This is not the normal fare for my website, but given that this is the 20th Anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, I thought it might be nice to share some photos and reflect. During parts of this article, I share bits of actions that I took during that crisis period. Much of this I have never shared before. This is in no way to aggrandize or elevate myself...I know that my role was a small one that will probably be forgotten or at best a foot note. However, with the time that has elapsed since the 9/11 attacks, I seem to feel an urge now to talk more about those days. It still weighs on me.
I was on my way to work at St. Luke's Hospital, where I was employed as a social worker in a program designed to help keep children who were at risk for hospital and residential placement to stay at home with their families. Like most mornings, I was switching between 880 WCBS and 1010 WINS trying to figure out traffic patterns as I slogged down the West Side Highway as part of my morning commute. One of my favorite things about listening to 880 AM at the time was hearing my dear friend, Jeff Caplan, who was co-host with his colleague Pat Carroll , during the morning drive. Jeff, in addition to being a very talented newsman, was also my wedding photography mentor. It was somewhere between the George Washington Bridge and 125th Street that I heard Jeff and his colleague mention that "something has happened at the World Trace Center, It's on fire." I remember there being phone calls and hearing descriptions like "gaping holes" being in the building. Being consummate professionals, they studiously avoided into speculation that it was a terrorist attack...but having been in New York City during the 1997 World Trade Center bombing, I felt a sinking pit in my stomach. I remember clearly thinking, "They are trying to take it down."
Still driving to work, I heard Jeff mention that a second plane had crashed into the other tower - and my suspicions were confirmed. I remember the pins and needles I felt as they described the concern that there were multiple planes that had been hijacked, and that some of them were still unaccounted for. The entire department had been out at a fire drill that morning, and of course, I was late getting to the office. When I met them, I remember telling my colleagues that the towers had been hit - no one was yet aware. Looking back at it today, it does make me think about how much technology has developed in such a short time. Today, I think everyone would have known given how connected we are with our phones and our technology.
The hospital started providing emergency notification that there had been an incident at the World Trade Center, and were all to go to our offices and wait for instruction. We were told not to use the hospital phone lines in order to call loved ones because they were going to need the entire switchboard for emergency command operations. The main problem was that cell phone coverage was completely shot. I made multiple attempts to call my wife and my sister and my parents, but no calls would go through. The system was completely flooded. So we sat...and we waited. At 9:59 AM, the first tower fell. At 10:28, the second tower fell. To say that we were all nervous and just in a state of shock would be an overstatement. I remember my entire office went to St. John the Divine for a mass. While I am not a believer, I joined my colleagues for the sense of community. It was good to be with people.
While we had been told that we might be called to other tasks within the hospital to help with survivors who were transported to the hospital, those calls never came. Everyone who made it out of the World Trade Center made it out. The existing hospital facilities south of Harlem were able to handle the evacuees who needed care. It would have been nice to have something to do - anything but wait. But we waited.
Eventually, around 3 PM, we were told that we could start heading home, that there was nothing we could do. It was a warm, nearly perfect Summerish day, so I decided that I would make home visits to the families that I worked with since I was sure that they would be concerned. At the time, I had a family in Washington Heights, about 50 blocks from my office. I will never forget the dissonance that I experienced walking down the block to the family's home. Kids were playing Hop Scotch and Double Dutch. It was as if the world was not on fire just a few miles from everyone.
We still had a landline at home, and I vividly remember the relief I felt that evening when I was able to get get a call through to my parents to let them know that I was OK. That next morning, it was back to work as usual - except that there was a police ring around Manhattan. Military planes and helicopters flew up and down the island. Manhattan was sealed shut. No one was coming off or coming on the island without some verification that they belonged. The buildings, which were still burning long after their collapse, could be smelled all the way uptown where we live. Some time late that morning, I received a phone call from Eri Noguchi, at the Association to Benefit Children. I had worked previously at ABC's Mobile Crisis Team and the Variety Cody Gifford House for children before leaving to go to St. Luke's, and I still had a strong case of hero worship for the work that is done by ABC and their founder, Gretchen Buchenholz. Eri asked if I would assist the Mobile Crisis Team at the City's temporary command center and to assist with crisis operations.
That first evening of volunteering was pretty mind bending. The line of people coming in to see if there had been any news of their loved ones was long and never seemed to stop. Many brought photographs of their loved ones. At first, I remember that volunteers were meeting with people and getting descriptions of pieces of jewelry and other items that might identify a loved one's body that might be recovered. Soon after, we were instructing families to come back with hair brushes and other items that we could use to help identify the victims with their genetic material. These hours will be tattooed on my brain until the day I die. Then, the families started sharing more and more photos of their missing loved ones. These photos would soon be plastered all over New York City, with many people wearing them on their bodies. It was still early and there was hope that there might be victims still alive in sections of the rubble. I believe that ultimately only a handful of people were pulled out of the rubble.
That weekend, I was photographing a wedding with my friend Jeff Caplan. The wedding was across the Hudson at Liberty State Park. This young couple was getting married in front of a group of loved ones, with the towers burning in the background. During that period, I never took one photo of the towers burning. At the time, I remember feeling strongly that there were already enough sensational images of the towers burning and I did not want to add to it. Years later, I think that vision was flawed, and I wish that I had. During that wedding, I remember looking up with Jeff at the first plane to cross the sky since the towers were hit. It was yet another discordant vision as there had been no airfare except military planes allowed during that period.
