Saturday, September 10, 2016

9/11 Photo Sent Australian Photographer On 15 Year Search

On August 21st, there was a small article on about a single snapshot. Here's the story of that picture:

It was just a tattered flash of color amid acres of toxic grey ash and twisted steel that blanketed Ground Zero of New York’s twin towers on September 11, 2001. It was a simple family photo which showed a young woman smiling as she cradled a toddler in an embroidered red dress.

Back during the days following 9/11/01, to Australian photographer Nathan Edwards it was a searing jolt of normal on a day when it seemed there would never be normal again. He snapped a picture of it lying in the rubble, one of thousands of images he captured as he documented downtown New York after the World Trade Center came crashing down because of the vicious attack by Muslim terrorists.

The article last month, talked about how much of what he saw in the coming days was unforgettable. The city and its people reeling, scrambling for answers, searching for survivors. But there was something about that picture that chewed away at him. 

He kept asking the big question of who were they? Did they survive? Were they among those who lost someone that day? Maybe it bonged to a young dad who kept the photo on his desk? Maybe those in the picture lost him and never knew what happened to him? Maybe the picture belonged to a parent? Maybe the picture belonged to someone who kept it at work as a loving reminder of a smiling daughter and grandchild?

He thought about it often. And according to the report, yes at times it became an obsession. When things were difficult in the years that followed, moving to a new town, an attempted career change, that’s when the mystery of the woman and the baby haunted photographer Nathan Edwards most.

It is said that he would wake sometimes with those questions ruminating in his mind and he knew it wouldn’t stop until he had answers.

Nathan Edwards said, "Just to find that picture in the rubble when everything else was ground to dust — I guess it felt like a bit of a sign. From the moment I found it, I wanted to know who the people were, and I really wanted them to be alive."

Nathan remembers waking on that terrible Tuesday after spending 14 days straight covering 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt winning the US Open. He planned to spend the day with wife Kylie doing what they loved most, wandering Manhattan, shopping, bar hopping, and exploring.

He said, "My boss called and said: 'There has been a plane into the World Trade Centre and we need you to get down there.' Just as I was leaving that second plane hit, so I said to my wife: 'This is not an accident, and you probably won’t be able to contact me and you won’t see me. It could be for a couple of days'".

He said, "I got there just as the second tower was coming down. It was a massive rumble and then it was just dead quiet."

And yes, it was then that he and others were to hear another noise, a more ominous sound started. It was a sound that continued for the next few days.

He said, "There was a beeping. I later learned that when firemen stop moving the little devices on their breathing apparatus beep. That's them saying 'I need help, come and get me', and that was everywhere. You could hear them under there. But it was such a mess you would talk to firemen and they didn’t know where to start."

According to Nathan, there was nothing but grey dust and fear everywhere he looked that first day. "It was towards the end of the day and something caught my eye, it was just lying there, this bit of color," he said.

"There was some dust and I didn't touch the photo, I just blew the dust off to show the faces and took a photo. I remember picking it up because I felt like I should keep it safe. I was thinking, 'What do I do with it?', when I ran into a firefighter and asked him. He said he was going to the place where things were being collected and took it from me."

Nathan doesn’t know whether the snapshot is among tens of thousands of artefacts catalogued after 9/11, but efforts are being made to track it down. 

"I remember leaving Ground Zero the first day and I walked back to my office in midtown and the further I got away from there the more normal life became," he said. "I remember walking past Macy’s and there were people walking out with their shopping, there were people eating in restaurants and having coffee."

Exhausted yet still feeling the effects of adrenalin, Nathan wondered to himself, 'Don't they know what's happened?'

Nathan returned to Australia at the end of his secondment to the New York Post and settled back into life in Sydney, and later Port Macquarie on the New South Wales mid-north coast.

He and Kylie, 44, moved north after the births of their son Jack, 9, and daughter Olivia, 5, so they could be closer to family. Nathan dabbled in commercial photography before returning to his first love -- news photography.

He continued to be haunted by the photo and on seminal anniversaries such as the first, fifth and tenth year anniversaries. But frankly, he felt there was nothing to show who the people were or whether they survived 9/11 or had lost someone to the worse Muslim terrorist attack in world history.

