Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years

Writing down thoughts about the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 is truly a "where do I begin?" process. Most years as the anniversary has rolled around I've paid a lot closer attention to the event, read all the op-eds, engaged in all the latest discussions about the rebuilding, etc. But this is the first year that I haven't lived in NYC during the anniversary and, as a high school teacher just beginning a new semester, I've been utterly swamped with other stuff. But the magnitude of 9/11 is such that you can never not put it away. It has gotten a fair amount of attention here, and I was even the subject of a front-page article about it in The Wichita Eagle yesterday.

When I think about the morning of 9/11, I always think about being on the rooftop of my building on Stanton Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I lived in 11 Stanton, which was identical to and shared a rooftop with 9 Stanton. Thus, I was on the rooftop of 9-11 Stanton Street the morning of 9/11. In those days my living situation was a rotating cast of photographer-friend roommates. I had been roommates with Patrick Witty, then Craig Allen joined us, then Patrick left the nest to go live next door at 9 Stanton. Needless to say we all ended up on the rooftop that morning.

As I arrived on the rooftop I quickly fired off two frames of the burning north tower, then headed for the highest vantage point that I knew of (a chimney). I figure by the time I got to the top of that chimney, turned around and got my third, fourth and fifth frames, I had only been on the roof maybe 90 seconds. Probably less. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the south tower erupted into a huge fireball.

My eye was already looking through the viewfinder, so my split-second reaction was to press the AF button with my thumb, then hammer away some frames with the 5fps motor drive, something I rarely, rarely did as a non-sports photographer.

Later on I would discover that the second plane's approach was captured by my Canon EOS-1n, in my 1st and 2nd frames, as a speck in the far-off distance:

The next 20 minutes was pretty much a blur for me, and it wasn't until I got to Duane or Reade Streets, just a few blocks north of the towers, before I really started taking any more pictures. My whole thought process at this point was "Are they going to be able to fix those towers?" Pretty soon cops were forcing people to move uptown. So I sort of acquiesced, moving parallel to the police lines until I decided to just get onto the Brooklyn Bridge for a picture.

Office buildings had all emptied out and so the streets were filled with people. I remember having the distinct feeling that it all felt like a fire drill, except that the fire was real. Still, it felt under control. Even though I remember hearing people say "Look, there's another person" (referring to people jumping from the towers), my biggest preoccupation was the structures of the towers themselves.

Eventually I got to the Brooklyn Bridge, thinking that it would be a good perspective from which to take a "scenic" shot of the burning towers. It was slow moving at that point, as every worker in the entire Financial District, it seemed, was making their way over the bridge. I remember looking at my cell phone and noticing that somebody from my old paper had called (The Monroe Evening News in Monroe, Michigan), but also that my battery was getting low. I may have tried to make a call but I quickly realized it was futile. The cell networks were jammed.

I hadn't even gotten to the first tower of the Brooklyn Bridge when I heard everybody begin screaming. I turned around and to my horror saw the south tower collapsing. This is the one time during that day where I was overtaken by my emotions. I remember sort of spinning in place, crying and shouting expletives, half wanting to shoot the collapse, and half wanting to run in the opposite direction. I had my 20mm on my camera, so I got a really wide shot of the skyline, and then another quick shot of the people next to me screaming. There were F16s overhead, and I distinctly remember somebody yelling "We gotta get get off this bridge, this bridge could be next!"

After deciding that I didn't want to be stuck in Brooklyn all day with a near-dead cellphone, I decided to turn back against the flow of evacuees and force my way back into Manhattan. Thankfully I hadn't gotten very far across the bridge. It wasn't long before a dust cloud enveloped the whole area. I remember jumping a barricade as a shortcut and nearly getting hit by a speeding undercover patrol car. These were among the last pictures I shot that day. In one, there is one man in particular who I can totally empathize with, it's the guy in the tan pants and the grey short-sleeved shirt (below). He is in a total daze, and I felt I must've had that same exact look many times that day.

In fact, I know I did. You'd think during the most terrifying day in New York City history you'd remember all the details. But I walked for blocks and blocks and I don't remember any of it. Except for these odd little patches of it. I remember being in Chinatown and thinking it was incredible that businesses could remain open, like it was a normal day. What was the point of a store that sold trinkets to tourists? My only other memory is walking up the west side of Bowery and hearing more screams. My first thought was that the Empire State Building had been hit. So I ran across to the other side of the street so I could look uptown and see the ESB. I could see it was fine, but that's when I realized people were screaming because the north tower had collapsed.

From there it was just 10 more minutes to my apartment. I went back up to the roof, where my neighbors were still watching. I remember only a few of their names: Karl Torbey (sp?), Sarah Archambault, Bruce Bingham (sp?) Gavin Creel.

The rest of the day had more focus. I remember getting my film developed, reuniting with my roommates, running up to Union Square and sitting in Marcel Saba's office, then over to Adorama, finally getting through to my dad on the phone, answering emails, etc. I remember people turning up their car radios so all passersby could listen to the updates. I remember people lining up six, seven, eight deep to wait their turn at pay phones. I remember talking to a couple of European tourists who had been completely oblivious to the whole event. But nowhere was TV in my 9/11 experience until later, maybe 1PM-ish. In fact, I can't express this enough. The vast majority of all Americans witnessed 9/11 through a television and were thus informed in an up-to-the-minute manner. But I experienced it entirely through my own eyes and ears, in fits and starts, piecing it together one bit at time.

Do I regret not being in NYC for the 10th Anniversary? Not too much. Not as badly as I just want to just see the memorial, walk around the voids, take in the progress that has elapsed since I left last December. I was speaking to my students on Friday, the 9th, and I was trying to convey to them what it was like to look back on something so monumental and pivotal. I actually got kind of emotional trying to articulate that it wasn't just the place of NYC that I missed so much, but just as much that time in my life. I lived my 27th through 37th years in NYC, an entire decade, 2000 to 2010, perfect bookends. But it astonishes me, looking back, that a quarter of my life so far has been intertwined with ground zero. To look at an aerial picture taken by my friend Mario Tama (below), one that shows ground zero with the completed voids, as well as in the distance the nearby neighborhoods that were home to each of the three apartments I lived in–all of which lay in the shadow of the towers–was pretty cool. To hear myself say for the first time the words, "My son was born in a hospital three blocks from ground zero" is a pretty neat thing. Talking to my students from the safety of my hometown 1,200 miles away and ten years later, it dawned on my how much I've moved on.