CHRISTOPH OTTO: AUTHOR AND PHOTOGRAPHER

 

New York: If wounds could heal

 

The terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York took away that which was most important for thousands of people: their family members, friends and their confidence. Over 3000 people died due to the attacks and thousands more from the consequences. The famous towers disappeared forever. After the 11th of September 2001 nothing was as it had been before. Today the place is an expression of grief and of a new beginning, with the new buildings now a tourist magnet. We met people in New York whose life took an abrupt turn on the 11th of September. This story tells of how the day changed their lives and how they have come to terms with this.

They run. But not for their lives though, like the people did the day of the attacks at this very spot in Manhattan. When the Twin Towers were in flames and shortly afterwards collapsed like a house of cards. The people participating in this memorial marathon do not run to win. What they all have in common is that they lost someone beloved on that day: A colleague, a friend, a relative. They run for themselves and in order to come to terms with the pain that their souls are still suffering even today, as if it had just happened yesterday. They have written the names of their lost loved ones and friends on the light blue stickers with their starting number on it. On almost each one there is a personal message: For my husband, for my son, for my father, for my mother, for my brother, for my friend. As the runners approach the finish line, firemen and women wave at them and cheer them on. “Great job, guys.”

One of the many who are just crossing the finishing line is Linda Maurer. She is wearing sports clothing and her blond hair is blowing in the wind. On her grey T-shirt, just below the words ”9/11 Memorial Run/Walk”, an inscription says: “For my sister Jill”. When the first plane hit the north tower, Jill was working as an office assistant in the south tower. Linda happened to be on the street in Manhattan at that time and saw the first tower burning. She knew that her sister was stuck in the second tower. Linda recalls that moment: ”The problem was that they were saying the south tower would be safe and that they should all just stay where they were.” Seventeen minutes later the second plane appeared and a few moments later it crashed into the 78th floor of the south tower, right where Jill’s office was located. ”Then I went home, but the call from her that we were all waiting for, that alleviating call – it never came“. Linda continues: “I try to push the memory to the back of my mind, rather than having it front and center all the time. But I am constantly thinking of her. I can’t get rid of these thoughts.” Then she adds softly: ”More than anything, I run for the children, including Jill’s son Jake who was only ten months old when he lost his mother. The children should learn and not forget. We have to keep the memory alive for future generations. They should to know.”

Only a few blocks away, in the middle of the placid Greenwich Village neighbourhood, stands the 18th fire station, surrounded by 19th century town houses made of red bricks. Firewoman Adrienne Walsh is sitting in the lounge, waiting for the next emergency call. Images are popping up in her mind,  memories of the attacks that happened 15 years ago. “It’s as if it happened yesterday. I can’t manage to get over it. It’s like a wound with a scab forming on it. Just when you think it has healed, you get it caught on a door. The scab gets torn off once more and it bleeds again. I know that will go on this way for my whole lifetime.”

Adrienne Walsh was actually on leave on the 11th of September, 2001. On her way to attend a training course, she drove through Manhattan when all of a sudden it started to rain white sheets of paper from the sky. She looked up and saw the north tower of the World Trade Center burning on three floors. Tongues of flame were flickering from the splintered windows. People in despair were jumping out of the upper storeys. Huge drifts of smoke were rising up into the air. Then Adrienne Walsh saw the second explosion. ”Without doubt. I knew immediately that this was the biggest tragedy I had ever seen. A catastrophe of unbelievable dimensions. I ran to my fire station as fast as I could, grabbed my gear and jumped on the fire engine. Usually we have something like six firemen on board when it leaves the station, but this day it was manned with a dozen of us. There wasn’t even enough space on the inside for all of us, so some climbed onto the roof and held on there. As we passed the city hall, the sky had gone. There was nothing but black smoke floating in the air.”

A few minutes later the firemen and women pulled up in their fire engine opposite the burning north tower. Adrienne Walsh went to fetch a respirator mask and looked up. “There was a black cloud, one hundred and ten storeys high. It turned on its own axis and rushed like a tornado towards us, at top speed. I screamed to my colleagues ‚Run!‘ but the first steel girders and concrete debris were already falling at our feet. I could not see anything, the dust and ash cloud was so dark. It engulfed us like an avalanche and slung me into a doorway. Everything happened so quickly. The 521 metre high tower collapsed in on itself within seconds. Slithers of glass and rubble shot through the air. Around us it was pitch black. It took a while until it finally got lighter. It began with dark grey, then light grey and ended white. It was deadly still, so peaceful, like it is when it snows. I knew then that nobody had survived. Everyone was dead. They turned to dust and we breathed them in. There was no one left whom we could help. And as the wind blew, we could not grasp them. They were gone.”

