It took me five years before I could go a day without thinking of the Towers and crying. And as the tenth anniversary of the attacks approach I find myself right back there. And I’m crying again. How can it be this many years?
For a long time I didn’t want to think of anything else—I didn’t want to move on, because I thought if I did, if everyone did, we would all forget. And since the attacks were so personal to me as a native New Yorker, I thought moving on was sacrilegious.
I used to always tell people that I hated New Yorkers, but if anything was to happen, I didn’t want to be with any other people. September 11th and the days and weeks after proved me oh so right. My city was splendid. And it might have been the only time (the only time ever) I wasn’t hated for being a New Yorker by the rest of America.
People came from all over to find ways to help. They were drawn by a sense of patriotism I had never seen before. I volunteered, serving meals to first responders and met people from all over the country. They elevated me because I had been here when “IT” happened. I didn’t have to throw up my protective armor as a New Yorker. I could love the city I had grown up wanting to escape. I could be proud of New York and of being a New Yorker. That was an unusual feeling.
I was on my way to work at The New York Times that morning, and couldn’t believe the scar torn through the first building, flames blazing. By the time I arrived at the newsroom, the second building had been hit. There was a sense of disbelief. I just couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening. Then came the news of the strike at the Pentagon, and the plane crashing in Pennsylvania.
Everyone remembers how blue the sky was.
The newsroom was like an emergency room—a lot happening in a fast-paced place, yet an air of calm determination and professionalism. That was until the Towers came down. We watched it on television, and I felt dead inside. It was an audible sound inside of me. People were streaming into the Times with photos they had taken: tourists, people working or living in the area, and the New York Times photographers. They came in slowly, covered with the dirt and dust of the fallen buildings--almost unrecognizable. I was one of the photos editors who began editing film as it came in, grabbing it from the lab and looking through hundreds and then thousands of images.
Moments stick out: Photographers Jim Estrin and Ruth Fremson coming in coughing and covered in debris; working so hard, almost without looking up, as the company brought in catered food for everyone. They did that for days.
I remember how quiet the newsroom was. The air felt heavy. I think I left to go home around midnight, walking out into a deserted Times Square. The only cab I saw picked me up, but had to drop me at 23rd Street-not where I lived, below that. The city had been closed down, so I walked in the dark, in the silence, with the smell of death thick in the air.
I stayed up for hours, sobbing as I watched cable news play the story over and over. I thought of the people in those buildings. I recalled my memories of the Towers: the Fourth of July in the 1970’s, before Battery Park City was built, when the city let us sit by the edge of the water and watch fireworks over the Hudson, while lasers bounced off the façade of the Twin Towers.
I remembered when I lived a block and a half behind the Towers and spent so many nights walking the deserted concourses, seeing how far up in the building I could get. My bank was in there. I worked in Tribeca then, and could almost walk to work underground through those concourses. I thought of how much I loved standing on the top and looking out on the world with the wind howling and me screaming. I knew it so well. How could the buildings be gone?
The next workweek was a blur as each day led into the next. I worked long hours, looked at thousands of photographs, ate catered food, went home late, and stayed up for hours crying. I was part of the living dead: exhausted, overwhelmed and overwrought. I felt like I would fall apart at any moment. It was the daily phone call from my best friend in California that kept me together. I closed my windows to block the stench of death that hung over lower Manhattan. And I looked out the window at my southern city view, and couldn’t remember if I used to be able to see the Towers. That drove me crazy. I just couldn’t remember.
I do, however, remember the missing posters that sprang up around the city, and the people coming to the Times with those posters, asking if we could help. I remember taking a Xeroxed photo of Tonyell McDay from her parents when they came to the newsroom. And living across from Beth Israel hospital I saw so many of the posters. It was a haunted city where eyes stared back at you everywhere you went.
I am one of a small group of people who carry dozens and dozens of names in my memory. For nearly five months I gathered the photos for the “Portraits of Grief,” published in the New York Times. I spent my days cropping faces out from the wonderful moments in their lives to represent the horror of their deaths.
At first getting photographs for each profile was just a matter of professional pride, mixed with numbness and exhaustion from the attacks. But it quickly became critical to me to see that there was a photograph to run with each profile. I wanted "Portraits of Grief" to become personal for the readers. I wanted them to be able to look into the eyes of each person who died so that they were not reduced to an incomprehensible statistic--a number too great to be felt in the heart.
I worked on the "Portraits of Grief" every day until I honestly couldn't do it anymore. It broke my heart.
In the years since, politicians and opportunists have made their money and gained their power. War and torture and ‘extraordinary rendition’ and profiteering and no more privacy have twisted their roots deep into this country. As people jump in front of the camera, talk too much in the press, repeat images over and over, and tell us “what this mean,” I will think back to the actual day, September 11, 2001, and poke the scar so I can feel it again.
Tonyell McDay, Maria Abad, Eldelmiro Abad, Tariq Amanullah, Samantha and Lisa Egan, Dave Fontana, Susan Getzendanner, Jonathan Ielpi, Manny Del Valle, Ward Haynes, Terry Hatton, Rudy Bacchus, Moira Smith, Sean Booker, Beth Quigley, John & Joseph Vigiano, Godwin Ajala, Ricknauth Jaggernauth, Timothy Stackpole, Pat Brown, Christian Regenhard…....just a few of the 2, 749 people murdered in New York.
And most of those who died have never been identified.
Photographs by Jason Florio. Taken then, and at the same time this week.