I will never forget my trip to ground zero - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

I will never forget my trip to ground zero

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Darryl Webb is the staff photographer for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. Contact him at (480) 898-7910 or dwebb@ahwatukee.com

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Posted: Sunday, September 11, 2011 9:00 am | Updated: 1:51 pm, Sat Oct 12, 2013.

I remember it like yesterday, but it's been 10 years now.

Despite being up for almost 27 straight hours, I was ready and willing to go. I thought it would be a quick, easy and interesting newspaper photo assignment. Grab a cab, shoot a few images, jump back in the cab and head back to my hotel and get some sleep.

It was nothing like that.

The sleep I missed out on was nothing considering that my assignment left an impression on me still powerful today. What I witnessed was the aftermath of one of the most tragic events in the history of the United States, and it diminished the misconception that all New Yorkers were arrogant, self-centered individuals who just cared about themselves.

Less than 14 hours earlier I was in downtown Phoenix photographing the Arizona Diamondbacks beating up on the three-time world champion New York Yankees in Game 2 of the 2001 World Series. Loaded up with two cameras, three lenses and a fanny-pack full of odds and ends, I told the New York cab driver to take me to ground zero. He told me the closest he could get me was about 18 blocks away due to security, and that I would have to walk the rest of the way if I wanted to see it.

I was 2,500 miles from home and in New York City, I wasn't going to let 18 blocks stop me from seeing what remained from the most horrific terrorist attack on American soil. After a 20-minute taxi ride, I was pointed in the direction to walk and I started my quest. Soot and ash was still on the ground as I departed the taxi cab and an odor still hung in the air - and that was Oct. 29, 46 days after Sept. 11, 2001. I just took in everything, skyscrapers as far as the eye could see, hustle and bustle in the streets, but yet everything was calm. It wasn't the New York City you see portrayed on television and in movies; it was kind of eerie.

The walk was long and time-consuming but not at all boring. Mementos hanging on make-shift fences and memorial walls were heart-wrenching. There were more than a few times that I had to wipe tears from my eyes.

One of the most touching shrines was outside of Fire Station 7, just blocks from ground zero. Drawings from little children from all over, not just New York, were taped to a wall outside thanking the firefighters for saving lives. This was a fire station that had lost several of its own.

It was around 3:30 p.m. when I finally made it near ground zero. Not much was visible except the 10-story skeletal frame from the second of the twin towers. My job that day was to tell the story through photos, but despite being physically tired and emotionally drained I looked for the best advantage to get those images. I found an open back street and made my way down it hoping to find something different than what the average person on the street could see.

I didn't look like your normal tourist. I had two cameras hanging from my shoulders and a large 300mm lens on a monopod, so I drew some looks. I came upon some construction workers who nodded as I walked by. Soon, a couple of them approached and asked what I was doing. I told them I was from Arizona and was here covering the Diamondbacks/Yankees World Series and was asked to get photos of ground zero while I was here. The next thing out of their mouths had me baffled: "We want you to kick their butt!" Wow, I thought, and then it hit me: "You must be Mets' fans?" I said smiling.

Looking for one more shot before I headed back, I made my way down a dark, narrow alley so I could get a long perspective shot of the remains of Tower 2 surrounded by the existing buildings. As I made my way alone down the alley, two very large men were approaching. I was thinking, "I've got $10,000-plus worth of camera gear on me and I'm in a gloomy alley; this isn't good." My brain was racing, nobody knows where I am, my cell phone coverage was sporadic at best, and my boss will kill me if I lose this gear, so I stood a little taller and walked on with fake bravado. The shadowy figures got closer and one said, "Nice cameras!" and with my voice a little deeper I said, "Thanks, they're all part of my job." I proceeded to tell them why I was here and what I was doing. They left me with parting words I didn't forget: "Be careful out here. There are a lot of shady characters out here on the streets." Two minutes later I was back out on a main street with a lot of people, cars and activity. I felt more relaxed and safer being out in public.

Some 18 blocks later, I was in busy downtown NYC at rush hour trying to catch a taxi. Now, being an Arizona boy I wasn't proficient in hailing a cab and I did my best, but to no avail. After about 15 minutes of failed attempts I needed help. I was outside of the Federal Hall and there were armed guards every 10 feet. These guys had M-16s, revolvers, knives and probably other weapons I couldn't see; they were very intimidating. I approached one and explained my dilemma. Smiling (maybe even laughing), he told me to go stand on the corner, one foot on the curb, the other in the street, and wave. Thirty seconds later I was in the back of a cab. Five minutes later I was asleep, 30 minutes later I was back at my hotel in Manhattan. I don't remember anything from the ride back in the taxi - I was spent. But I remember almost everything else.

I have special memories and great images from all the World Series games and the five days we spent in New York City. But the longest, lasting memory I have is definitely from the first six hours I spent in NYC and my trek to ground zero.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-7910 or dwebb@ahwatukee.com

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