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A Reflection On 9/11: Messages in the Ashes

What follows is a personal account of my experience during 9/11. As a photography enthusiast, I always had a camera nearby and am grateful that I had the where-with-all to carry it with me everywhere I went that day and on the days that followed.

In the days that followed, I posted these images on a makeshift website to share with my friends and family then took them down some time later. Not long ago, I came across them and thought it might be something to re-share with the 20th anniversary approaching. It’s only one story of millions created that day. I hope that the images might provide a vantage point not seen before.

For reference, I was living in a studio apartment bordering the West Village and Soho. It was close to the intersection of 7th Avenue and Houston, about 2 miles from World Trade Center. It was the first time I had lived in the city.

About a year prior, the day I moved into this studio, I marveled at the sounds of the city erupting six flights below me at 2:00pm in the afternoon. The car alarms, police sirens and the honking were my welcome to the cacophony of activity happening below. However, at 2:00am that following morning, with that same cacophony still playing, my marveling had stopped and turned to disbelief as I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Over time, these sounds not only faded into the background, they provided a level of comfort.

At 8:30AM on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 I sat down for my daily morning meditation. About 15 minutes into my meditation, I heard an airplane fly over my apartment. As I knew my city sounds intimately, this sound… an airplane flying low above me, this sound did not belong here.

I had lived in the flight path of Love Field in Dallas a few years prior, I knew the sounds and associated altitudes of airplanes taking off and landing. This low roaring sound was a foreigner here in my little Manhattan haven. Shortly after the roar of the airplane came a dull thud. This sound not belong either.

I had left my television on while I was attempting meditation bliss. I looked up to see on the news video of the Twin Towers with smoke billowing out. From my small studio windows I could see just the top right glimpse of the Twin Towers. The smoke rising out towards the water that I was seeing out the window matched what was being shown on television.

View out my window

I quickly threw on some clothes and grabbed my, at the time, state-of-the-art Olympus 3.34 megapixel camera and sprinted down the stairs. My office was in the direction of downtown, just one subway stop south and just outside the Holland Tunnel. My typical direct route to work was to walk down Varick (7th) to Canal street. However I knew I would have a better view if I walked down Sixth Avenue today.

At 9:03AM the second plane hit just as I was leaving my apartment. Now that I was away from seeing news updates, my only source of information was what I could take in around me. I asked a few passersby for updates. Everyone was in a state of confusion and didn’t know exactly what was happening. One person told me the second hit was from a news helicopter which had flown too close and hit the second tower.

The confusion was palpable and the survival barriers of stoic faces that people wear in order to be able to walk down the street uninterrupted began to crumble as people asked one another for information or looked on in tears.

Just as I turned onto Sixth Avenue, I spotted a convertible sports car pulled over on the side of the street with the radio turned up. People surrounded the car listening intently for information. I continued my way down the street and proceeded to take more pictures.

Looking down Sixth Avenue shortly after the second plan hit.

The city coming to a stop

Shortly after I entered my office and checked in with my coworkers, I recall I called my mother and left a voice mail informing her I was ok. That was the last call I was able to make for some time as the phone lines became overloaded.

Our office was one of the first adopters of the open concept dot com layouts. We had beautiful tall windows that faced downtown not far from my desk. At 9:59AM the towers collapsed. I was in a conference room watching the news on TV as they started to fall. It was being broadcast live so I jumped up to look across the office window and watched the falling.

Office view of the Towers

We were located next to the Holland Tunnel, so they instructed us to evacuate the building as there were concerns about bomb threats. Everything was an unknown and anything was possible.

Walking back to my studio, everyone on the street seemed to be in shock. There were groups of people huddled around pay phones as cell services were overrun. For those that lived in the other boroughs, they didn’t know how they would get home as much of the transportation had shut down out of concerns of another attack.

Looking back towards downtown after the fall

The news teams were out interviewing everyone. (Pre-smart phone)

Cell services were overloaded

Looking down Sixth Avenue after the fall

Once back in my studio, I connected my DSL internet connection and began emailing people as that was really the only communications mode we had at the moment. Once I knew my closest friends were accounted for, I decided to go back out and continue taking pictures. I knew these were historic moments unfolding.

They had closed 7th avenue from 14th street all the way down to downtown so that ambulances and emergency vehicles to go back and forth unhindered. Like many, I expected the road would be full with ambulances running non stop to Saint Vincents hospital at 7th and 14th. I knew things were bad, when after a few hours, not one ambulance had gone down that street. The voices of the missing spoke louder than any others that day.

7th Avenue was closed off — Looking downtown

7th Avenue looking uptown towards Saint Vincents Hospital

My wanderings took me back down Sixth Avenue back towards downtown and along the West Side Highway.

Onlookers in the afternoon

Ambulance, construction crews and volunteers

Construction crew volunteers

Ambulances from all boroughs assembled on the West Side

The West Side Highway looking downtown

Cars covered in debris leaving the area

The Westside Highway blocks away from the World Financial Center

Obscured by a building, smoke billowing out from Ground Zero

By nightfall makeshift memorials were being erected outside all the firehouses throughout the city and people crowded around to take them in.

Local fire station in the West Village

Fire engine covered in debris becomes a makeshift memorial

Messages in the ashes

Flag raised

Flyers posted on a bus stop

The first ‘Missing’ signs appear

The next day the memorials continued in many shapes and forms. “Missing” posters were popping up on any available vacant wall. As there was such focus on the emptiness created by those who were missing in the days that followed, it seems as if so many people wanted to see and be seen at that time. They wanted to be part of a collective grief and be included in the outpouring of tributes, memorials and artifacts of remembrance.

Making art for Peace in Washington Square Park

Makeshift memorials began everywhere

West Village fire station the following day

‘Missing’ fliers covering a news van

Missing persons wall begins

A profound change had come over the city. We collectively mourned and shared our grief. Strangers became neighbors with a tragic commonality. Feeling helpless, people did what they could by attending vigils, making art and expressing their grief on impromptu murals.

For days afterward, news teams camped outside Saint Vincent’s Hospital, but still no ambulances came. Crowds waited but only received emptiness.

In the weeks that followed, the common etiquette of tuning out the conversations of people around you in restaurants or walking down the street fell away. Now everyone seemed to have an ear of for the words “Where were you when it happened?”. Most miraculous were the many stories of people who were ‘late for work’ that day, or had overslept. A coworker of mine had a dentist appointment scheduled in one of the towers later that afternoon.

While the situation was horrendous, I am grateful that I was there during this time. It’s rare when you see humanity alter its behavior so drastically and so quickly. I recalled when I had first moved to the city a friend had commented they never felt more alone than when they were in the city. I understood what they meant and wonder what they would have thought now.

Union Square a few nights later

Candles keeping hope alive

The same missing persons wall a day later

For more images, please check out the full retrospective photoset here.


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