I walked around the corner on that October afternoon, still shaken from what I had just seen.
The six of us, still just college students, were reunited with our professor and our tour guide for the day to gather our cameras and tripods – the gear for our documentary shoot.
The New York City police officer that had been our escort handed each of us an American flag pin. He told us to never forget. We promised we wouldn’t.
We posed for the picture below. Then we went our separate ways.
It was October 2001. We had just walked through Ground Zero.
It was a surreal scene and opportunity. The six of us who were students at Robert Morris College (soon to be University) had piled into two vans and driven to New York from just outside Pittsburgh where a large group of us were working on a documentary, filming random citizens’ reactions to the events of Sept. 11.
We had already been to Washington D.C. – on Sept. 15, just four days after the attack. Another group of students had been to Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 had crashed in an open field.
New York and Ground Zero was the only place left. So we went.
After taking the train into the city early that morning, we had spent the day wandering the city, talking to random folks. It was amazing how willing people were to talk to us. People simply wanted to talk, even five weeks later. We became the outlet of their frustration, their fears, their sadness.
After what had already been a long day – and after our professor had left us to head toward Ground Zero – we got a phone call from our professor.
Get to Ground Zero as quickly as possible.
So, we finished up what we were filming, headed to the subway and came up on Broadway, just a couple blocks from the site.
And we were completely overwhelmed. The sights. The fences. The memorials. The people. The smell.
We set up our cameras and literally had lines of people waiting to talk with us. It was a surreal scene.
Then our professor came over and told us we were going to have the opportunity to go beyond the police fence and see the destruction first-hand. We had to leave all of our cameras behind. All we could take in was ourselves.
We left everything in a pile, which our professor stayed behind to watch. And we headed in, past the fences, past the police tape, led by our NYPD escort.
We walked down the street. We saw the rubble. The smell was even stronger than it had been on the other side of the fence. We saw the last wall standing. We saw the beams that formed the cross-like shape, the cemetery that was covered in ashes and soot, the nearby buildings with the windows blown out, the giant hole in the ground where the subway station once stood.
But we also saw the workers, diligently continuing their efforts through the difficult situation. The beeping of heavy equipment moving. It sounded like a construction site.
After just a few minutes – but what seemed like hours – we walked around the corner and headed back out to civilization.
Shortly after taking that photo, we grabbed our equipment and headed to the Staten Island Ferry for a boat ride. We needed an emotional break.
It’s interesting now, 11 years later, how things change with that photo. Now I notice the exhaustion on our faces. The fear and disbelief of what we had just seen moments before. The stoic face of the officer – whose name I don’t remember – after changing all of our lives.
Yes, I’m thankful I had the opportunity to see what I saw, to smell what I smelled, to have ashes in my hair. It was horrific. But seeing it first hand was life-changing.
I have no physical documentation of what I saw that day. I don’t need it. Eleven years later, it’s just as vivid today in my mind as it was then.
But I do have that American flag pin. And I’m wearing it today. In honor of my documentary colleagues at Robert Morris, whose lives were all changed by the “America Talks” experience. In memory of all those who lost their lives on that day that will never be forgotten. In honor of those who continue to serve every day.
And in honor of this anonymous police officer, who offered a small token and the only physical memento, other than this photo, that I have from that experience.