By Joe Zuccaro
Special to High Desert Daily
(Victor Valley)–Sept 11, 2001 began just like every day for me, getting ready for work at Victorville Fire Dept. As I was getting dressed I had the morning news on. The images were just that of confusion and concern as a plane hit one of the Twin Towers. As I watched the unfolding events, I became mesmerized, in shock as to what was to become one of the most pivotal events of the time. When the second aircraft went into the next tower I realized that this was an attack on the United States. My suspicions were confirmed as the news reported the crashes into the Pentagon and at Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
As I watched the collapse of each tower my mind flashed back to my childhood, growing up in New York City, watching the World Trade Center being built. As a kid, or even an adult, it was amazing to see the steel reaching higher and higher into the sky. I would often wonder how they could stand so tall, never imagining the demise that would occur.
Back to the reality of my morning, I knew that the world would be a changed place. As a firefighter, my heart went out to all of the public safety personnel responding to the scenes, as well as to all of those that had perished. As a Combat Photographer in the US Air Force Reserve, I expected to be called to document all of the history in the making. I finally made it into my FD office and grieved with the rest of my staff. Even with the emotions running high, we still had a job to do and a responsibility to the public we serve. But it was uplifting to hear all of the ‘thank yous’ from people that you had no contact with, no call for service, no interaction. Wearing the uniform brought about a whole new attitude from everyone who passed us. A friendly smile, a squeaky ‘hello’, or a proud ‘thank you for what you do’ all seemed to make the world a better place, despite the atrocities that had occurred.
While I never was able to assist with the rescue and clean up efforts at Ground Zero, during the first anniversary memorial in Sept 2002 I would not only attend the ceremony, but I proudly reenlisted in the Air Force Reserve on Sept 11, on the sacred ground where the Twin Towers once stood. Joining me were my soon to be fiancé, and my Combat Camera Squadron commander, administering the oath of enlistment. We were escorted by secret service staff, and witnessed by hundreds of onlookers. While it was an incredible honor to complete this part of my life here, an even more amazing mission was just to be a part of the memorial, documenting the faces of the loved ones still grieving their loss and the beginning of the restoration of this area. I will never forget walking down the ramp to the Circle of Life, standing next to the families, and then having the wind create a spiral of dust, spinning inside of the circle, rising up to the heavens, and never touching any of us there. It’s as if the souls that were consumed in the destruction were finally released from their earthly tomb and were set free.
Ten years later, Sept 2011 I would make the journey to Ground Zero again, for the ten year memorial. This would be a much larger event, with two presidents speaking, and the opening of the 9-11 museum to the victims’ families. Like the first ceremony, I would attend this function in my military uniform, making this my last documentation effort for the Air Force. I would be retiring from the AF Reserve on Oct 1, 2011 with a total of 22 years. I was able to secure official media access and was allowed access onto the roof of a building overlooking the now reconstructed site. Two reflecting pools were in operation, the museum was ready, and the main tower building was more than halfway completed. The stage was alive with singers and speakers. Secret service and law enforcement were both visible and invisible all around. There were some rumors about possible terrorist activities, but as we know, no incidents occurred. Instead it was a day filled with emotion as families and guests mourned their losses and celebrated the lives of those gone. I was able to photograph Presidents Bush and Obama, and interview many of the families and friends of those killed on Sept 11, 2001. The stories they relayed are priceless, and many tears were shed. While I was not able to get my wife into the ceremony, we were able to reflect together at one of the local churches that was used as a staging area for the rescuers.
While I know that I cannot go back and change my life, I can say that my life has been changed by the events of 9-11 as well as my trips to Ground Zero. I have been fortunate to have traveled the world, from the deserts of Africa to the South Pole, documenting war and peace (mostly peace!). I have seen how the ‘other half’ lives and am extremely proud to be an American. We are a nation of diversity, a nation of caring. While the world has its share of hate and discontent, looking into the ‘windows of the soul’, I have had the opportunity to see so much good in people. I pray that we never experience another 9-11, Holocaust, or Columbine. But as a realist I know that pray as we might, bad things will continue. But so will the good in humanity.