Adrienne Walsh stares out of the window. For a while there is silence, but then she says: “The tragedy has become a plaything of politics. Being a New Yorker I know that politics play out on the shady side. For us people it is important that we remind ourselves, and teach future generations, to respect one another. If not, we know what happens. It was hate which caused this. That is why we must teach the people to be tolerant of one another. And I am obliged to tell my story, so that the world will be a better place.”

“Ground Zero”, that is what the military calls the point of the worst destruction in a hit zone.  Indeed, the place where the terror attacks occurred resembled the death zone seen after a nuclear explosion. Thirty buildings, including the Twin Towers, as well as five other buildings belonging to the World Trade Center disappeared forever. Almost 3,000 people died in the attacks, thousands more from the aftereffects. Those who had breathed in the dust full of asbestos and dioxins first developed the Ground-Zero cough and then cancer. At least 20,000 helpers have been under treatment since the 11th of September 2001, double that number undergo regular medical health checks. In the months following the attacks, many flats and apartments could not be lived in due to the build-up of gasses and dust. “Ground Zero” had become the term in collective human memory for a mass grave and a city quarter turned into ashes, then dust.

It is raining today, as Leokadia Glogowski greets a diversely mixed group of visitors. She was born in Poland during the cold war, leaving her homeland to flee to New York. Once a week she works voluntarily for the 9/11-Tribute-Center. This is a charity which supports the surviving dependants of those killed due to the attacks and helps them to get into contact with each other. The charity’s mission is to bring together those directly effected and the visitors, in order to create a 9/11 community. Thereby the stories of those people whose life took a drastic turn on the 11th of September will be remembered and the visitors and survivors can better digest the terrible events together and learn from the past.

Whenever Leokadia Glogowski works for the 9/11-Tribute-Center, she shares her story of the 11th of September 2001 with people from all over the world, helping others and a therapy for herself. Mostly she begins her story with the smallest of things. Such as  when she says: “Early in the morning I opened my wardrobe and took a decision which a little bit later would change my life. I put the high heels back into the wardrobe and put on some comfortable shoes. It was like a seventh sense. Later every second would count. Please follow me.”

At the memorial for the dead firemen, Leokadia is walking back and forth. The group watch her. She smiles and continues: “I used to work on the 82nd floor. It was a sunny morning. There was not a cloud in the sky. It was a moment of peace and quiet, which all of a sudden was unexpectedly interrupted by a massive explosion. United Airline’s flight 175 had crashed into the building six floors above. The tower leant to the left, all the books fell out of the bookcase. I thought it would tip over. My colleague shouted: ‚Get out of here, immediately, everybody out’”. Seconds later Leokadia took her bag and opened the door to the stairwell. There was what looked like an impenetrable wall of black smoke. There were screams. There was fire. She says: “I thought, this is the end. I am going to die. I said a prayer and plucked up all my courage.” She ran down 82 storeys and when she was outside, she kept on running. Five minutes later she stopped and turned around. The south tower collapsed.

Taking quick steps Leokadia leads the group over the square of remembrance to the two water basins. She says: “I want to help other people who perhaps get into a similar situation, where you have to be strong in a moment of despair. I want to lend them courage through my story.” Then she points downwards. There where the foundations of the twin towers once stood, cascades of water are roaring down nine metres to fall onto slabs of black granite. On the floor of the pool the mass of water swirls into a dark, small basin. Even in sunlight you can only perceive a black nothing. Rising above the sides of the larger basins is a balustrade of dark bronze plating. Engraved into this are the names of the 2977 people who lost their lives in the attacks.

Deep down below in the 9/11-Museum the visitors hear the voices of women, men and children. The speakers are remembering those who they lost in the attack: “my wonderful daughter Jessica, my adorable son Jason, my father Michael Joseph Cunningham.” A few paces further on, there are photos covering the walls, images of those who were killed in the attacks. For a moment, a touch screen brings to life the voices of the victims themselves and of their relations and friends. Personal photos appear on the monitor and disappear again.

Within view of the museum entrance one finds Harry Roland’s post. Every day he calls out to the children and grown-ups in melodic rhymes: “Look and learn! Don´t say two, it´s not true! History, don´t let it be a mystery! If you don´t know, ask!“ Some call him History-Man, others simply say the man from the World Trade Center. “This day changed history, not just in America but in the whole world. Everything is different. Nothing is as it was before”, says Harry, “since then I have been standing here.” His self chosen mission is to tell the people, in particular the children, of his eye witness account of what happened, the tragedy and the aftermath of the attacks. He gives a book to children who show particular interest. Sometimes a mother will put a dollar bill into his tin as a thank you.

A few blocks on Gary Marlon Suson has set up a private museum. It is his own Ground-Zero-Museum, as large as a sitting room and inspired by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. His photos and finds from the rubble of ground zero are displayed here, it is his own personal way of coming to terms with what happened. If you ask him how the 11th of September has changed his life he answers: ”It´s so many things, which I just want to shout about”.

