WEB EXTRA: Fort Smith woman finds solace in writing what she witnessed on 9/11

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FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — In the years after September 11, 2001, Carmen Taylor has suffered from bits of Post Traumatic Stress related to witnessing the acts of terror in New York City.

The Fort Smith woman took two of the most iconic photos on 9/11.

The first was a photo of United Airlines Flight 17 directly in front of the South World Trade Center Tower and the second was of the plane hitting it.

Both were purchased by the Associated Press and shared around the world.

In the years since that tragic day, Carmen found solace in writing about what she witnessed.

Rituals

I was walking too fast, not watching where I was going, looking down at the ash on the sidewalk. It felt strange under my feet. Not like snow or sand or powder. Not like foam. It didn’t cloud over my shoes or show a footprint. 

I almost ran into him. He looked different than other people in Battery Park, not dressed like a tourist or a professional, not bleeding or dirty or crying. He was just standing on the sidewalk holding a bird.

We looked at each other. His eyes were wide and empty and his lips were a narrow line. His hair stood up in gray spikes and was full of the same stuff that covered the bird and the sidewalk. 

Without thinking, I put my hand in my own hair and squeezed. It made a ball that stuck together. I let go and looked down at the bird so I wouldn’t have to look at the man. 

“It’s dead.” He said it as simply as if he had said “It’s a pigeon.” 

He held the bird upright and stroked it, smoothing its feathers, arranging them. Then he pulled his hand back. His palm was smeared with the gray stuff from the bird. He wiggled his fingers, rubbed his thumb along their tips, and then curled his fingers and scratched little trails up his palm. 

He turned toward me with a slightly embarrassed expression, like he had forgotten I was there. 

“Can I take your picture?” 

“If you want to,” his voice was monotone. 

“It needs a place,” he continued before I could answer, before I could apologize for being rude. 

He moved to a nearby garden spot and leaned over, bending his knees. He didn’t squat down or let any part of his body get too close to the ground. Carefully reaching into the low-growing evergreens, he burrowed the pigeon deep beneath their boughs on the uncontaminated, brown dirt, and then rearranged the branches until the hole disappeared. He stood up and wiped his hands against his shorts, sort of nodded in my direction, looked back down at the evergreens, then walked away. 

The service was over. 

I breathed in the moist fragrance of earth, and for a few moments the rich, potent spores camouflaged the dust that had settled in my nose and mouth. 

It was a strange scene I had just witnessed. The funeral left me numb and I thought about the people who had been in the towers and wondered where they were. I realized I was scared that I might see a human body. 

I looked around for the man in the orange shirt, but he had already disappeared. I wondered where he had gone and if he was looking for someone, or if he had already found someone. I wanted to know the answers, and wanted him to tell me why he had buried the bird. 

When I was very young our kitten died, and my brother and I laid the body in a scooped out hole and covered it with a wash cloth. We patted the desert sand back in place and after a few days couldn’t even find the spot. 

My sister and I fill the kitchen sink with hot, sudsy water and stand side by side washing dishes while we talk about a problem. 

Melanie and the ladies sit with Scarlet O’Hara, fingers flying through needlework while they wait late into the night for their men to return. 

And a man in a city that rains the ash of human beings performs an ancient ritual that even little children understand. 

We calm ourselves and regain a measure of control in uncontrollable situations by doing something that’s simple and familiar. It’s a tiny thing we call normal, and we do it so we can keep on going. 

I know why he buried the bird.


Courage: Gulnara’s Story

On Monday, the day before that Tuesday, I stood with a row of strangers on the window sill of the 107th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, leaning outward, off balance, looking straight down. I jerked back, sucked in air and looked around to see if anyone had noticed. Nobody had. 

Defying gravity, I inched forward again. It’s easier the second time, the third, but each time I caught myself in that instinctual, automatic jerk, that response to falling that we exhibit even as infants. Self-preservation is strong. 

One evening, many months later, when it was the summer of the next year, Gulnara talked to me from a thousand miles away. Me outside pacing in the yard, she in the city. I could not have helped her even if she had been sitting by my side. She told me many things that night, things she had never said before. 

She was not supposed to be in New York that Tuesday. She was pregnant and her plans to leave that past weekend for Russia had to be cancelled. Her doctor did not want her to travel. The completion of her documentary would have to wait. 

Gulnara heard the first explosion while she was still in bed and realized something terrible had happened. She pulled on jeans and a tee-shirt, grabbed her camera bag, scooped film out of the refrigerator and ran out into the streets. She ran toward the Towers, against the rush, and took pictures without even knowing what had happened.

Gulnara and Carmen

The South Tower fell, exploding out its wave of pulverized life and grimy smoke. Gulnara turned and ran away, too. It was a race filled with terror, but it was hard to run without looking back, and it’s almost impossible for a photographer to look and not take pictures. 

Gulnara fell. She rolled across the sidewalk, through debris and falling ash—and took pictures. She kept taking pictures, took one last picture and hurled herself under an abandoned car as the stampede of people barely missed running over her. 

That was the picture that nearly got her in trouble at work. She had accidentally loaded her camera with black and white film. 

That was the picture that sky-rocketed her to a first place in Amsterdam, the World Press Photo Competition. 

That was the picture that hurt. Later, privately, she would add her unborn baby to the list of casualties. 

Gulnara hurried back to her apartment. Dazed and shaken, she headed straight to the bathroom, keys, camera, everything still with her, and stared at herself in the mirror. The photographer took a picture of the woman. 

The North Tower fell, but she didn’t see it. She mixed chemicals, prepared in negative what she had just witnessed. 

But the job wasn’t finished, there was still a lot to do and time was running out. She had to get to the Associated Press and submit her work. She would have to go back outside, walk through the horror and see the death again. That’s the way it was, always a rush, always the deadline. 

Gulnara paused, and then her voice became low, edged with panic. She remembered looking up at the towers and seeing people fall through the air, arms and legs waving. Too many to count, and they kept falling. She couldn’t take pictures. Not of people, not like that. 

But she did take pictures. 

I think she was pleading, needing me to believe that she didn’t remember taking the pictures. But she saw them, these pictures that shouldn’t exist, weeks later when she finally had a chance to look at all her work. 

I sat down on the grass in my back yard while she talked. I closed my eyes and braced my forehead against my knees, the telephone nearly hidden as I continued to listen.

We talked about the Towers and their unbelievable height. A long time ago she wanted to take skydiving lessons with friends, but had always been afraid of heights. She went to the top of the South Tower to see if she was still afraid, and stepped into the window sill and looked straight down from the outward-tilting glass. She knew right then she would never do it, could never jump. She didn’t understand why anybody would. 

Gulnara tells me doesn’t know their names, but sees them falling. She whispers, speaking more to herself than to me and I listen hard. 

I imagine her deep-set, dark eyes as she draws me into her nightmare. She wakes in the night, full of their fear. She becomes one of them. Then another and another and on and on as each makes the decision to leap away and down rather than remain as their flesh begins to cook. 

It’s too hot. There’s nothing to breath. 

She reaches out and I grab her hand. 

My arm bubbles into blisters and she tightens her grip and I’m screaming and she calls to me, “Let’s go!” and then the air is cool. 

Gulnara said she would never forget it, seeing them fall, arms and legs outstretched. She would cry from her nightmare, and said she didn’t know if she would have their courage. 

Then she apologized. She said it was still hot in the city.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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