A Special 9/11 Guest Blog from Joe McNally

Photo by Mike Corrado of Nikon USA

Love and Pictures…

Around this time, during that fateful fall 12 years ago, Mike Wernick came into the Giant Polaroid studio, then on 2nd St., near the Bowery. He had walked over from his firehouse, Ladder Nine-Engine Thirty Three, tattered, dust laden bunker gear in hand. He got up on the stage we had built for subjects to stand in front of the behemoth camera known as Moby C, the 40×80, the world's only Giant Polaroid.

The camera couldn't be focused. It was the subject who had to be focused, shuffling, every so slightly, back and forth until their eyes resided within the slimmest of depths of field. The lights would go out. In the darkness, 25,000 watt-seconds of strobe flashed, like the briefest blare of the trumpet section of a mighty orchestra. Then all returned to darkness. The lights came back on.

Mike got down off the stage, and signed a release. In the comment section, he wrote, "Responded 1993 WTC, 2001 WTC, 2002 Retired." He walked out of the studio. I had shot one frame. I wasn't sure I would ever see him again.

He was a reluctant subject. He came over to the studio alone, having been deeply involved in the events of that day, and thus deeply affected, to the point of largely keeping his feelings to himself. He was unsure of the idea of a photo being taken. He wasn't interested in describing what happened, and how he survived those aching, interminable moments when two of the world's soaring structures tumbled to dust, and took nearly 3,000 souls with them.

Thus his image could not stand on the floor at Grand Central Station when the show called the Faces of Ground Zero opened. The stories out on that floor consisted of words and pictures. Without his description, his feelings, his thoughts, the searing photo I made of him that fall day would stay in a warehouse, rolled up in a dark tube.

Nuri, his wife, friend, and fierce defender, kept calling. She knew, as wives do, that being a part of this project would be a good thing for Mike, and, just perhaps, the beginnings of much needed healing. "Can you wait?" she would ask. "Can your writer call again?" Production deadlines were looming quickly. I told her that if Mike could offer some thoughts, I would guarantee he would be in the show.

She called back at the last wisp of time left. "He's ready to talk. Please have the writer call him." Melissa Stanton, one of my editors at LIFE, and the one responsible for interviewing all of the subjects in the show, talked with Mike. His story, his "caption," was the longest of anyone's.

"We were on the 27th floor of the north tower when the building shookâ”the south tower collapsing. When terrorists attack, they often do something after rescuers arrive, so we thought another plane had hit. In '93, you always felt more (bombs) were going to go off. The fear of what will happen next is a tremendous fear. We didn't run from the 27th floor, we just filtered down. Seconds after I got to the street the tower fell and I was blown off my feet. I was choking. Some guys picked me up. I went to the hospital. My lungs were filled with all that stuff. Three guys in our company did not make it out."

It was a step.

Mike's firehouse was the first of many to come by the Giant Polaroid. A grievously wounded house, having lost 10 of the 14 men who responded, they rolled the truck around to a photo studio of all places, rapped on the steel door with a Halligan tool, and asked, "Is this where you're taking the pictures?"

My response to that astonishing leap of faith, an act of trust, has been to be at the house on Great Jones Street every 9/11 morning since that blue sky day 12 years ago. I stand to the side, and pay respects. And I see Mike and Nuri, every year. And, every year, being the family documentarian, she makes a photo of the two of us.

On the tenth anniversary, at the house, Nuri gave me a package. Inside a cube, she placed a Polaroid camera, and a couple thoughts.

And, she gave me a book of the photosâ”the snaps of Mike and I throughout the last decade. At the end of the book were pictures of Mike down at Ground Zero. He had not gone there for ten years.

She said simply, "Thank you. The pictures have been important. They helped him heal. I have my Mike back."

I've been a photographer for many years, and in the natural course of a long career, have won the occasional award. Every once in a great while, I've even been asked to stand at a podium and accept a glass block, or a piece of brass carved into an eye, or some such thing. Nice enough, and, like a quick visit to the chiropractor, it makes you feel better. That feeling is quite temporary, and by and large, unimportant.

What is important, and lasting, through all this frenetic clicking and flashing, for all these years, are the feelings, and the power of memory, contained, or prompted, by a picture.