Gary was a fashion photographer and the museum was his former studio. Then came the 11th of September. Gary wanted to capture the events on his camera. The twin towers were very near, so he just went straight there. He hardly took any photos, he was busy helping victims and soon was alongside the fire fighters, digging. When he returned to his studio that evening, he felt ill, very ill. He had breathed in lots of dust and he began coughing. His doctor was able to help him though and soon Gary was telling the New York fire fighters where to get free treatment.

A short time later the head of the Manhattan Fireman’s Union, Rudy Sanfilippo, called Gary up. He had seen Suson’s photos and heard about his commitment to help the suffering firemen. Sanfilippo asked Gary, whether he would help document the clearing-up operation at Ground Zero on behalf of the firemen’s union. Although the commission was unpaid  Gary Suson agreed. For the next seven months he photographed the work for often up to 18 hours a day. His pictures of Ground Zero show firemen looking for human remains, clearing up, or at funerals. They show men and women at the limits of exhaustion, often with just an empty expression on their faces, the “Ground- Zero-gaze”. At night Gary Suson slept in St. Pauls Chapel. The church at the Ground Zero site was undamaged and served the firemen and the voluntary helpers as a place of sleep.

Throughout the day and night helicopters circle over the Memorial Plaza in front of the One World Trade Center in the heart of Manhattan. The building is guarded 24/7, with police vehicles posted on all four of the Plaza’s sides. It is as large as five American football pitches and is in front of the One World Trade Center. Ninety-two street lamps and their attached surveillance cameras cover the area. Glass spheres hang down at strategically important points, each containing remote-controlled cameras which can be swivelled by 360 degrees. Heavily armed anti-terror units patrol the square. Manned cabins can rise up out of police vehicles on telescopic lifts, becoming watch towers within seconds. Whilst special unit dog squads search the areas for explosives, undercover officers mingle amongst the thousands of tourists. Only the policemen disguised as construction workers are easy to spot, because their shoes are never dirty. In addition there are also the private security men in their blue uniforms, from the museum and the memorial to the 11th of September. The most expensive building in the world is also the best guarded.

The newly built plaza at Ground Zero is actually a trapezium-shaped six and half hectares large square. On this, seven World Trade Centers will be standing. Three have been completed, two are being built and two are being planned. One of the first ready was building one, finished in 2014. Its acronym is 1WTC, or “One World Trade Center”. From far afield the glass giant soars 541 metres high above the silhouette of the New York skyline. The view of it and the reflected picture in it, merge together when you look at it in the sky, so that tower seems never ending, which was exactly the intention of its architects, Daniel Libeskind and David Childs.

On each of the 104 levels, the windows reach from the floor to the ceiling. A palace of light in the middle of the financial district. Since New York took over from London as the most significant urban financial centre, the area has become the main trading centre for worldwide financial deals. This building cost four billion dollars, making it the most expensive in the world and the highest in the western world. Rising steeply and mightily it looks like the tower of a gigantic glass and steel cathedral. The One World Trade Center’s architects have built to a dizzy and impressive height, as did the master builders of any Gothic cathedral, placing everything else in its shadow and making the people feel smaller than they are. That which in former times symbolized the power of the church, today stands for New York’s and the USA’s unbroken will to never let anything or anyone get them down and to show stature. The most expensive, the safest, the highest are all superlatives which are aimed at showing that nobody here bows to terrorism.

The new buildings at the World Trade Center site, the memorial, the museum and the new tower with its viewing platform have become a magnet for tourists. A cop in front of the building says it is not a question as to whether there will be another attack, but rather when it will be. It is no wonder then, that America’s top terrorist target has been built like a fortress. The tower stands on a 51 metres high windowless plinth, built with special concrete which was developed in Germany. The skeleton holding the façade is made out of 40,000 tons of steel. Inside, 70 lifts serve the guests and staff.

In the foyer the visitors are greeted with the voices of America. Workers involved in the construction of the building speak of the “One World Trade Center adventure”. In only 47 seconds, the five fastest lifts in the western world catapult tourists and others to the viewing platform on the 102nd floor. John Urban, the manager here says: “With the new tower we are looking ahead. Our motto is ‚See forever‘. We have returned. This is New York’s rebirth.”

As soon as the lift doors open, a two minute show begins at the top in the “See Forever Theater”. Then afterwards the curtain is drawn back to reveal maybe the most spectacular of all-round views, from the top of the highest building in the western world.  Ground Zero belongs to the past. What remains are the stories of the people whose life took an abrupt turn here. For some, Ground Zero remains a place of catastrophe, for others it is the place of a new beginning, for some, it is both.