Month: September 2016

Sept. 11, 2016

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I realized I have never “written” my 9-11 story/memories.

I was working at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester and that morning we were photographing a monthly feature, “A Day in the Life of….” The whole photography staff focusing on a different community each month and I was the team leader. We were in Brockport, so I was there early to collect “cruise art” and was driving around listening to Howard Stern. He broke into his show to say he was getting calls that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and took a caller who screamed about what he saw. I switched over to NPR and our local AM news station, nothing, back to Stern, more callers. Back over to NPR and AM news station, nothing.

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By now I was thinking the shock jock had decided to do an Orson Wells, “War of the Worlds” broadcast and listened with interest, even though I kept checking NPR and news stations. By the time NPR and AM news started reporting the story, Stern was doing a much better job, live reports, callers, eye witnesses.

 

I called the newsroom and said we should call off DITLO, but they said no, maybe send one photographer back to town (over 30 minutes away) – I decided to ignore them and called everyone else and sent them back to Rochester and stopped in a laundry mat to photograph costumers watching the TV screen. The only couple there was watching and worrying; their daughter was flying from Boston to NYC that morning…. I realized this would affect everybody. I shot a few pictures and tethered my cell phone to my laptop to transmit one picture. This was the early days of data transfer and a small picture took about 15 minutes to send.

 

As it was sending, the newsroom called, and said cancel DITLO – “no problem” and I started back to Rochester. The rest of the day was a blur, everyone chased everything, Federal Buildings, Post Offices, prayer services, local hospitals; by lunch I decided to stay in the newsroom and help our boss Scott Norris coordinate the coverage and pictures coming in since he was bouncing from meeting to meeting. By dinner he asked if I wanted to go help Westchester with their coverage. “Sure.” But the rule was I could not leave that night, I had to wait till morning, I think I worked till 10pm, went home packed and was on the road before light. It was a long 6 hour drive across NY and when I arrived, they sent me out the door immediately, a Post Office (remember this was just after the Anthrax mailings) a service at a Synagogue, back to the newsroom to help move pictures coming back from the staff that had gone to ground zero, then out with a reporter to a local family, I sat at the table as the wife told us about the last call she had with her husband, he reassured her it was the other tower hit, all was good with his and he was going to stay and get work done. It was really tough to press the shutter button that night.

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When I got back to the newsroom, all the staff was back, lots of incredible, tough images, but there was a sense of exhaustion in the photo department. The editor turned to me and asked if I wanted to go to Ground Zero the next day –again an easy answer – “yes.” Staff photographer Seth Harrison and I met the next morning before dawn, drove through empty streets, to the very southern point on Manhattan, parked and worked our way up to Ground Zero. I will always remember what the smell was like, the light coming through the dust and the absolute confusion as I started shooting. I noticed there were no other photographers around, very odd, then I saw a guy named Red from Orlando and then he was “caught” and escorted from the area, so I worked my way up WTC 7 to the temporary morgue and focused on an obvious rescue effort. A firefighter had fallen into a hole overnight and was trapped. All the time an associate photo editor at Westchester was calling me non-stop, shoot a 360 stitch image of ground zero and take it to a reporter at the barriers – “no,” I kept saying nicely, if I go to the barriers, I will be thrown out – Seth was earlier when he was ordered to go help a reporter get in since the reporter didn’t leave before sunrise. I was the only staff on Ground Zero. I kept explaining the rescue was active, and the asst. photo editor kept saying the radio said it was over – um I am here, it is not over…. If he had been a Rochester editor, I would have been more animated, but I was a loaner so I finally started walking out of Ground Zero when I ran into Max Schulte a co-worker from Rochester walking down, he had ridden in with an ambulance crew, when I was close to the barriers, my phone rang again, “stay there” the editor said _ no shit I thought, but by now a police officer saw me and was screaming for me to come up, I turned around and nearly ran back down to Ground Zero in time to get the rescue.

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By mid afternoon, the police had caught me, threated me with arrest – crime scene, etc – and escorted me into Manhattan but away from Seth’s car. I finally found a ride back to Westchester and started editing pictures.

 

This is my biggest disappointment of the day, as I switched cards in and out, looking for the stupid 360 degree images to stitch, one card was empty when I put it in the computer, I set it aside, worked the rest of my images, and formatted cards that night. I started shooting again the next day in NYC, it was not until days later that I realized the missing images had been from the beautiful moments when all work had stopped and rescuers carried a fallen firefighter out of the pile and right under me (up in a window). Light shone through the open building as all the firefighters with heads bowed, carried an American flag draped stretcher. It was the early days of digital and I had no recovery software…. But to this day, if I put a card in a computer, I ingest it before I do anything else!

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I have had an incredible career, covering an Olympics for USA Today, military actions in Bosnia, Haiti and Kuwait, major sporting events like NASCAR, ACC and NCAA Basketball tournaments, the big 3 leagues and many local stories, but 9-11 is the event that changed me the most. I made many photographs I am proud of, I worked with a super talented staff (Rochester and Westchester) that shined in some of the craziest days we will ever experience, watch a city and nation come together.