Photography, as has been said, can be a mirror, or a window. In this case, for me, it has been the latter, opened just a bit, onto the lives of two truly special, heroic people. My camera has just occasionally stood in service to their amazing love of each other, and their powerfully meaningful lives. The occasionally awkward, uncertain walk one takes with a camera in hand can, at improbably important, tough, or even desperate moments, intersect with such people.

The book of snaps Nuri gave me means more to me than any photo award ever could. In that single flash of light 12 years ago, there was trust offered, and hopefully, returned. They gave me a gift I can never really repay. I happened on them at the worst of moments, and the simple nature of my picture taking over the years has seemed a small thing to give back, by comparison.

I’m proud to know them, and to be witness to their deep and abiding love. I’m grateful the carrying of a camera made that happen. I remain proud to be a photographer. If we walk the world with open eyes and an open heart, the telling of such wonderful stories remains possible. The thought of that is enough, really, to take the cameras and put them on my shoulders every day.

Mike officially retired from FDNY. He and Nuri together run Rising Wolf Motorcycle Parking Garage, on the lower east side of NYC. It’s an amazing facility, filled with fancy, fast, two wheeled dream machines.

More, as they say, tkâ¦..


You can see more of Joe’s work at JoeMcNally.com, and more on this project at FacesOfGroundZero.com, and follow him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Instagram.

  1. After reading your story I find that I can’t take my eyes off your photograph (I assume its yours) of Nuri and Mike on the motorcycle… Wow….Talk about the perfect ending shot for their story!!

    Not because of the bike..heh … but because their faces reflect the ending of this chapter of their lives you’ve presented us….

    Thanks for sharing


  2. Thank you for reminding us that our best piece of photographic equipment is our heart. It is clear that the project, the photos and the people you met as a result of 9/11 will be with you forever. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

  3. Time and time again, I can’t decide if Joe is a better writer than a photographer. As powerful as his photos can be, sometimes the words that he writes are much more. Thanks for sharing this story with us!


  4. So nice to temporarily quiet all the noise about gear, technique, costs, etc., and just focus on the powerful emotional effect photography can play in our society. Thanks Joe.

  5. That has to be the best award I have ever heard of! Thanks to my following you and your work now for several years, the one thing that sticks in my mind every time I press the shutter is, is this photo going to mean something to someone? I think that’s a great lesson for every photographer to learn. Thanks again for sharing!

  6. You are Joe, at your core, a storyteller and do so both in words and photos with elegance and reverence. Thank you for what you have brought to life with all your work.

  7. Joe, thank you for being you. It is truly your humbled amazing heart that is the core behind your success and talent that inspires and educates with grace, humility and utmost respect. You have had an amazing life and opportunities despite the challenges of being a photographer in the field to truly change peoples’ lives. You do not take this for granted and despite the volume of communications and accolades from your adoring fans, I do hope this finds its way to you and if even for a second, makes you smile back. You deserve it. The most important thing of all is life. Live it with no regrets. Deepest regards!

  8. Thank-You…for the shared moment in time. Touching and Heartfelt….
    Your words and thoughts Joe,brought to life through the portrait photo images, reflect the emotion of humanities core…

  9. Joe, I was in your class yesterday in ST. Louis so I knew that this was coming. Sat right up front and was one of the three that you used for the computer picture.(To your right). You showed real class as an instructor and after reading this I am even more in awe of you. This made me tear up as I was taken through the journey of this event and what it means to you and to those that you had the opportunity to photographic for this. You do deserve the accolades for this project as you are the one man out front. Simplu ….
    Thank you,
    phil burt

  10. Thank you Joe for sharing this story, I was a firefighter in a small town and now a photographer so I do have a great understanding, like so many, of what you have shared.

  11. Kudos to Scott for sharing Joe’s guest blog here! Joe, when we briefly met in Madison, WI, a couple of years and many frames ago, I told you that I had nearly lost my only brother that day at The Pentagon. I remain in awe of your Sept 11th blogs still. Yes, the very thought that people would allow those like us, with a camera, into their lives at deeply emotional moments, often troubled moments, is a truly humbling thought. Your blog honors Mike & Nuri, and all like them who seek a way to hold it all together when part of their world has crumbled. Thank you.

  12. Thank you Joe for sharing this wonderful story and thank you for reminding me to carry that camera – you never know when that mirror, window or perhaps a door will open and you get to take a moment in time and make it timeless with such meaning.
    Fantastic image of Mike and Nuri on their bike; even more fantastic combined with this emotional story.