Before the 10th anniversary in 2011, he spent months tracking down the firemen who he featured so heavily in his 9/11 portfolio to tell their stories. To a man, it is said that those guys love him. It's also said that some hadn't cried about their losses, but when confronted with his photos -- they broke down.

Nathan is also said to have been in touch with 9/11 survivor groups whose members were increasingly connected through online communities. He regularly posted his photo on their sites.

In February, last year, he decided to give it one last shot in the lead up to the 15th anniversary and hit the social media.

While he had feelers out for years, for whatever reason this time one of them gave panned out and by late that night his heart jolted as he found a solid lead through a member of a survivor’s network. After some not-so-gentle prodding, they offered up the name Jennifer Rothschild Robinson.


Stretched out on her hotel bed, Jennifer Robinson was five days into the first break she and her corporate lawyer husband Paul had taken since their baby Isabelle had arrived. By now they had found their holiday stride.

Gym junkie Paul had risen early to find a cross-fit class near their Cape Cod hotel. Jen, who only a week before had been so tired juggling full-time work as an insurance lawyer with new motherhood that she was falling asleep on the subway, was watching re-runs of MASH, waiting for him to return.

As he drove towards their resort, the air above suddenly screamed so loudly he pulled off the road. He was being buzzed by two F-15 jets and his first thought was that they looked like they were going to war.

He turned on the radio to hear news of the destruction wreaked on their beloved New York. His echoing thought: "Thank God Jen wasn’t at work."

Paul walked into their room to see her smiling at a joke on the screen. "I told her she needed to turn on the news and as she did we saw the second tower come down."

"My wife collapsed then. She fell to the ground and it was quite a long time before she could even understand what I was saying. She was just saying ‘no, no, it can’t be'."

Jen's office at Ohrenstein & Brown was on the 86th floor of the North Tower. Just seven floors above, five Muslim terrorists had crashed hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 into that floor.

She lost two colleagues that day, her dear friend AnnMarie Riccoboni, a grandmother and accountant, and office secretary Valerie Murray. The mention of AnnMarie's name still makes her cry.

It's not clear how her friends, and many others, perished. But almost half of the 2977 victims were from above her floor in the North Tower. Many of those were the "falling people," yes the jumpers who were filmed plunging to their deaths after jumping to their death rather than experiencing the horror of being burned to death.


Thinking back now, Jen, 50, and Paul, 49, remember not being quite sure what they should do next. In a daze, they spent a strange afternoon with friends in nearby picturesque Provincetown. They still have photos showing them in unusually subdued tourist spots, no smiles on their faces.

Nathan's photograph ran on page 12 of The New York Post the following day, and back at Jen and Paul's upstate New York home the phone started ringing. Callers were hanging up lightning fast when Jen didn't answer because their nanny Carmi was still minding Isabelle.

Jen said "People in New York, friends of mine, opened up the Post and saw this photo and knew it was me, Some people were just hanging up when they heard Carmi's voice. Eventually we told her just to answer the phone saying, 'Jen's OK, Everything is fine'".

In the years that followed, Nathan Edward's photo wove itself into the fabric of the Robinsons' life. The page torn from the newspaper was stuck to the fridge to remind them of their remarkable good fortune. Yes, it became a talisman that told them not to be distracted by the small stuff.

It meant so much to them they wanted to find the photographer, partly to see if he took the same kind of meaning from his experience as they did. They contacted the Post a few times, but in the chaos of that week very few photos were cataloged properly.

Paul said, "Ever since that photograph came out and we started our search for the photographer, it’s been a reminder both of how grateful we are that the outcome wasn't different for us, and also an open question of who took it and what it meant to them, It remained in my drawer at work where I pulled it out whenever I had something that was particularly overwhelming. It put things right back in perspective."

Over the years, with the arrival of another daughter Emma, now 11, and moving to Florida for Paul's work, the image stayed with them. Jen would post it every year on Facebook and give public thanks for her survival as well as pay tribute to her lost friends.


When Nathan Edwards began searching for Jennifer Rothschild Robinson on the internet, the photo he took in the rubble was one of the first things he saw on her Facebook feed. Not only had mother and child survived, she had been looking for him too.

He describes his initial reaction as "like being hit with a sledgehammer".

He said, "I was thinking, 'Maybe they don’t want to be found, maybe they have moved on with their lives and put all that behind them'. I sent the message late at night, midnight, and went to bed and got a response the minute I woke up. It was disbelief and then it was euphoria. I couldn’t believe I had finally made contact."

