By Peter Turnley
At 6:30 a.m. on September 12th, 2001, in the rubble of Ground Zero, I saw a fireman sitting alone, looking into the distance with an unfocused gaze. This was a look I had seen before in war zones around the world, when someone’s life compass has been shaken so profoundly that all sense of direction has become confused. They call it the thousand-yard stare. As I made several photographs of this man he looked right through me, oblivious to my presence.
I thought about the man in this picture for many years afterward. Somehow I often thought that in his gaze, I might find some clue to understanding better my own feelings and confusions related to what I witnessed inside the perimeter of Ground Zero during the night of September 11th, 2001.
Ten years ago today
On the morning of 9/11, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, the only clear thought that I had was that I needed to get there. My mind and body went on autopilot. I had to get to New York. I gathered my cameras, film, and some clothes and ran out the door and headed out.
On the way to New York City, I received a phone call from the girlfriend of my twin brother David, who is also a working photojournalist. She tearfully told me she had not heard from David for hours. Knowing him as we did, we both knew he would have gone to the center of the action. She feared the worst.
It was of course very difficult to get into the city as all of the bridges into Manhattan had been closed. It was a NATO press pass from covering the war in Kosovo that got me across a bridge from the Bronx into Manhattan. Once in, I got as close as I could to Ground Zero and then got out of my car and walked. As I walked, I encountered more and more smoke, mud, and water. At Broadway, a river of ambulances and fire trucks headed south. Suddenly there appeared a huge sprawling of mangled iron and steel and smoke and fire coming out of the ground, all clearly delineated by the night-lights.
There I encountered an intimidating police line. I didn’t want to cause a problem for anyone; I didn’t want to be in the way. So I ducked under an awning of a building, where I stayed for half an hour. Then a person wearing a fire hat and jacket with two cameras around his neck walked through the police barricade and came in my direction. I asked him if he had been making photographs; he said he had. He rolled his eyes and said with emotion that he had never seen anything like it. I introduced myself as a photojournalist. He looked at me and said, "you need to go make photographs." His words gave me courage, and I walked slowly right through the line of police without anyone saying anything.
I've never known who that person was.
I spent all night at Ground Zero, and I made photographs all night long. At one point, a nurse walked by wearing a mask. She looked at me and said, "Baby, you need a mask," and she reached to take hers off to give it to me. I didn't take it, but I will never forget the generosity of her gesture.
At about 5:30 a.m. I inadvertently fell asleep. I had sat down to rest for a short while in a building directly adjacent to Ground Zero. When my eyes opened there was light and I looked at my watch. It was 6:15. I walked downstairs and walked out into the rubble. There was still a lot of smoke, and fires were burning in all directions. One of the first people I saw was the fireman sitting in the rubble by himself looking into the distance. I raised my camera to make a photograph of his gaze, only a short distance from him. I shot several frames.
At ten o'clock that morning I felt that it was time for me to leave the zone. It wasn't easy. I walked a long way trying to find a place where I could leave the area. Eventually I came across a barricade. On the other side there were dozens of photographers, all trying to get into the zone—and one of the first people I saw among them was my brother David. We hugged; he hadn't even known that I was in New York. He had arrived at Ground Zero very early the previous day. From the look in his eyes and his expression, he didn’t need to describe further how intense his experience had been.
The fireman gets a name
Then, in 2004, out of the blue, I received an email from the fireman's girlfriend. That was the first time I learned his name—Sal Isabella.
She wrote that my photograph was the only proof anyone had that Sal, a fireman from Selden, New York, had been at Ground Zero, because he had never been able to speak to anyone about his experience. Linda wrote, "This photograph depicts what Sal tries to put into words but cannot."
I had promised to send Linda and Sal a print of my photograph, and despite my good intentions, got tied up traveling and forgot to do so. I received a second message from Linda months later telling me that she and Sal had broken up—but she asked if could I still send a print. But by the third time I heard from her, they'd gotten married! That time I made sure to have a very nice enlargement made and sent it to Sal and Linda.
By now, I felt a strong need to speak to the man you see in the photograph, so I asked Linda if I could call. When she and I spoke for the first time I thanked her for getting in touch, and asked to speak to Sal. She said to me that Sal couldn’t speak about that day and night, but that he would say hello. She also mentioned that Sal rode a Harley and that they had seen on my website that I had photographed Sturgis and Daytona for Harley, and that this might be a subject he’d enjoy speaking about.
A few seconds later a gruff, deep voice came on the phone. I said, “Hi, Sal, this is Peter, the photographer who made that photograph of you that day at Ground Zero." I told him I'd had a lot of emotions about spending that night there, and that I thought it might help me to know what he was thinking when I took that photograph.
