Phenomenology of Death Counts in Disasters: The Invisible Dead in the 9/11 WTC Attack

March 2008 (VOL. 26, NO. 1)

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This essay uses information from Latino immigrants who were victims in the World Trade Center (WTC) terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 and are not included in the official list of the dead from this attack to illustrate the operation of counting as a central, theoretical issue in the construction of disaster statistics. A phenomenological approach would complement current emphases on the operation of organizations, their lack of coordination, and fraud as explanations for the lack of validity of disaster mortality statistics. The paper examines the social categories and understandings that were used to create the official New York City list of the dead, the link of the official list with receipt of money from charities, and the work of Asociacion Tepeyac de New York (Tepeyac) in developing an unofficial list of Latino victims. Results show that the Mexican mass media exaggerated the number of Mexican dead by a ratio of 15 to 1. Contrary to mass media reports, Tepeyac also assisted people who were included in the official count of the dead and who were not Mexicans. The Tepeyac list is overwhelmingly a list of male names, but neither gender has a greater proportion of exclusion from the official NYC list. Exclusion from the official NYC list occurs more often to Mexican men recently arrived in the country and earning a living in the underground economy of Lower Manhattan if compared to Dominicans and Puerto Rican victims. We conclude that structural factors such as the operation of bureaucracies and systemic discrimination are not the sole causes of the social invisibility of some of these Latino victims. Nor is it solely the effect of the categories used to organize the count of the dead. It is also a function of the social behavior of Latino immigrants and of their surviving kin during the course of their immigration and incorporation into the US. The paper concludes with some suggestions to improve statistics on disaster deaths.