Portraits from Ground Zero, captured by an Aspen photographer
September 8, 2011
ASPEN – Pearl Harbor. Kennedy’s assassination. 9/11.Each generation bears its crucible; each of us remembers where we were on 9/11.We have our stories, our memories. The parking garage in Hoboken, N.J., full of cars that sat unclaimed for months. The midtown sports bar lined with shots for the men and women who walked in, their clothes covered in dust. Stories can change through the telling. The camera, however, pauses history, allowing us to remember and pay our respects. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Aspen-based photographer and filmmaker Andrea Booher was in a crummy motel room in the small town of Roosevelt, Utah. She was there to photograph goats.”They have these goats that would go out and scarf up the underbrush, using them for fire mitigation. I hadn’t seen the news, but I immediately started packing. I knew I would be doing something. I didn’t know what.” The next call came from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association), with orders to get to Denver. They were assembling a team for New York City. Booher has been documenting disasters for FEMA for the past 20 years. First assignment: L.A. riots. Second: Hurricane Andrew. Since then, she has covered every major disaster in the U.S. Blizzards, droughts, flooding, tornadoes. At this writing, she was documenting President Obama’s visit to the victims of Hurricane Irene in Paterson, N.J.Ten years ago, Booher got back to Aspen as fast as she could. “I go through fire training every year and train with urban rescue teams, so I have the hard hat, boots – all the fire gear. I packed up and drove to Denver.”If it wasn’t for Ed Conley, FEMA external affairs officer, who recognized the importance of getting a documentation team to the site, Booher might not have made that trip. The historical perspective, amounting to 9,000 photographs, would be lost to us. “In hindsight, of course you think you’re going to need photography and video,” said Booher. “But at the moment, when it’s happening, often there are more important things. You think about getting to New York. Search teams were already on their way.”By luck, the owner of the New York Giants had a jet that was grounded in Denver. He was there for the Monday Night Football game. Typically he leaves after the game, but that night he stayed. When the terrorists attacked on 9/11, all planes were grounded.The owner of The Giants called FEMA. Whatever was needed, search dogs, blood, a team, he would get it to New York as long as they could get FAA clearance.”It was incredibly bizarre to be one of the only planes flying that day,” Booher recalled. “When we flew by the Great Lakes a couple of fighter jets flew up next to us, checking us out. There was a woman on the plane who was involved with the NFL. Her husband worked on the 101st floor in one of the towers. She hadn’t heard from him since the day before. She was sure he was one of the walking wounded. It was surreal. We’re on this jet flying to New York and they’re serving us orange juice and croissants. But at the time, we didn’t know anything.”As one of only two photographers allowed unlimited access into what rescue workers called “the pile” – the giant, twisted mass of smoking rubble the media had renamed Ground Zero – Booher would spend the next 10 weeks documenting the ironworkers, firemen, relief workers and a Franciscan friar as they attempted to rescue bodies.”It’s different covering an event that is created by man,” Booher said. “It makes you feel sick to your stomach. So much loss, so unnecessary. There is no preparing. Natural disasters can’t be prevented, but they can be mitigated. All I had seen was what we had all seen – the repeat of the two planes. I had no idea what my role would be and what I would experience.”At Ground Zero, she met Richie Parker, the safety officer from The Massachusetts Task Force One, who would be her guide. “I thought Richie and I spent weeks together at Ground Zero. But after going back through my images, I realized it was only days. Intense days.” Booher said. “I first walked onto the pile with him. He got me accustomed to that landscape, that world. You couldn’t just be a photographer wandering around. You had to be with a team. You were there for a mission. You were either in the debris conga line passing buckets (“The Bucket Brigade”) or you were searching or putting out fire. The Massachusetts Task Force One let me be a part of their team.”Throughout the 10 weeks at Ground Zero, Booher had a tiny, green book she kept in her pocket. She made a note of each person she met; each photograph she took.The notes in the green book were oblique; sometimes cryptic. Entries such a “3 guys at void. Night.” Other times a word, such as “nozzle,” would provide a clue. One of her favorite photographs depicts three men, one behind the other, wielding a fire hose. The fireman in front looks back. He is holding onto the nozzle. She knew the men were from Brooklyn. Years later, it was all she needed to find Thom Prin. Ironically, this photo ended up on the desk of a Los Angeles casting agent, landing Prin a bit part in Oliver Stone’s movie, “World Trade Center.””Thom was probably affected the most because he lost so many firefighters and friends,” Booher said. “He’s a third-generation firefighter. It goes deep. He was working twenty hours a day for months and months. He just wanted to bring back anything; any closure he could for the families.” “The clock was ticking,” Booher said. “It was everybody’s mission to find survivors. I really came to know my personal boundaries, emotionally and physically. We all pushed every boundary because we thought there would be survivors. But there weren’t any after 9/12.”
