Archive of DEVOTION

In the hundreds of photographs of the missing, one sees a picture of happier times -- and the tension between hope and despair

Terrorism Strikes America

September 21, 2001|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The photographs - hundreds and hundreds of them posted across Manhattan on store windows, on the facings of buildings, on telephone booths and utility poles - capture moments brimming with whimsy and joy. A beaming father holding his toddler son in a miniature Santa suit. A youthful man with curly gray hair leaning on a golf club, a half-smoked cigar clamped between two fingers of his gloved left hand. A frosty-headed gentleman in tweed sports coat and tie posing next to an elephant. A young woman in plum-colored cap and gown, a luminous smile on her face.

Individually and as a group, the photographs testify to the exuberance of contemporary America, to familial bonds, to friendship and romance, to the passages celebrated across this land.

Yet their exhibition now, not in family scrapbooks or on fireplace mantels but along public pathways, attests to another meaning entirely. Together they create an instantaneous archaeological testament to the enormity of the tragedy visited on New York, one every bit as searing as images of the smoking, twisted remains of the World Trade Center.

The photographs, so numerous that they encircle the midtown New York Armory several times, are charged with the same power as the pictures at the United States Holocaust Museum portraying European Jewry before World War II. The poignancy of those photographs is their depiction of people who were standing on the edge of annihilation but did not yet realize it.

The photographs in New York have the same heartrending quality, showing the missing frozen in their own times of happiness. But these photographs, with their accompanying text from loved ones go one step further. They reflect hope and desperation for a providential ending that, 10 days after the terrorist attacks, has become more than remote.

"My cousin is missing in the World Trade Center disaster," one says about a 27-year-old, raven-haired woman named Joanne Ahladiots. "She works for a company called eSpeed on the 103rd floor of the North Tower, and we have not heard from her yet."

The use of the present tense seems a shield, a way to keep the worst probability at bay. A number of photos show fathers holding young children. Several implore, "Have you seen my Daddy?" One, picturing a sandy-haired 30-year-old man with his bride on their wedding day, says, "Expecting 1st child this week." It is as though the man's coming fatherhood confers on him an additional measure of worth that makes it even more critical that he is found.

All the photographs are accompanied by telephone numbers seeking information about the missing. That is why nearly all include physical description - hair and eye color, height and weight, scars, birthmarks and tattoos. Discretion is a luxury no longer afforded. One 23-year-old woman is described as having a "big chest"; another "heavy legs."

Virtually every photograph gives a location in a World Trade Center that no longer exists. "WTC Building 1. 104th floor. Cantor-Fitzgerald Agencies." "KBW Employee. Tower 2, 89th floor." "WTC 1. 83rd floor. General Telecom." The sites and company names have taken on the aura of storied battlegrounds, like those engraved in the face of the Armory: Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, the Marne, Meuse-Argonne.

The nearly unbearable aspect of the photographs is the tension between hope and memorial. The photos were posted for the purpose of finding the lost. Yet many of those who composed them could not help going beyond mere identification. "My sister Mayra was the fire warden for her office on the 103rd floor," reads one. "As the fire warden, she would not have left till she made sure that all her friends and co-workers were off the floor. Mayra was last seen Screaming To Her Co-Workers To Get Off The Floor, To Get Out Because of the Fire." It adds that Mayra, a deeply tanned woman in a pale blue slipdress, "has a 12-year-old son named Elias."

Another photo includes a lengthy biography of 35-year-old Christopher Wodenshek, the father of five children younger than 10 and one of nearly 700 employees missing from Cantor-Fitzgerald. The poster quotes his wife Ann, with whom he celebrated his 12th anniversary the Sunday before the disaster: "He's the father of the year. Loving, adoring and he even changes the diapers." The photograph of Wodenshek, a division director at Cantor-Fitzgerald, is enclosed in a heart.

Desperation is evident everywhere, both during the disaster and in the search. The text accompanying a photo of 39-year old Daniel Lopez recounts a message he left for his wife. "Liz, it's me, Dan. My building has been hit. I made it to the 78th floor. I'm okay but will remain here to help evacuate people. See you soon."

The text goes on to say, "These were my brother's last words. We have physically searched every hospital on the list provided us. He was always the type to help someone in need. If anyone has seen Daniel or knows his whereabouts, call Evelyn or his wife Liz. God Bless!!!"

Another poster, seemingly prepared by children, shows Martin J. Coughlan dressed in a tuxedo and with his arm around his wife, posed in front of a townhouse. Written in markers are a number of messages: "Dad the Great," "We Miss You," "A Hero."

And "Please Come Home."

As the days pass since the horror unfolded - days with no new survivors found - the photos and the messages remain the same, but to onlookers, the meaning changes. What seemed like slim possibility once is rapidly approaching unendurable finality. Soon, the import of the pictures will be fixed in time, an eventuality foreseen by the poster depicting Robert Fot, a missing New York City fireman.

"If you have seen him, please call," the poster implores, "or Pray for him."

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