Photos chronicle a day in aftermath of collapse

Exhibit: With `September 12th,' Bill Keokosky hopes to provide a sense of comfort after the violence in New York.

October 22, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Have you been there yet? Did you see it?

The world these days seems divided into two camps: those who have gone to "ground zero" in New York and seen the area where the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists Sept. 11, and those who haven't.

For the latter, a temporary exhibit that has opened in Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station brings the devastation home.

"September 12th" is the title of the photographic display and memorial that shows what lower Manhattan looked like shortly after hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing thousands.

One of the first public exhibits outside New York or Washington to mark the terrorist attacks, it occupies an area usually reserved for merchants. It was conceived by two men who took part as volunteers in the cleanup and rescue efforts in the days after Sept. 11. More than 50 others, including numerous Amtrak employees, helped put the exhibit together or contributed services.

The exhibit features several dozen color photographs of the World Trade Center area taken by one of the volunteers, Bill Keokosky, a 57-year-old contractor from Ithaca, N.Y. He went to the World Trade Center site with a friend, Jim Audley, director of special projects for Amtrak, who lives outside Philadelphia.

For 20 hours, the men helped clear debris from the site. Keokosky took photographs during breaks, using an inexpensive "point and shoot" camera he brought along. His images represent a sort of "Day in the Life of Ground Zero" series, as seen by those working there.

"The idea is to bring it home to people who haven't seen it in person," Audley said. "People just worked in silence. Fire chiefs and police officers and volunteers, side by side. Everybody was equal. We wanted to convey this sense of people coming together and working through this tragedy."

An attention-grabbing aspect of the exhibit is the way the photographs are mounted: They're attached to jagged metal plates held up by three steel beams that are twisted and gnarled, like those in the trade center wreckage.

The beams rise from a triangular base filled with construction rubble - concrete, reinforcing bar, cables, wire - that looks as if it could have come from the collapse. Atop one of the beams is an American flag, planted just as many have been in lower Manhattan. The exhibit is illuminated by harsh construction lights like those used at ground zero.

"I think it's pretty remarkable," said Sam Solomon, a New York resident passing through Penn Station. "It really makes you stop and think."

"I've been meaning to go and see [ground zero], but I haven't yet," said Julie Simmons of Washington. "This is hard to ignore."

Keokosky, who also designed the exhibit, was in Baltimore for five hours late last week, working with Audley and others to install it. He declined to discuss it at length or disclose much about his background, saying he prefers to let the work speak for itself.

But he said he hopes people take a sense of comfort from the photographs. Though they depict the aftermath of a tragedy, he said, they also show people working together to help each other.

"What you're seeing is not a work of destruction," he said. "What you're seeing is a work of compassion, and it's dedicated to the firefighters and police officers and innocent victims who lost their lives in the disaster."

Audley, who served as producer and facilitator of the exhibit, said he and Keokosky went to New York after the attacks because they wanted to help.

He said they were allowed onto the World Trade Center site because they had construction experience and made arrangements with authorities in advance, instead of just showing up.

After meeting a group in Jersey City on the Friday afternoon after the attack and taking a boat to lower Manhattan, they worked through the night, stopping only for a nap inside a damaged office building.

The makeshift sleeping area was a gym where every surface was covered with ashes and soot. Audley remembers being haunted by a sign on the wall: "Please wipe down equipment after use."

"It was a mind-numbing spectacle," he said. "You really can't get over what you're seeing. Everything was the opposite of what it should be. Lampposts were twisted. White turned to black. Everything was upside down."

Keokosky's 35 mm photographs weren't staged. They don't feature celebrities. They aren't meant to be photojournalism. They simply show raw, unadulterated views of the World Trade Center site, by day and by night, and the crews that worked around the clock. Some workers are captured in dangerous positions, crawling beneath heavy beams that could shift at any second.

Observers may initially think the beams and debris are from the World Trade Center, but they're not and an exhibit label says so. Because the area is considered a crime scene, Audley said, it wasn't possible to take material from the collapsed buildings. But it wasn't difficult to find material from other construction sites to evoke what they had seen, he said.

Baltimore is the second city to see the exhibit, and it will be displayed until mid-November. It was on display in Philadelphia's 30th Street railroad station from Oct. 1 to 17.

After Baltimore, Audley said, he and Keokosky hope to take it to other stations, including Washington's Union Station and South Station in Boston. In Philadelphia, he said, the exhibit turned into a shrine of sorts. People left flowers, poems, photos and obituaries.

"The response was tremendous," Audley said. "People would stop and talk about what happened and where they were on Sept. 11. It became a way for people to deal with it. You're not force-fed, like a sound bite. You can absorb it at your own pace."

One gets a sense of reassurance from seeing so many people coming together, Keokosky added. "In a crisis, `I' and `me' becomes `us' and `we.' Life is in the pronouns," he said.

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