Back in the United States, Jen's computer had a message. It was a photographer in Australia who had been searching for the woman and the baby in the photo.

"I felt so many things," Jen said. "It just took my breath away. My heart was just up in my chest and I just couldn’t believe what was happening. I just went running up the stairs to Paul and I was crying and the first thing I said was, 'Don't worry, it's OK'."


Travelling from Sydney Australia to Florida, it's said that Nathan, 44, who is a laid back country-raised father-of-two, was uncharacteristically jittery. And yes, the report stated that even he was surprised at just how much he had invested in this search. And now that he was actually going to meet Jen, an opportunity she and Paul jumped at when Nathan suggested it, it's said that he starting to fret.

"What if she doesn't like me?" he asks at one particularly vulnerable moment.

He was all nerves again on the morning of their meeting and the tension rises a couple of notches due to delays caused by the film crew that the news sent along to film the event. Nathan was pacing on the manicured street outside Jen's Florida home waiting for things to get moving. And inside, Jen is all-American hospitality, offering coffee in any number of ways and bottled water, chatting to cover her nervousness.

When it was finally time, in a moment only matched by when the famous Henry Morton Stanley located Dr. David Livingstone in Africa, Nathan walked towards her porch and knocks on the door behind which Jen was standing clenching and unclenching her fists in an effort to destress.

"Hello," said Jen with a broad smile and tears.

"Hello, how are you?" Nathan says, bending down to wrap her in a bear hug that lifted her off her feet. "It's so good to finally see you. I can't believe I found you."

Their sentences are spilling over each other and their nerves are gone as they try to put into words how much this meeting means, each of them tearing up.

The photo was taken when Jen took five-month-old Isabelle to her office the December before 9/11. She has kept the outfit Isabelle, now 16, was wearing and pulls it out with her snapshots.

"When I first saw it, I imagined that it had sat on a desk somewhere," Nathan said. "Everything that day, nothing had survived and to see a photograph that was relatively unscathed when everything around was just ground up dust, it just stopped me. There were several times over the past 14 years that I was telling myself maybe you will never find them. There were a few times when I said, 'It has been so long, you've tried so hard, you probably need to just give up and move along'. But something wouldn't let me give up. A little voice just kept saying 'keep going'."


A few days after that first meeting, they traveled up to New York to join the Robinson family on their first visit to the 9/11 memorial grounds.

Nathan is nervous, but he settles when they arrive. He is genuinely touched at how this means so much to them as well. Jen and Nathan drift along the North Tower memorial where victims' names are carved in metal. They chance upon the names of her friends and hug again.

"I feel like I have a new friend," Jen said. "Even though it's only been a few days it feels like I have known him for a long time. I had never really thought of it before from his perspective. I had always wondered who is the photographer and thought how lucky I am, but it didn't occur to me how much it meant to him. When we first met I was so anxious and excited and nervous and we hugged each other and I knew. I knew just how important it was to him."

Paul says the experience of meeting Nathan had been "transformative" for Jen.

Paul said, "It was sort of like an open wound, I am watching Jen as Nathan has come over and I see this has shifted a piece that I think may enable her to actually put this whole experience in a good perspective. Watching the two of them, there is sort of a tacit kinship that you can see exists. Because it very well could have been whoever took the photograph didn't care. And it could have been that we said, 'Oh interesting, our photograph is in there (the paper). But the combination of his intensity in pursuing this and Jen's attachment to the photograph and it's meaning was incredibly special."

That Jen and Nathan were both so invested in the search underscores the serendipity that skips so lightly through this story. It is a tale of fateful linkages and chance. Of luck and despair. And of the power of a single image to inspire for almost 15 years. But above all, it is special because it is a simple distillation of the power of hope.

So now, while I've only edited this article to fit my blog with no changes to the facts and circumstances of the story, I'm sharing this story with my readers for a few reasons. 

First, we should never allow what took place on 9/11 and those murdered that day to be forgotten. Second, we must remember that the folks who died that day were real with real lives, families, friends, loved ones, and were robbed of everything they had by people who are still with us.

And lastly, I'm sharing this story, because it is a story of hope and inspiration. It is a wonderful story of someone who did not give up even when he thought he wanted to. Yes, it's a great message.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa

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