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.
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