15 years after 9/11, a message of reflection and hope in Aspen

Lauren Glendenning
The Aspen Times
Attendees at the Aspen Fire Department's annual 9/11 remembrance ceremony look at the names of emergency responders who died on 9/11. Attached to each rose — 72 white roses representing the fallen police officers on 9/11, and 343 red roses representing the fallen firefighters on 9/11 — was the photograph and name of the victims.
Lauren Glendenning/The Aspen Times |

Aspen-based photographer Andrea Booher remembers feeling hopeful in the first few days after she arrived at ground zero in New York on Sept. 12, 2001.

As one of two photographers working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency with 24-hour access to ground zero, she remembers crews working tirelessly as they dug through rubble looking for survivors.

The collective feeling of hope at ground zero eventually faded as the days went on, but it hasn’t faded for Booher 15 years after 9/11.

“I’m hopeful when I see things like this taking place and the talk of unity,” she said after Sunday’s annual remembrance ceremony at the Aspen Fire Department. “I’m always hopeful. I’m just naturally hopeful.”

Booher was one of several speakers at Sunday’s ceremony who talked about hope and unity. The speakers reminded the 200 or so people in attendance never to forget the 2,977 people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but they also focused on positive messages.

Fire Chief Rick Balentine talked of unity and empathy as a way to stop the 9/11 body count from rising. He recognized the 127 emergency responders who have died since 9/11 as a result of illnesses related to breathing in debris and dust that day. He also talked about the tragic loss of veterans, referencing a statistic that says roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day in this country.

“We must look back to remember but look forward with hope,” Balentine said. “We must never forget.”

The Rev. John Hilton of St. Mary Catholic Church, Rabbi David Segal of the Aspen Jewish Congregation and Aspen Fire Chaplain Roy Holloway all delivered remarks and prayers that remembered the fallen while also focusing on the positive. Hilton’s message was one of peace, while Segal quoted a speech by Leon Wieseltier given at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 at the Pentagon.

The speech talks about what Americans have affirmed via their mourning of 9/11.

“That we will defend ourselves, resolutely and even ferociously, because self-defense is also an ethical responsibility, and that our debates about the proper use of our power in our own defense should not be construed as an infirmity in our will, that the multiplicity of cultures and traditions that we contain peaceably in our society is one of our highest accomplishments, because we are not afraid of difference, and because we do not confuse openness with emptiness or unity with conformity,” Segal read from Wieseltier’s speech.

Lt. Col. Dick Merritt spoke of the healing that continues to this day and quoted television personality Mr. Rogers as saying, “In situations of chaos, look to the helpers.”

Balentine introduced an unexpected guest, New York firefighter Ed Mahoney, who told the crowd of his plans to ski to what he called the “comforting” 9/11 shrine on Aspen Mountain and add several plaques to it.

Booher talked of the kindness and compassion she found at ground zero in the days after the attacks. As emergency personnel searched through the debris, they looked out for one another. As she climbed around the rubble to take photographs, there always was a helping hand nearby, she said.

“For me, 9/11 has come to represent a day of honoring and gratitude,” she told the crowd.

Booher said after the ceremony that she feels blessed for not having to face the kind of post-traumatic stress that so many others who were at ground zero face. She carries with her the memories of her 21/2 months spent taking photographs at ground zero and has turned those memories into various forms of art and healing. “Hope at Ground Zero” is a photography exhibit by Booher that opened in May at the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s south tower gallery and is scheduled to run for one year. She also produced a documentary called “Portraits from Ground Zero,” in which she also stars.

Through those works, Booher is able to show the public what she saw through the lens of her camera as well as what she experienced.

“It’s impossible to describe because you had no idea what you were looking at,” she said of what she saw when she first arrived at ground zero on Sept. 12, 2001. “There was so much smoke everywhere, you’d only kind of get glimpses of an area. None of us had any idea of what we were going into.”

Booher was assigned to the search-and-rescue team, many of whom she stays in touch with today.

She has managed her way through the post-9/11 world without some of the mental and physical illness that so many others have experienced, but she’s saddened by the problems so many of her colleagues from ground zero face.

“I stay in touch with many of the first responders I worked with and so I’m really kind of up on people’s health, and I’m just seeing more and more post-traumatic stress,” she said. “I’ve been very fortunate. I have some sinus issues but no cancer or anything. It’s really hard for me to see the people I worked with so closely suffering.”