What I Know
I was abruptly jolted from a drunken sleep by the sound of a woman screaming. Quickly awareness befriended me and propelled me into survival mode as I jumped up off of the floor; my hangover barely having had a chance to set in. Running down the stairs, I yelled back "MOM?!?!" and I entered the bedroom. "Mom, what's wrong?" As I finished my question, she was already pointing at a small TV that was tucked into the corner of the room. The image shocked me.
All she could say was "JIM, JIM" hysterically and in a pitch I had never heard her voice reach before. Immediately, my logical mind took over: "Mom, don't worry. Look! Jim works in the one WITHOUT the antenna! The fire is in the other building...". For a second, literally for one second, she was consoled. Then... BANG!! Another plane hits. This time, it hits Jim's building, and, now far beyond hysteria, there are no words or actions in my young repertoire to console the woman beside me.
What I Learned
Every generation shares a few key historical moments that help us to temporarily define ourselves as individuals within our culture. These are the moments that prompt us to ask one another 20 or 30 years later the following question: "Where were you when...?"
Previous generations had Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of JFK and MLK as well as the first moon walk. Everyone from their generation remembers exactly where they were during those landmark, history-shaping moments.
My generation has 9/11.
Everyone has a story from that morning. My personal story relating to the World Trade Center starts 30 years earlier when an Irish immigrant, arrived in America via London. His name is Jim and he would escape not one, but two attacks on the infamously targeted twin towers. Jim arrived to America with very little and managed to work his way through College. While raising a family he got his foot in the door on Wall Street. Though his first marriage wasn't destined to last, it was through a second marriage and combination of two families that I have a place in this story. In April 1993, Jim became my step-father. The transition for me at that time was tumultuous but it would later be revealed as a tremendous blessing. Most important of all, my mother had found the love of her life.
In January of 2001, I had just returned to New Jersey from living in Los Angeles for a year (it was during that year while attending college in L.A. that I discovered my passion for photography; I was 21). I approached my stepfather about the possibility of coming to work with him and getting a tour. By this time, Jim had already worked on the 59th floor of 2WT (the building without the antenna which became commonly known as The South Tower after 9/11) for many years and I had never even been up the towers. That day, I would unknowingly shoot one of the most important photos of my life (below).
He gave us a great tour of the Unit Trust Division of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. Jim then treated us to lunch and also took us up to the magnificent open air observation deck, which at that time was the greatest of its kind (the new One World Observatory falls terribly short despite its conquest of modernity). It was as perfect a day as one could imagine.
Life went on normally for the next 9 months. Jim was up for work every day at 4AM five days a week. I had gotten, and lost my first professional photography job during that time. Life was relatively copacetic until...
All she could say was "JIM, JIM" hysterically in a pitch I had never heard her voice reach before. Immediately, my logical mind took over: "Mom, don't worry. Look! Jim works in the one WITHOUT the antenna! The fire is in the other building...". For a second, literally for one second, she was consoled. Then... BANG!! Another plane hits.
Just nine minutes after the first plane hit at 8:46 AM, a general announcement was made over the intercom inside the undamaged South Tower declaring that everything was fine, there was "just some insulation falling" and for everyone to return to their desks. Jim defied the announcement and followed some co-workers down the stairs, not fully realizing what had happened. When he reached the 53rd floor, he suddenly remembered his role as Assistant Fire Marshall of his floor, a post delegated to him in the wake of the 1993 attack. He courageously stepped into the elevator and went back up to floor 59. Just around 9:02AM, another general announcement was made telling everyone to "being an orderly evacuation". Jim never heard that announcement. Upon reaching the 59th floor, the severity of what was transpiring would become evident almost immediately. "That's when I saw a man fall out" from the neighboring North Tower. Seconds later, at exactly 9:03AM, as he was checking for any remaining people, the building was rocked so abruptly that Jim was knocked over. He descended as quickly as he could until he reached street level and headed East. "I made it to Chase Plaza, to the Van Kampen office (an affiliate). That's when the building fell." The South Tower fell at 9:59AM.
All we could do was wait, and pray and worry. Then, the house phone rang some time around 9:30AM telling us that Jim had "checked in" and was fine. At the time, we didn't know where he had checked in, where he was or who exactly was contacting us. Our solace was to be short lived. It wasn't long after that call that the towers began to fall... first 2WTC, then 1WTC, The North Tower, at 10:28AM. Again, we were left without any knowledge of Jim's whereabouts or knowing that he was alive. The emotional undulations were torturous.
