A little girl reflects a nation's loss

Daughter of officer who died on Sept. 11 catches imagination of millions

September 17, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

On a day when the country was draped in black, a little girl wore pink.

She looked as pretty as a picture - and became one: The next morning her photo would appear on the front page of more than 45 U.S. newspapers, plus others as far away as Scotland, Brazil and Australia.

"It has a kind of painterly quality to it," says Joe Urschel, executive director of the Newseum in Washington. "For a photographer to get that in an unstaged moment is next to impossible."

The shot was taken by Spencer Platt, who works for Getty Images and was at Ground Zero in New York City this past Tuesday covering the fifth anniversary of September 11.

President Bush was there. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was there. Gov. George E. Pataki and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis were there.

Platt chose to point his camera at seven-year-old Patricia Smith.

She is now locked in time and memory, part of our 9/11 indelible-impressions album, forever a face of ... the impossible really happening, of the mommy who never came home: Police Officer Moira Smith, age 38, died trying to rescue people trapped inside the flaming World Trade Center towers.

"The innocence and the loss of innocence all in one photograph," says Poncho Bernasconi, director of news photography for Getty Images.

"It touched on eveything we kind of felt about 9/11: the loss of a child for its parent," says Dean Krakel, deputy director of photography at the Rocky Mountain News, adding Smith was a unanimous front-page choice. "It's the humanity of it. It's one of those images that just sort of rose up at you."

A pink dress. Perfect attire for a birthday party or an Easter parade. Patricia wore hers to the memorial service of a lifetime.

Her father, Police Officer James Smith, was part of a group who read aloud the names of all 2,749 Trade Center victims. Moira Smith was No. 2,364 on the alphabetical list, one of twelve Smiths who perished.

Patricia is seen holding a long-stemmed rose and gripping her daddy's gloved hand as he stands at a lectern reciting his assigned names. James Smith's head is out of frame, as is a fellow officer's. The photo reminds you of a Peanuts cartoon strip: No adults allowed.

"The red of the rose just jumped out," says Platt, "especially at an event like that where it can be visually `noisy', where's there's not much going on."

Before Platt left the office for Ground Zero, Bernasconi had issued a familiar reminder: "Look, look, look for emotion."

He found it.

The composition is, indeed, artful: backlit hair, a bright dress surrounded by dark uniforms, a tiny hand swallowed by a white glove, that red rose pointing downward as if bent by a storm of sorrow.

But Patricia's placid face is the arrow to the heart.

"It doesn't look like a child in many ways," says Platt. "It's the expression of a wise, old woman."

Or maybe that's a mirror we're gazing into.

"It's almost a blank expression," notes Urschel. "When the emotion in the face is not clearly portrayed, the viewer gets to project his own emotions on it. And for that reason I think it has more resonance."

Urschel is 54, old enough to recall an image of lost innocence from another generation: young John-John Kennedy saluting a dead president's horse-drawn casket as it rolled through the streets of Washington.

It's too early to tell if Patricia Smith will attain iconic status. But Urschel says scores of editors rarely gravitate toward the same particular photo of a multifaceted story - as they did with Platt's: "For one picture of one girl from New York to rise above that collective thinking is unusual."

"I don't know in one or two years' time how it will resonate with people," Platt admits. "But I think it may have some staying power."

Why? He received more e-mail about this photo than any other. A Portland police lieutenant saw it in The Oregonian and wants to buy 36 copies for his men. A Washington Post reader said it brought tears to his eyes. And a doctor in Dallas wrote, "The lighting of her face reminded me that hope springs eternal from the hearts of our children."

Someday Patricia Smith will outgrow her dress, but maybe the resilience of youth has its ownstaying power, maybe someday the pain of Sept. 11 will fade and the horizon glow pink with the promise of better days.


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