Twelve people were rescued after the collapse. The last person to be rescued was a woman on the morning of Sept. 12.Booher needed closure as much as anyone. She too would suffer. For months she had “search dreams.” “I would spend my nights looking for something. I would wake up exhausted every morning having never found whatever it was I was looking for. Once, while I was editing photos, the visuals triggered a scent. I could smell that acrid smell at Ground Zero through my condo. It was such a distinct smell. I never had that happen before. It was very strange.”Six months after 9/11, Booher and Michael Rieger, the other photographer allowed access, sent more than 700 photo CDs to those they met at the site. “I recognized early on, halfway through the first day, how important those photos would be to those people later,” she said. “There was no way I could have left and walked away with these images not knowing anything about them. It would have felt like taking.”I probably sent out over 450 CDs myself,” Booher said. “Search crews, firemen, anyone who had a name. Maybe I didn’t have them in a photograph but I had contact with them. I didn’t hear from anyone but I knew they got the photographs. There was a sense of closure sending out those images. I knew I had the only record of them being there and their role at such a significant historic event. No one had cameras. Some people smuggled them in, but for the most part, no one had cameras. You weren’t allowed.”After the first-year anniversary, Booher put everything away. “It was self preservation. I had to move beyond it or you just keep living it.””I’ll always remember the hands reaching out to help you. Fires were still burning. You had to be careful crossing beams, climbing up a pile, side-stepping voids. It wasn’t just me. Everyone treated everyone that way. Ultimately you knew you were on your own, yet there was a real sense of looking out for one another, a kindness.”She put the images in a box and tucked them away, until last year. “I started thinking about the stories, the people. The first thing I did was pull out the green book,” she says. “I kept reading the names. I could picture these people. I wondered, what are they doing now? How do they feel about their experience? I didn’t know if they would be dead or alive. But I wanted to find them. I could find them. I wanted to hear their stories.”The seeds for the A&E documentary, “Portraits from Ground Zero,” which was initially called, “The Green Book,” were planted.
On Saturday, Sept. 10, a two-hour special featured the people Booher met at the site. Eleven subjects, including a firefighter searching for the body of his life-long friend, a teenage girl mourning her stepfather and a Franciscan friar ministering to the dead, share their compelling, personal stories. “To make this documentary and see all of these people I have been thinking about for years is incredible,” Booher said. “Their reactions were wonderful. All of them felt honored to have helped in whatever way they could. For the most part, it’s positive.” She then pauses for a moment.”When I come back to Aspen after these kinds of events, I need a few quiet days being alone,” Booher added. “You have to. You can’t cover tragedy after tragedy and expect to have any balance in your life. The day I feel like some small flood event in Iowa or what somebody is going through, whether it be big or small, doesn’t matter, is the day I don’t want to do this job anymore. If you don’t have that balance and you just keep going and going, I can see how, as a journalist, you can get jaded. It’s very important that that never happens.”
Booher’s work from 9/11 was published in magazines, newspapers and documentaries worldwide. She is currently a member of a Caribbean Hurricane Response team. Current projects include a documentary series proposal on Native American Indian stories, a Language Revitalization project with the Cree tribe on the Rocky Boy reservation in Northern Montana and a World Heritage Site photography project with Our Places and UNESCO.When Booher is not working for FEMA, her travel and environmental profile photography is represented by Getty Images. Her international assignments have included photographing the war in Somalia, the Flying Doctors of East Africa, and United Nations projects in India and Africa. Her work has been exhibited in the Smithsonian, Corcoran, Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography and featured in numerous publications including National Geographic, TIME, Newsweek, LIFE and The Atlantic, to name a few.
“Portraits from Ground Zero,” (88 minutes) which aired Sept. 10, will also be screened Sunday at 5 p.m. at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. Admission is free. Booher is scheduled to attend and conduct a conversation with the audience after the screening.