.

While the Smithsonian and the Museum of the City of New York plan to preserve many of the fliers, Nevaer said his exhibit marks the first time they have been seen outside New York.

The fliers have a story all their own. Two rumors swept the city in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the twin towers. The first was that thousands of people lay injured and unidentified in city hospitals. The second, which got started after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani denied the first, was that injured victims were wandering dazed among the ruins of the trade center. Both rumors fed belief among the families that their loved ones might not be dead, only lost.

The placards were a way for relatives to feel they were doing something to help, as well as providing expression for feelings of love and grief. Soon there were thousands of fliers, posted outside hospitals, train stations and other public buildings. Although there were about 90,000 fliers, they were posted for 500 to 600 people, Nevaer said.

Nevaer said he was moved to start gathering the fliers in the days after the tragedy. "After a week or two they started to tear in the rain," he said. "It seemed disrespectful that they should be destroyed as litter."

Nevaer contacted a nonprofit human rights group he has worked with in the past, the Mesoamerica Foundation, which contributed $12,000 to pay for mounting the fliers. The National Guard helped collect them.

After collecting the fliers, Nevaer tried to contact the families who posted them. Uniformly, he said, relatives liked the idea of exhibiting the fliers outside New York. In that way, the exhibition is similar to the AIDS Memorial Quilt that has traveled the country, containing panels listing the dead and dedications from those who loved them.

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