When a pair of hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, almost 3,000 lives were lost — and it’s now coming to light that countless documents, records, and irreplaceable pieces of art were, as well.

The missing items include letters written by Helen Keller, tens of thousands of negatives of John F. Kennedy taken by his personal photographer, and pieces from famed sculptor Auguste Rodin.

“You can’t get the picture back, because critical pieces are missing. And so you can’t know what the whole picture looks like,” said Kathleen D. Roe, operations director at the New York State Archives and co-chairwoman of the World Trade Center Documentation Project.

Housed in the Twin Towers — and in surrounding buildings that also collapsed — were 430 companies, 21 libraries, dozens of federal, state and local government agencies, and even a secret CIA office. In addition, classified and confidential documents also disappeared from the Pentagon, which was hit by a third jet that day.

In the weeks after the attacks, the CIA and Secret Service personnel sifted through World Trade Center debris for lost documents, hard drives with classified information and intelligence reports. Archivists and librarians also formed the World Trade Center Documentation Task Force to try to track other items that had gone missing, but its final report in 2005 stated, “The current atmosphere of litigation, politics and overall distrust surrounding the 9/11 attacks has made information sharing and compilation a complex task.”

Many are not surprised.

“Under extreme circumstances, like those of 9/11, ordinary record keeping procedures will fail. Routine archival practices were never intended to deal with the destruction of entire offices or buildings,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the project on government secrecy at the watchdog group the Federation of American Scientists.


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