For me, 9-11 was more than a national tragedy. A single email I sent a few days after the attack revealed America to me in a way I’d never known. The replies opened my eyes to the depth of American compassion and how much all Americans have in common.
The day of the attack on the twin towers, I was 5000 miles away in Anchorage on business. Yael called and woke me with the news. I watched the world trade center collapse on TV, then went into the office. But I couldn’t concentrate. I decided I had to get back to New York to see it for myself.
Somehow, through a lucky combination of being able to charter a flight to New York, finding the only hardware store in Manhattan with hard hats and respirators left, and fast-talking our way through five layers of tight police security, Yael and I found ourselves 48 hours later at Ground Zero, working the rescue alongside a team of professional fireman, policeman, FBI, NYPD, CIA, and other federal agents.
We saw a side of Ground Zero off-limits to media and most volunteers. I took pictures to share with friends, put them into a 9-11 slide show, and emailed it off to a few dozen friends. Something in the slide show apparently resonated. It ricocheted literally around the world. I started receiving emails from old friends I hadn’t spoken with in years.
I also received hundreds of replies from complete strangers. Most were from people, like myself, trying to make sense of it all, or wanting to share their prayers, or just wanting connection. Some were requests to exhibit the pictures in museums, union halls, company headquarters, newpapers, books, a CD, and websites (to which I consented in all cases). Others were touching beyond description.
One was from a man who lost his brother in the attack and couldn’t bear to go down and see it; he wanted a CD of the images. Another was from a woman in Florida. Heartbroken by the loss of a friend in the attack, she closed her eyes and wrote a poem about what it must feel like to know that you will never see the person you love again (see slide 32). She shared the poem with a few friends. Somehow it ended up posted to a fence in Union Square where I photographed it and included it in the slide show. She emailed to let me know how happy she was that her words brought comfort to others.
When I think back to those days in New York following September 11th, I recall such unity and compassion. It’s now four years later, and I can’t help but feel that we’ve squandered some of the good that could have come of this senseless and terrible tragedy. Maybe that’s just human nature. Or maybe it’s a lack of leadership. I don’t know. But I really felt that America never stood taller than in the days just after 9-11.