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StoryCorps Turns Ordinary People into Oral Historians
Stories collected about September 11, civil rights struggle, everyday life
By Jeffrey Thomas


August 22, 2007

Washington -- Usually people come in pairs to the story booth -- a grandmother and granddaughter, a husband and wife, a father and son. They ask each other such questions as What was the hardest moment you had growing up? When did you meet your husband (or wife)? How has the Civil Rights Movement affected you personally?

But there are also people who come alone to the story booth in New York to talk about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "It's so painful and it's so frightening for them, they just want to come by themselves," says David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, which seeks to preserve the personal stories of ordinary people for future generations.

jpg mobile StoryCorps

Photo courtesy Story Corps

"Firefighters who have never talked about what happened on 9/11 before, hadn't ever gone to counseling -- they come to StoryCorps because they feel like they are contributing something to history," Isay, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, said in an interview with New York Public Radio. "They come to StoryCorps to cry and talk about what happened on that day."

Starting in 2003, Isay set out to create an oral history of America using as a model a project done by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. The first story booth opened in New York's Grand Central Terminal, and since then a second has opened in New York City, another in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and two mobile booths have traveled around the country.

Each Friday National Public Radio airs one of the stories.

In September 2005, StoryCorps started an initiative to honor and remember those who lost their lives on September 11. The goal is to preserve at least one personal story about each of the 2,979 people who died at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon in Washington and on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

"People were coming to the booth to remember people who had died," Isay said. "There are so many stories about so many people that can be told about 9/11."

In one of the recordings, Richard Pecorella, 54, says he first met his fiancée Karen Juday, a 52-year-old administrative assistant for the Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage firm, in the spectator stands of a car race in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Some time later, on September 11, he looked out the window of his Brooklyn office and saw one of the towers on fire, right where she worked. "I took my office chair and threw it at the window," Pecorella tells StoryCorps.

In another recording, Monique Ferrer says her ex-husband, Michael Trinidad, phoned from the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center after the first plane hit to say goodbye to her and their children. He knew he couldn't make it out.

In another, 17-year-old Jessica DeRubbio remembers her father, New York City firefighter David DeRubbio, who always wanted to be a firefighter and was killed in the World Trade Center.

StoryCorps is also seeking the stories of survivors, rescue workers, witnesses or anyone else closely affected by the events of that day.

Another special StoryCorps initiative focuses on African-American history and is called StoryCorps Griot after a West African tradition of storytelling. The griot is someone who acts as a living repository of births, deaths, marriages and significant events, transmitting oral history through the generations.

In announcing the initiative, Isay said the project will provide black families "with the tools to honor loved ones, preserve their stories for generations to come and educate the country about the contributions of African Americans to the history of this city and nation."

Jim McFarland, for example, describes what it was like for him in the 1950s to travel each summer from New York City to the segregated South as a boy.

Omar Leech explains how he came to join a gang and how as a man, after serving three prison terms, he finally realized the other gang members were not really his family or his friends.

Theresa Burroughs describes what she had to go through to register to vote in Alabama. She and a minister friend showed up every day for two years. One day after she was asked to recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the election official said, "You're going to pass today, because we're tired of looking at your black faces," Burroughs recalled.

Voting in the very next election was "a joy," she said, "but I didn't feel it should have been so hard."

All the interviews recorded at story booths are added to the StoryCorps Archive, which is being housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington. All interviews pertaining to September 11 will be housed both in New York at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and at the Library of Congress.

The interviews are available at the American Folklife Center and on the Library of Congress Web site at

Audio files of selected interviews are available on the StoryCorps Web site at



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