Two Photographers to Exhibit Rarely Seen 9/11 Images at Saratoga Springs Remembrance Ceremony Sunday

SARATOGA SPRINGS – On that blue-sky morning in September 2001, Alex Contreras was in New York City to bury his dad.

“I went to the church and I went to the funeral. On September 11, the city was in chaos. It was bizarre,” recalls Contreras, who grew up in Washington Heights on the north end of Manhattan as the twin towers of the World Trade Center towers were being built, anchoring the island’s southern end.

“I remember going there on a class trip when I was a kid, standing in front of those buildings and thinking: that’s impossible. They looked like they reached up into the sky,” he said.

An amateur photographer with skills as a firefighter and experience in construction, Contreras was filled with angst as he watched the smoke rising above downtown Manhattan on Sept. 11. “I had to do something,” he said. At midnight, he made his way to Ground Zero, donned gear he borrowed from members of the New York Fire Department and went to work.

“I stayed there for the next five days,” Contreras said. “I didn’t want to leave. I went there to help search for people who were alive – but, that didn’t happen. When I walked away after five days, I had a feeling of failure.”  

During a visit to a nearby drug store to buy saline solution to clean his contact lenses, Contreras purchased a disposable camera. He said taking pictures initially seemed a grotesque thing to do, but a conversation with his teenage son, who was back home in Florida, convinced him otherwise. “He said, ‘Dad, the whole world is watching you guys.’ I felt we were their only hope.” 

Contreras returned to Ground Zero and captured 37 images over a five-day period immediately following the attack. Approximately half those images will be displayed for the first time in New York on Sunday at the Saratoga Springs 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony.  Renowned locally based photographer Lawrence White, who operated a gallery in lower Manhattan in 2001, will showcase a series of his images taken on Sept. 11 at the ceremony as well.

 “I’ll have images before and during the attacks and Alex has Ground Zero itself, so It will go full cycle, as the sculpture does,” White said.

The sculpture, which represents a creative metamorphosis and the healing power of art to transcend grief and sorrow was crafted from five pieces of World Trade Center steel by artists John Van Alstine and Noah Savett. One beam is from the south tower and four pieces are from the north tower, including a core beam that stood on the 108th floor. The sculpture stands about 25 feet tall, weighs 14 tons and was permanently sited - after much public debate - at High Rock Park in 2012.

Fifteen years after the attack, the memories of that blue-sky morning in September 2011 continue to haunt.  “You know how they say: That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? No. That which doesn’t kill you scars you for life,” White said. “You’re affected.”

“There was a constant siren in your head; like having an accident and afterwards your horn just keeps sounding, on and on and on,” said Contreras, recalling his five days at Ground Zero. “It still is emotional. Even right now I’m ready to break down and cry. But, I didn’t realize how important those pictures would be. They became a big part of my healing.”

 The Saratoga Springs Remembrance Ceremony will be staged at the 9/11 memorial in High Rock Park, beginning at 8:35 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11. Local musician Rick Bolton will perform the national anthem, Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein will deliver the invocation, and retired Army Col. Don Britten will be the keynote speaker. Alex Contreras and Lawrence White both plan to attend the ceremony.  

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