What, you thought you were done with me so quick? Every project has to have an ending, right? While it was an honor for me to be the eyes for the masses, I'd be lying if I said it was joyous to go there all the time. As I stated before, Ground Zero is hallowed & sacred ground. Each day I was there was a reminder of the horror of September 11th. The more things I was forced to see, the more I was deeply affected. Seeing your fellow man desecrated can bring about anger in anyone.
in contrast, it was a blessing for me to work side by side with the recovery teams.
Everyone worked very hard at Ground Zero and nobody ever complained, but it was
the FDNY that impressed me most. I watched daily as firefighters looked for their
missing brothers and civilians. I once saw a courageous FDNY widow stand in the
honor guard at Ground Zero, saluting her best friend's fallen FDNY son while her
husband remained missing. It was one of the best photos I "never took."
All anybody wanted was to bring their loved one home so they could have a respectful
and well-deserved farewell. All you had to do was speak for a minute to a firefighter
at Ground Zero to have seen the care in his eyes and his passion for what he was
doing. When a civilian was found, the firefighters & Port Authority Police
paid as much attention to being gentle and thorough as though the victim were
their own relative. One of my favorite photographs is of a team of eight firefighters
gently tucking in the flag around a civilian victim's body before the civilian
was carried away to an ambulance. I was there; I watched and shot as these big,
husky firefighters turned into gentle giants, giving 100% respect to the fallen
One night I was sitting and icing an injury to my heel. My injury was called "Plantar Fascitis." No fun. Every fireman who walked past me stopped and said "Are you okay? What happened? Need anything?" I was shocked at first that they gave even any notice to me, but as time went by, I learned that this is who they are. It's a part of them...To help people. That's why they didn't think twice about running into the burning Towers to try and rescue people; and that's why so many of these Heroes are gone. "HERO": It's a word that was used quite frequently during September 11. The dictionary definition of a hero is the following: "Somebody who commits an act of remarkable bravery or who has shown great courage, strength of character, or another admirable quality. " Some people grew tired of the word, but you know, IT'S TRUE. They really were heroes. I often felt about 5 inches tall when chatting with them down in the hole while we worked. Comparison is a bad thing and we all had our own little mission to do in relation to helping in the name of 9/11. The fire chiefs taught me how to dig for human remains and that was an entirely different experience altogether. It made things "real" quite fast. They also taught me to look for & identify victim's personal identifiable belongings, which were always given to fire chiefs or PAPD so one day the families could view them. We would often find "remnants", which were pieces of the towers. Unfortunately, if it wasn't a victim's identifiable belonging or something needed to prove a case against the Taliban, it was discarded. As I did when I was a child, I often shot things close-up. I was intrigued by the remnants as I thought they told a story, even if it was a golf ball, a calculator, office carpeting, a muddied rag doll, a cell phone, WTC window glass, a shoe, a stairwell sign or any one of the many odd things we'd find. I would often shoot these items and one day I began asking permission to salvage these items from being thrown away so they would compliment my images in which most of them appear. Luckily, the attending fire chiefs would say "yes" and so I saved and stored them. One day I hope to display them with my images in an exhibit. I think they will touch people and bring everyone into our world of the "Recovery."
volunteers were amazing. They came from all over the USA, sometimes just for a
one-day shift as a helper. Their kindness was heart-warming. When we would walk
into St. Paul's Church, we'd be smothered with kindness and, "Can I get you
anything?" LOVE ruled within those historical Church walls during the Recovery.
Many good-hearted, loving souls came through there and gave of their hearts to
support the rescue/recovery workers. ...Letters from children all over America
adorned every open wall. Their innocent letters could bring us to tears if we
let them. Most of the letters ended in a simple line: "I'm sorry your buildings
fell down...We Love you..." Often times the children would wrap candy bars
with special letters filled with words of encouragement. Children's innocence
is what's so moving. It was comforting to know they were not fully comprehending
the horror of what happened. One day they will learn what happened. One day, I
was standing outside St. Paul's Church, chatting with a friend. There was a huge
line of people waiting to stand on the viewing platform which overlooked the World
Trade Center site. People came from all over the world to stand and wait for just
a short glimpse of Ground Zero. I was touched by this and as I turned to walk
into the Church, this adorable, little 6-year-old girl caught my attention. She
was standing with her parents who had traveled from Ohio. I was utterly filthy,
wearing my mud-caked overalls while my respirator was hanging from my neck. I
did't know why until later what my impetus was for approching her. I walked over,
kneeled down on one knee so I was eye-level with her and said, "Hello there,
sweetheart. Do you know why you are standing in this line?" Her mom &
dad clearly saw I was a recovery worker and stood silent. She said in this angelic
voice, "Well, umm..your buildings fell down because of bad people..and I
want to see if I can see anything.." My throat began to swell from emotion
and so my words were limited. I said, "That's right..very BAD people..but
I think it's nice that you have come here today..it shows that you care..."