I heard the man on the other end of the phone begin to sob, and this went on for quite a while. Then he gathered himself, and in a clear voice told me that he had lost one of his close friends there that day, Nick Chiafalo, a fellow fireman who had gone up into one of the towers and perished when it came down. He told me that he had arrived at Ground Zero during the day of 9/11 and spent the night looking everywhere for survivors.
He said had never gotten over not being able to find or help his friend Nick.
I said to him, "Sal, you need to know you are a great man and you should be so proud of everything you did." Again, he began to cry. A few minutes later, I said, "Hey, Sal, I hear you ride a Harley. What do you ride?" There was a gentle laugh and we spent a few minutes speaking about Harleys. Before we said goodbye, we agreed it would be very nice if we could meet.
Every year for the past five years, on the evening before the anniversary of 9/11, Sal and I speak on the phone. Every time we do, he invites me to come to Ground Zero on the anniversary so we can meet in person, share a drink, and honor of the memory of those who were lost that day. But I've never been able to go. Each year until this one I've been working overseas on that date.
Two weeks ago I met with Sal at Ground Zero, the first time we have seen each other face to face since that day ten years ago today when the picture at the top of this post was taken. As we hugged and greeted each other, Sal repeated many times, "this is a good day, this is a good day."
There was so much I wanted to ask him, but upon seeing him for the first time after so many years, I didn’t feel a strong need that we speak much—I felt comfort and joy at simply seeing him. After some initial words exchanged, before going to dinner together, I asked Sal if I could make a photograph of him at a memorial along the wall in front of Ground Zero. When he saw that tribute, Sal teared up and said, "those are my brothers there. I should have been with them."
I didn’t feel like a photographer with a subject at all. I felt like I was with a brother with whom I didn’t have to say much to be understood and to understand.
Sal and I went to dinner at a New York restaurant. As we were being seated, I asked for a different table, and Sal turned to me and said, "it doesn’t matter, Pete. The only thing that counts is that we're here together." It was true. Over dinner we shared with each other very sincerely and intimately the ups and downs of our lives these past ten years.
Sal is not doing very well physically, I'm sorry to say. He has serious respiratory problems resulting from having participated in recovery efforts for two weeks following 9/11, and several serious ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero. He doesn’t hide the fact that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder he thinks is particularly related to losing his friend Nick and other fellow firemen and citizens that day.
A few days ago, we spoke on the phone again, and we both commented on how wonderful it had been to see each other. At one point during the conversation, Sal got mixed up momentarily and called me Nick, the name of the friend he lost on 9/11. I didn’t deserve such an honor. Thank you Salvatore Isabella. You are my hero. Thank you to so many people! God bless.
Sept. 11, 2011
All photographs © Peter Turnley/Corbis. All Rights Reserved.
To see a memorial portfolio of Peter's photographs, "Remembering 9/11," taken on September 11th and 12th, 2001, and the days following (including several never before published) please click here. —MJ
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Bob Donnelly: "Peter, as your image of Sal the day after 9/11 is displayed on my wall at home I feel this wonderfully written update helps me understand more fully what Sal is going through. It has been three years since I attended your Paris workshop and that image I brought home had so many unanswered questions that now I feel fulfilled. I am still the safety officer on the local fire department and cannot fathom the horror that Sal and all the others witnessed. Thank you."
Featured Comment by Linda Isabella: "Peter, again we meet, albeit online. I regret that I did not accompany Sal, as his wife, for your meeting in Manhattan to share in that experience. I have also wanted to meet you in person since I called you that day in 2004. When I first came across that photo you took of Sal on 9/12/2001, it moved me like nothing else ever did. They say 'a picture paints a thousand words.' You stumbled on a moment in history that sad morning and captured the agony, not only in Sal's heart, but in everyone's.
"I may have shared this with you before, but you express yourself in photographs; I express myself in poetry.
Now I Feel American
By Linda Isabella
I never owned a flag before,
I never flew it proud,
I never felt the urge before
To sing our anthem loud.
It's not that I don't love this land,
But I never knew the pride,
And I never felt the pain of war
Or loved a soldier who had died.
It never crossed my mind to fear
That freedom could desist,
I never thought my heart would clench
Into this raging fist.
I never worried, never thought
That I would see the day
When hate would turn incarnate
To blow liberty away.
When airplanes in our friendly skies
Are cryptic, lethal bombs
That defile and annihilate,
And rape our nation's calm.
I've assumed that peace is guaranteed,
That justice never fails,
That my children won't see acts of war,
That liberty prevails.
But evil slashed America
And took it unawares;
On a sunny, still September day
A country screamed its prayers.
And as we reel from tragedy,
As every heart unites,
America will stand again
In defense of human rights.
Now I feel American
Like I never felt before,
Pure blooded, warm American
In a country I adore.
Now there's a flag pinned to my jacket,
A flag outside my door,
And a flag that flies within my heart
For freedom evermore.
"Thank you for being such a devoted friend to my husband and for recording the horrible tragedy we will never forget."