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Desperate relatives plaster fliers all over

By BILL DURYEA

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001


NEW YORK CITY -- Chris Nardone wanted to tell the woman with the victim questionnaire about how his brother Mario was the salt of the earth, how he wanted to quit bond trading and give something back to society, but there were no blanks on the form for that information.

NEW YORK CITY -- Chris Nardone wanted to tell the woman with the victim questionnaire about how his brother Mario was the salt of the earth, how he wanted to quit bond trading and give something back to society, but there were no blanks on the form for that information.

So he told the woman that his brother was 32, 6-feet-1, with light brown hair that he kept cut very short (to cover how fast he was going bald, Chris thought to himself). He told her about the dime-sized beige birthmark on Mario's right wrist and the red scar on his right shoulder where he had a cross tattoo removed.

And he told her that the last time Mario was seen alive was just after 9 a.m. Tuesday, standing on the stairs of the 84th floor of a building that moments later would be hit by a hijacked airliner.

That was how on Wednesday afternoon Mario Nardone's name was added to a list of missing people, and how that list grew to 4,763 people by Thursday as frantic relatives streamed inside the hulking National Guard Armory that served as the central registration facility.

Each family that completed the questionnaire, choking back the urge to talk about baby daughters left behind and hobbies and comforting last words, was shown lists of more than 700 patients at the city's eight hospitals. Officials from the medical examiner's office compared the information to the even smaller list of an estimated 184 known fatalities, of which about 35 had been identified by Thursday.

Like Chris Nardone, who read and reread the list hoping his brother's name might have been misspelled, they found nothing to comfort them.

But they would not abandon the search.

Spurred on by rumors of an untold number of John Does hooked to life support machines, apparently unable to identify themselves to officials, Nardone and his sister Jeanine and her husband, Dominick Rao, drove from Staten Island to Brooklyn and then took the subway into Manhattan. "The train was filled with people like us, looking for loved ones," Nardone said.

They came to the Armory even though they had already entered Mario's name in the registry, even though rescue workers had not pulled any more victims from the rubble alive. (Hours later two rescuers who had become victims themselves were pulled out safe.)

Nardone, beefy and bearded in a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt, clutched a fresh stack of 200 fliers showing Mario smiling with his arm around his girlfriend, Megan. He handed them out to every reporter who would take one. He and Jeanine moved from television camera to radio microphone, repeating Mario's description, always careful to use the present tense, never allowing the possibility that he might be dead to taint their hopefulness.

"St. Vincent's says they have a lot of unaccounted for," Nardone said. "We just want to get inside and show them his picture. Maybe someone has seen him. But they won't let us in."

It probably wouldn't have done any good. The injured John Does that were giving so much hope to relatives simply did not exist, at least not in the numbers that were being bandied about.

"There's just a couple in the whole city who have not been identified," said Bernadette Kingham, spokesman for St. Vincent's Hospital, which treated more than half of the wounded.

"There's a lot of Web sites that have inaccurate information. The patients' names were wrong, their conditions were wrong," she said. Indeed, the son of a man who washed windows at the World Trade Center said he had read his father's name on a survivors' list, complete with hospital case number. When he checked with the registry at the Armory, the information turned out to be false.

With no more information coming in, all the relatives could do was to keep sending information out. And the chosen medium was fliers, which they plastered to storefronts, lamp poles, mailboxes, car windows and police barricades.

At 11th Street and Sixth Avenue, a block from St. Vincent's, the window of Famous Ray's Pizza displayed seven fliers late Thursday morning. By midafternoon there were more than 40, nearly obscuring the restaurant inside.

People stopped to read about the old burn scar on Diane Lipari's right knee and about the black polo shirt with white stripes that Ken Zelman wore to work Tuesday. They soaked in the photos of far happier times, graduations and weddings and Anthony Luparello's 60th birthday party.

But as more time passed without word of survivors, the fliers seemed more like obituaries than missing person reports. Few people who read them thought they would help find these people.

"I'm just looking to see what's been taken away from us," said Ellen Johnson, 34, a portfolio manager, as she gazed at the pizza restaurant window. "This is how they'll be remembered. They were happy and that's beautiful. But it's also desperate. How else are they going to find these people?"

This morning Chris Nardone will make another batch of fliers. Then he'll make the rounds of the hospitals one more time, looking for a John Doe named Mario.

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