Despite the uncertainty, I grabbed my camera and headed towards Manhattan, which was just 12 miles away. In times of crisis, everyone has their own way of dealing. Mine was to document what was happening around me. I arrived in Jersey City and found a parking garage with a vantage point of the skyline and remained affixed to my radio tuned to 1010 on the AM dial. (I've never shared my photographs and videos of the destruction and will keep it that way even for this story. You've already seen it and none of those pictures make this story unique.) The country was in a state of panic. National airspace was shut down and the Media was sorting through a host of stories about The Pentagon, The Sears Tower, Mall of America and other hijackings of large passenger planes. Many of the stories were false; some were true. Chaos reigned. Buildings were evacuated and the nation watched in shock as reports were validated and denied.
Meanwhile, from Chase Plaza, Jim was getting as far away as possible and headed North East toward the Williamsburg Bridge, over which he rode on the tailgate of an SUV with a typical mixture of New Yorkers. "There was a guy from Israel, Vietnam, two Latinos, an American and myself." They rode to 47th Street in Brooklyn to St. Agatha's Church where Jim stopped and prayed before boarding the R Line to 95th Street. Determined to make it home he waked across the Verrazano, then hitch hiked through Staten Island and over the Goethals Bridge to Elizabeth.
I remained perched on the upper level of a parking garage listening to news radio while I photographed and watched the gray smoke billow out against the celestial blue sky, creating a plume that spread as far South as I could see. It was here at 5:20PM that I watched 7WT, a 47 story building on the World Trade Center sight, collapse. This was the the radio broadcast from "1010-Wins" that I was listening to (scroll to 25:00).
Now hours after his escape and having taken an unexpected refuge that covered over 30 miles, he arrived in New Jersey where he has able to phone home. When my mother picked him up at the Bay Way Circle in Elizabeth he recalls feelings of "elation, relief. I was in shock"; but most importantly he was alive. Later that same day, September 11, 2001, while all airline flights were suspended and most of the English speaking world was terrified to go near the airport, Jim's boss, who quickly adopted the fitting nickname "The Asshole", wanted Jim to fly to Chicago for a meeting at the main branch THE NEXT DAY. Give that a moment to sink in.
While the trip to Chicago on September 12 never happened, no one ever forgot the lack of tact and compassion of that guy who will forever retain that appropriate appellation.
Life has never been the same since that day. During the ordeal, I recall thinking, "this must be what it's like to live in Beirut", where you constantly don't feel safe; where a bomb may fall on your home at any second. That feeling lasted for weeks. Our house was directly beneath the landing route for most airplanes headed to Newark Airport, which was less than three miles away. Every time I heard a plane, I cringed with fear. I remember standing in the bathroom brushing my teeth a few days after the attacks and I heard a plane fly over. I honestly thought I was going to die in that moment, with my toothbrush in hand. That is what terror is, if you've ever wondered. It was a wake up call for America and during that time, the invisible roar of F-15 fighter jets flying above became normal. Even through all my years of travel, through the favelas in Rio or the streets of Cairo and even Jerusalem, I never felt as threatened for my life as I did in my own bathroom (on second thought, I did think I was going to be murdered in Rio. My instincts were certain, but I managed to retreat to the bus terminal quickly enough. That's a story for another day.)
I'm still partly in disbelief, not only that the Twin Towers were leveled, but that there's now a new building there. It's shocking to see a new skyline. Having been relatively disconnected from the media for a large part of 10 years on my personal pursuits and adventures, I was mostly unaware of the plan and progress of the new buildings. It really wasn't until early this year, while planning a return visit home, that I realized the new One World Observatory was about to open, just two weeks before we were scheduled to arrive. By the time I arrived there, I was especially surprised by the emotional response I had to the memorial and museum. I never imagined I would feel what I felt when I walked through there. I can only imagine what Jim was feeling when, just last year, he walked through the Memorial with his childhood friend from Ireland. I'll never know because I will never ask him another question about The World Trade Center.
He has yet to visit the 9/11 Museum and I pray that he never does...but perhaps you should.
What I Saw
One rarely notices change as it's happening. Photography holds the power to show us change. It is the greatest visual measuring device modern culture has. When you look back at your life through photographs, what will be the most defining change that you see?
The story continues... Each image below reveals a moment in time, a story unto itself. Mobile viewers can access the captions by clicking the (.) in the lower right corner.