  13. Thanks Mr. McNally for sharing this wonderful personal story about one of the brave men who was there to help those in need. I pray we will never forget that day and those that lost their lives and those that saved so many more.

  14. Joe ~ Thank you for sharing this touching story. It brought tears to my eyes. This is such a hard day for so many people, but stories like this help. I remember going to Grand Central to see your images, I knew several people that you photographed. It was a cold Saturday in January (the last week end of the show), it was awesome to see those images in person.

  15. Haven’t commented in awhile… This story reminds me how important it is to stop and share a few words… It also reminds me of one of the many reasons why I love ‘ya Joe! Thanks for the words, sentiments and power of your windows and mirrors! You’ve touched more (influenced and enhanced) more lives than you’ll ever know!

  16. A terribly sad story with a happy ending for some. Your stories stay with me Joe, to remind me why I’ve always had a camera with me, why I look to connect with those I make pictures of. Never forgetting the power of a picture, worth nothing to one and the most precious to another. It’s a pity I hear very little of those who died in the London bombings, those brave people who helped each other through it, all the emergency personnel who rushed to assist in any way they could with little thought of their own safety. I suppose it’s happening all over the world, just about all the time. When I see an ambulance rushing to or from an emergency, I say a little prayer, hoping it’s nothing too serious.
    Thanks for sharing Joe, may the brave and selfless be remembered.

  17. Just finishing your book “Sketching Light”. Quite often, while sitting alone in restaurants having lunch, I would burst out laughing to your funny sense of humour and getting stares from other patrons. And this post has shown me your humanity…thanks for sharing.

  18. I dread this day every year.. I can still smell that burnt air.. and see all the faces of people lining up to submit items for DNA, whilst I clung to my best man’s wife in that line up.. He was gone that morning, and the Christmas we planned together.. We’ll have to make it in the next life. Gone is my life long friend.

    In reading Joe’s words here.. It brings you back to the insurmountable suffering and sacrifice so many people made on that day.. and for many many days after. Having the will to capture these moments, when so many people were lost and wondering. Some hopeful, and some trying to come to terms with what they knew was loss. Must have been very difficult for Joe and the people he encountered the days following.. But we have these images to show and remind us of so much.

    The humanity, selflessness, sorrow and ultimately, the way we as humans deal with life and all it can throw at us. I have seen some of these pieces, and it’s the eyes that tell the tale for me.

    Thank you Joe for doing what you do… and sharing your slice of time as seen, as only you could, for us all.

  19. I knew I wouldn’t be able to read this yesterday…almost every single
    time when Joe writes about things emotional, I find myself choking
    up…compounded with the ache that still exists from that fateful day, I
    knew I’d be a blubbering mess if I read this in the basement cubicle of
    my day job…so I put the courage suite on and read it today…I
    sometimes think Joe is as good a writer as he is photographer in how he
    pulls in a reader or viewer of his work…and sometimes a little more
    than I’m comfortable with (in a good way).

  20. I met Mike and Nuri over ten years ago at the firehouse on Great Jones Street. I was there from San Diego to pay my respects to the memory of Lt. Kevin Pfeifer, whose name I wear on my 9/11 bracelet. Mike and Nuri welcomed me, gave me a tour of the house and showed me the commemorative Honda Four they were auctioning for the benefit of the fallen. (It might have even been on the same day that Joe appears in the blog photo with Mike and the bike.) I was honored to be there in the presence of the heroism and sacrifice that is palpable at the firehouse; to meet Mike and shake his hand; and to make the acquaintance of his wonderful, devoted wife, Nuri. The photo we took together with the FDNY bike is something I see every day, a constant reminder of the powerful spirit of this beautiful couple in the face of unimaginable tragedy.
    Thanks for a great blog entry, Joe.

  21. Oh my G-d…It brought tears to my eyes, and chills to my body. A sad and beautiful true story, about two very beautiful individuals. Thanks for caring, thanks for sharing.

  22. So many were affected that day. I was on the 39th floor of the Citicorp Building that day facing downtown and watched as the second plane went in and then the panic began in the building I was in as there were un-accaounted for planes. I crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge on September 11th this year on my way home from a motorcycle trip – just like I had 13 years ago in escaping New York and all of the thoughts of that day flooded in along with the sadness of all who were far more affected – as Michael was – on that terrible day. May we as a country never have to experience a day like that ever again

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