I reached into my back pocket and pulled out a chunk of 3/4-inch thick World Trade
Center glass, which was very rare to find. Less than 1% of the 42,000 windows
remained; it all turned to powder on 9/11 and was known at the site as the one
thing that no one could ever find. I was always photographing the dirt & remnants
and developed a keen eye for glass; even very small pieces. I looked up at the
parents for a second and they had a glazed look in their eyes. So, I was holding
this dirt-laden piece of glass and said to her, "I want you to hold your
hand out because I have something very special and important for you. I want you
to promise to always safeguard and protect this because it's very special."
She looked back at her parents who motioned for her that it was okay for her to
open her palms out and recive this gift. This little girl, dressed in a pretty
Sunday dress, outstretched her arms and cupped her hands and I placed this piece
of WTC window glass (it wasn't sharp) into her hands. I said, "This is very
rare and special and I want you to promise me you will always treasure this. I'm
giving this to you because you cared enough about the people who died to come
here today." Her parents seemed quite emotional and touched. The little girl
said, "thank you" with her eyes wide open. Her parents thanked me and
I walked away, looking back at her as she studied the glass. I later realized
that she touched me because her innocence represented the complete opposite of
what I was seeing every day down in the "hole", which was the result
of evil people. She reminded me that there was still something pure and good in
this world. Weeks later, I received a beautiful, crayon picture of the sun shining
that she had drawn for me. On the picture she wrote, "Dear Mr. Suson: Thank
you for the beautiful piece of glass. I will always treasure it - Hannah."
Needless to say, when I received this, I cried.
I was shooting, my thick skin came on. I tried to emotionally hide behind my lens
because it was a little safer there. I attempted to block out the horrors and
focus on what my job was. It was not always easy. I was not trained for wartime
photography, which is what this was. Many mornings I awoke in Trinity Church and
said, "I can't do this anymore. It's too much". But I realized quickly
that there was noone else down there documenting, except for one man, Joel Meyerowitz,
an archive photographer from the Museum of the City of New York who came down
every so often with a giant view camera and took stills of the ever-changing architecture.
We had two different agendas. Nobody was documenting the emotions in the hole
or was permitted side-by-side with firefighters digging except me. The NYPD and
FDNY headquarters had photographers but I rarely, if ever, saw them at Ground
Zero. So, I stayed & persisted and tried to capture the dramas that unfolded
each day. If I didn't do it, then I figured history would be lost. So, all whining
aside, I am grateful that I had this honor to shoot these historical moments and
recoveries each day. The magnitude of that giant hole goes well beyond the 17
acres of land. To stand there and gaze, which most workers did on their short
breaks, was a pointless task. Why? Because just as it was on September 11th, It
was incomprehensible for our senses. As I often gazed about the ruins, I realized
there was no conclusion to this. I wanted one, but there was none. Taliban killed,
terrorists arrested, bank accounts frozen - Yes, it all builds towards a safer
future but the bottom line is we can never bring back all the people who perished
at The World Trade Center, The Pentagon, at Shanksville and on those airplanes.
