Of the thousands of “Missing” posters asking for clues about missing people from the World Trade Center on 9/11, her face was the one I saw the most, everywhere. On church walls, firefighter companies, subway stations. With candles, flags, and prayers, uptown, midtown, and downtown Manhattan. My beloved New York City.
Every time I saw her poster, with her photo in B&W or color, I was struck by how beautiful I found her. On the printed color version, posted in a subway station near home, her fairer features showed clearly: her eyes, that I saw green, but the sign said “hazel”, and a precious, pristine happy smile next to her name. She was a Latina. Maybe she has remained imprinted in my memories for so long because her image and her name didn’t match the stereotype of those who are called “Latinos” in the US. But she was one and, for that reason, I felt her close.
During the month and a half I spent reporting every day what was happening in Manhattan, I always brought with me an analog Canon camera (the digital thing wasn’t still massive) to portrait everything I could, with the deep intention to impregnate the film with the historic moment I had happened to live as a New York citizen. Although I’m far from being a professional photographer, I knew I had to register, no matter how, the reactions, the pain, the destruction, the fear, the bewilderment, the trauma surrounding me, which I was also part of. I also did it to save my own brittle memory, my own story.
From the 300 or 400 paper photos I have from such an important time of my life, and those entire days on the streets, there are many images of those walls covered with posters, all over the city. Missing. Missing, everywhere. What an endless despair.
Every now and then I open the vault to see them, because my love for New York is eternal, because I need to connect with “my city” through those images that, in the end, are frozen captures of different seconds of my own existence there.
And there she appears, once more and always. There must be a reason why I took a picture of that poster and not any other in particular… All the time I asked myself if, after all, she had finally appeared. If maybe, after all the horror, she had only been missing for a while and couldn’t appear before because she was amnesiac or… who knows. There are always cases that go beyond all possibilities. Miracles. Although I never knew of any on 9/11. Even so, the “Missing” status always left space for doubt, for hope.
But the deeper and cruder truth was that I -and all those families- perfectly knew that the timeframe for improbabilities had run out long ago. The miracle, at that time, was simply to find the remains of those in the posters. Not even think about bodies… Remains. Barely.
While working on the coverage of the first anniversary, I directly saw how the relatives of the dead entered Ground Zero to name aloud each one of their loved ones in the official ceremony. With that infinite pain, I can’t ever forget that when they returned to their seats, they stopped by the circular altar and grabbed a handful of earth, keeping it for themselves in little boxes or bottles, because that earth was their only hope to recover some particle of that father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband or wife who had died torn apart, burned, disintegrated, pulverized with the impact of the plane, the fire and collapse of the towers. That scene has stayed with me forever. When I saw them, I absorbed their pain. My heart broke along with theirs over and over again, because it is the most harrowing and sad thing I have ever seen in my life.
And there I was, so naive in my 25-year-old self, with the microphone asking them before the ceremony if, after a year, there was closure. Yeah, sure… with their relatives disintegrated and reabsorbed in some place of Ground Zero or the air we breathed in Manhattan… That entire day, this most strange warm wind blew, carrying earth dust all over the island. It got into my eyes, stuck in my hair, and my skin. I remember that, in the afternoon, burned out physically and emotionally, I went to Central Park for a nap. My skin and hair were smelling of that dust. And next to me, also laying on the grass, some people said that that warm wind and that earth dust… were the dead around us that day.
Seven years ago I saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, maybe the very first movie that portrayed the consequences of a loss -in this case, a father- after 9/11. And the starring boy, damaged to his deepest core, yells at his mother reproaching her that she buried an empty casket and that his dad was spread everywhere, in the ashes, in the river, and inside the lungs of those who breathed him. My tears rolled down while listening to him in his anguish because in all of my time working in Ground Zero, with that acrid, burning smell, that was exactly what I always thought and felt: That I was breathing dead people.
On September 11, 2012, for the very first time, I dared to search for her in the victims’ list. It was like that necessary confirmation of something one already knows. I didn’t remember her name but I knew that, if I read it, I would recognize her immediately. My heart was pounding while I scrolled down the alphabetical order, with the irreversible sadness of reliving every year that 9/11 morning.
Carmen Rivera -last seen on the 74th floor of Tower 2- died on September 11, 2001, 20 days after her 33rd birthday. I never knew, until 2012, that she was a mother and a wife. Today she would be 52.