I continued to volunteer for the Association to Benefit Children several days a week for nearly 6 months, moving with them from the Command Center to the Piers, where they ultimately moved the volunteer operations. While the work at first was mainly focused on helping family members have remains identified, at the end, it was mainly helping people cope with loss for the parents, spouses and loved ones who never came home. Through most of it, I like to think that I remained focused on concrete tasks and surprisingly unscathed...though I would not speak to my wife about it. I do remember losing it once. I was driving home, and I saw a bus that was being moved from a downtown location, and the ashes were literally streaming off the top and sides of the bus. My world was upside down for the first time in my life, but sadly not the last time. In that short period, we dealt with the Trade Center Attacks, the Anthrax Scare and the mysterious Pancake Syrup Odor. It never seemed to end.
NYC has undergone its fair share of crisis periods over the last 20 years, and I am sure there will be more over the next 20. People who live in New York City have a terrible reputation for being gruff and standoffish. Having lived here during many periods of crisis, I can honestly say that these stereotypes are just false. New Yorkers might be on the move, but one thing they are is kind and compassionate.
Thanks for taking time to listen to me talk about my memories of 9/11. I hope that you enjoy the photos. #Never Forget.
I have been counting down the days and weeks until I was to assist Steve Kossack on his Glacier National Park workshop in August. It was to be my first 'real' trip since October 2019, when I joined Steve for a workshop in Rocky Mountain National Park. I have fully vaccinated since January, and I have been definitely feeling a bit 'caged in' as a result of the pandemic. Photographically, I was also excited because I have been wanting a second crack at Glacier for about 10 years. Nothing says "normalcy' quite like 5 days hanging out with Steve Kossack and his workshop crew.
I had been riding a barrel of optimism that being vaccinated gave me a free pass to start living life similarly to the way it was before the pandemic started. This was going to be the Summer of Freedom - and then, shortly after the 4th of July holiday, the Delta Variant officially put an kibosh to that. The Delta variant had become the primary variant in the USA, and the CDC reported that it is quite dangerous - particularly to the unvaccinated, but that there were 'break through' infections even amoung the vaccinated. Steve and I had multiple discussions about what to do. Given that so many people had purchased tickets, we felt that the right thing was to go ahead and have the workshop, but that we were going to have to discuss how we could make this both a safe and fun experience for everyone. Fortunately, I feel that we know a lot more about how COVID is transmitted than we did in March of 2020, when the country shut down. We know the importance of wearing masks and - of course - being vaccinated.
Both Steve and I were tested prior to the trip. In the airport and on the plane, I both wore an N95 surgical mask and a regular surgical mask that Delta provided gratis. Having read the value of protective glasses as a means of avoiding COVID, I also wore protective glasses. Outside of the warmth of being under the mask for four hours, it was not much of a big deal. The only thing I skipped was the concessions part of the plane. I figured it made sense to opt out as the one fly in the ointment in regards to the plane was the period where everyone was eating with their masks off. Seriously - it wasn't a big deal.
From the moment we landed, we discussed how the group wanted to handle everything from safety in the cars to eating. This was obviously going to be a very different experience between shooting sets than I have ever had while working with Steve...and I am glad that he was thinking about all of those components. For example, usually after a sunrise or sunset shoot, we will eat at a nice restaurant in a family-style setting. However, due to COVID, that was mainly curtailed. Most of our meals were either eaten outdoors or indoors where we were not with another group of people. Given how nice the weather was, I honestly did not mind at all.
However, outside of those changes - the actual product of a workshop was really not changed. It was so nice to get out and shoot. For anyone who is really seriously into photography, or wants to learn the skills to become a serious photographer, I strongly consider you trying a workshop. I am a particular fan of Steve's for a variety of reasons:
1. Adventure Photography
Steve takes a truck many places that others just will not go to. That does not mean that we are belaying down mountains. It does mean that there might be some bumpy rides and that our trucks may be going to places without the greatest roads on the planet. There is an impressive upside bonus of this. We will attempt to see locations that otherwise you would never get to see on your own or even with a lot of other workshop photographers. However, you also need to be prepared for an occasional flat or car malfunction. Does that happen frequently? LOL, no...but it does happen.
2. Learn Photographic techniques that makes your photography better, including the use of filters 3. Learn through practice 4. Learn through creative collaboration
There are no distractions or competition for your artistic creativity. While I am really good about getting time for myself to photograph on a family trip, the truth is that you spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to divide your time for yourself and for your family/loved ones. Shooting a workshop takes all of those distractions out of the equation. You get to see what other people are using in regards to gear (or toys, as I like to think of them). You also get to hopefully see other people's photographic compositions that can be very inspiring when you see them on the printed page as opposed to just on a monitor. Most of all though - a workshop is filled with fun and creativity. I have been doing these with Steve for 15 years now, and I know that this process has made me a better photographer today. Just as importantly, they are really a lot of fun. Spending 12 to 16 hour days with a group of people (and sometimes longer) can really break down barriers really quickly. It is an experience unlike any other that I have had as an adult - almost like a summer camp for adults.
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Wild Coyote Studio, New York Pet Photographer