We are faced with the grim reality of taking a big gulp and trying to move forward. All we can do is remember each of these Heroes. Remember the Pilots, Passengers & Flight Attendants who boarded those planes that morning of the 11th with the simple goal of reaching their destinations. Remember the Wall Street Brokers who kept our economy going strong - the busboys at Windows on the World who worked so hard for little pay but hoped one day for a better life - the janitors who made the marble shine - the secretaries and clerks that ran the front desks of all those offices - the mail room workers - the bike messengers who were dropping things off at WTC and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time - the visitors from numerous states who were assembled for a breakfast conference at Windows on the World and probably wanted to visit Chinatown & Times Square during their trip to New York - the security guards who tried to always keep the Towers safe - the government workers and interns at the Pentagon who had no idea what would happen that morning when they swiped their I.D. cards - Trade Center workers like Jimmy Quinn, a 24-year-old victim who used to beam with pride when he told his friends how he loved working in the North Tower. So many people - so many cultures - so many stories - so many races. So much loss. It is and will always be incomprehensible. One story that always breaks my heart is that of Andrea Haberman, a 24-year-old woman who worked for Carr Futures on the 92nd floor. She worked for Carr in Chicago and was transferred to New York City, which she was excited about. The morning of September 11, 2001, was Andrea's first day at work and she arrived early to impress her bosses. She arrived at 8AM sharp and 46 minutes later American Airilines flight 11 smashed into her Tower. She had no chance at escape as that first plane severed all the stairwell exits. Her parents, Gordon & Kathy Haberman of Wisconsin never had a chance to speak to their daughter that morning. Yes, it is an emotional story and there are many more like it. It humbled me.
day in February, 2002, after work, I went to have a beer with Tommy, a 62-year-old
firefighter working at Ground Zero. On our way to Brady's Bar, we walked past
a street and he stopped. He said, "Gary, you see this street here? I will
never forget it - it was soon after the South Tower had collapsed & everyone
was running." Tommy pointed, "Right over there was a little old lady
lying on the ground with a piece of the airplane landing gear beside her. It had
struck & killed her. She was gone & I had to try & help others who
were still alive; I mean there was no saving her, Gary. But, I could not leave
her side, Gary - I just couldn't do it..I stayed until an ambulance came and got
her out of there.." Well, I think that story says alot about the heart of
a firefighter as well as all the rescuers that morning.
I recieve many emails and I try to answer them on my off time. Some questions I get include, "What was it like when you realized the Bible page was Genesis 11?" My answer is: I cried. I wept harder than I have ever wept. The symbolism represented to me that God was watching over the victims when they perished. It also was a sign for me to carry on with my photographic duties. I also get asked, "What was it like when you found someone?" the answer is: It was nice to know that one more family would get their loved one home...I also get asked, "What was it like down in the PATH subway stations under Ground Zero?" The answer is: Scary, scary and scary! It was dark, cold and unforgiving down there. It was slimy so you had to watch your step or you would fall. Twisted metal and glass and debris was everywhere so you had to look where you walked. I always traveled down there between 1AM- 6AM because the digging machines high up above in the site weren't as active during these hours which meant there was a lesser chance of a secondary collapse on my head. It was highly dangerous down there; a real no-man's land. The last subway cars from the morning of 9/11 sat down there like prehistoric animals on the crushed train tracks...and lastly, another question is, "How is it you were the one who got to do this job?" And my answer is: I was arranging free health care for sick firefighters in October of 2001 with an environmental specialist in Long Island, NY. I was a liason between the firefighters and the doctor. One day, my path crossed with Rudy Sanfilippo, the UFA Manhattan Trustee who thanked me for my efforts to help and also inquired about my photo website which someone had told him about. He viewed it and felt is was tasteful and well-done. He called me into union headquarters where he outlined the rules for me if in fact I would like to shoot on behalf of the fire union at Ground Zero. He wanted the families to have a record of the Recovery. I said, "Yes" and the rest is history. I was to remain a "secret" to the media until the Recovery was over. They were not to know there was an official photographer until May of 2002. When people say "Wow, what an opportunity," I always respond with: "No, it wasn't an opportunity...It was an HONOR and a PRIVILEGE."
I hope that SeptemberEleven.net, while only a small portion of my work, gives you a deeper understanding of my experiences there at Ground Zero and in turn can help you heal. A special thank you to my mother and father, Sharon and Morry Suson, for putting a camera in my hands at age 13 so I would have a hobby to focus on. Also, a special hello to all my friends in Barrington, Illinois, the great City of Chicago, Austin, Texas and Highland Park, Illinois. Our new Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has an enormous task ahead of him as the new Mayor for our wonderful city, but I am quite confident he will do an excellent job at leading us through rough waters & back into greatness. Lastly, a very warm thank you to my special friends in the F.D.N.Y. who are slowly recovering from the tremendous loss of friends and family. I hope to go back into acting soon and will always treasure this experience to contribute to the Recovery efforts surrounding our nation's worst tragedy. God Bless America.
© 2001 Gary Suson, Inc. All Rights Reserved