September 11: The Pivotal Moment

I can’t say at that point on September 11th at ten-fifteen in the morning I said, ‘Boom, life is different!’

I can’t say at that point on September 11th at ten-fifteen in the morning I said, ‘Boom, life is different!’

It happened so quickly and it was so unbelievable that I don’t think I had time to think about it. But I do remember feeling very alone. I was very, very much alone.

First of all there was the most incredible darkness I’ve ever experienced. Then there was the most incredible light. It made me think of people talking about the lights at the end of the tunnel being angels.

Then of course, there was a total disbelief at what I was witnessing.

Since the age of 13 I’ve always been self-sufficient. But after September 11th, a bit after 10 o’clock in the morning, and when the dust cleared, I realised that for the first time in my life I’d have to rely on someone else to get me up. I couldn’t stand. I’d also lost my glasses and without my glasses I couldn’t see anything.

In a few minutes my job changed dramatically. You’re talking to a guy that used to climb New York City bridges and take pictures; used to put on a belt and go walking down the cable.

I chased anything that was burning down or blowing up; cops, fire fighters, paramedics and the heroics that they did every day on the streets of New York — and I was nominated three times for a Pulitzer Prize for the work I did.

I now feel that there is little that’s going to cause me to yell or scream at people, or get angry or upset with things. Just about everything flies over my shoulder like water off a duck’s back.

It took me a year to get back to work. But I made it plain to the newspaper that I never ever wanted to photograph anybody who’s dead or dying again.

They’ve respected that. I now do general assignments, and food photography. There’s nothing wrong with it!

But it scares me when people say, ‘God has blessed you’, or, ‘You’ve been blessed’ — it puts a whole load of responsibility on your shoulders.

I’m wondering if this is payback for something I did in a previous life, or early on in my life; that somehow I was rewarded. I know that there were a lot of really good people — who were a lot better people than I am — who lost their lives down there.

So I guess I’m a believer in fate, I’m a believer in karma, I’m a believer in kismet, and I’m a believer in ‘it wasn’t my time to go’.

A couple of days after 9/11, my 6-year-old son turned to me and said, ‘God was with you that day. He was with you because he told the fire fighters where to find you’.

My immediate reaction was to think ‘Oh, My God, how does he come up with this type of thing’. You can’t argue with the rationality of it.

I just gave him a hug. But it did made me think that although I’m not religious it’s hard to deny that there could be some kind of a higher deity.

Even so, I just feel thankful to be here and whatever mixture of ‘right place, right time’ — I don’t know what it is.

But I also believe the moral question about religion has to be, ‘If there was a God, where was he on September 11th and why did he allow that to happen?’

For me now, it’s appreciating every moment of every day. I’ve learned to listen to people in a better way, and I’ve learned to be less judgemental.

We’re very fortunate as journalists because you’re allowed entrée into so many different places. I believe we have to tell people’s stories in a way that truthfully reflects who they are.

A couple of years ago for instance, there was a landlord who was shot in the Bronx. I got there just as the paramedics were working on him.

People on the street saw me with the camera, and told me what a good guy he was. He took care of his buildings. He also took care of his tenants. If they were a couple of weeks late with their rent, rather than throw them out, he’d stop by and ask if they were okay and to find out if he could do anything to help out.

The idea that a landlord and his tenants were getting along; that he had respect for his tenants is a pretty foreign idea!

If I’d heard that story and I gone to my editors and said, ‘You know there’s this guy in the Bronx, he’s a landlord and he’s a good guy. I’d like to do a story on him’. Do you know what they’d do? They’d laugh.

But, the minute we had a picture of him laying in the gutter, he became newsworthy. But by then it’s too late.

I think both as journalists and as people we need to have our eyes open. The way a child looks at things; that every experience is different, that every day is different, that every hour of every day is a little bit different.

All of us get jaded and close our eyes to what is going on. But I was lucky enough on 9/11 to be given an opportunity to be around for another day.

I have no goals, short or long term. I just want to see tomorrow. And, the thought of people who take their own lives is terrifying because I’ve been allowed a peek to see how precious life really is. I know it’s easy for me to say it, but I’d never put myself in a position of thinking of ending my own life.

I don’t think that September 11th just happened to me; it happened to everybody. Whether we were in Afghanistan or Iraq; Israel or the United States; Missouri or San Francisco; whether you were standing at the base of the tower or 10 miles away.

Whether we want to admit it or not, that was a pivotal moment in the world. You can’t go to a sporting event without going through a metal detector now; you can’t get on an airplane and use real silverware. I think the day will probably be looked at by historians for years as a very, very pivotal moment of mankind. It certainly was for me.