The turbulence on the flight from Miami to New York was intense. Between sobs and hugs, the passengers tried to comfort themselves.
The believers prayed and entrusted their soul to a supreme being. It was the first commercial airplane to arrive at JFK Airport, three days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
I was commissioned by Free Press to cover that tragedy in the United States, 20 years ago. Despite the warnings not to open the windows, together with my colleague, the journalist Luisa Rodríguez, we peered through the hatch of the plane and observed that an immense smoke screen was still emerging that rose for several kilometers after the tallest skyscraper.
In his backpack he carried the first digital camera used in Guatemala. I was 23 years old and had many dreams to fulfill.
I saw a giant injured. The world superpower was bleeding and gushing. On that flight everything was incredulity. We had seen it on television, live, in Guatemala, but it was very shocking to see it.
“The news begins to spread. I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it. New York, New York ”, sang the great Frank Sinatra in his 1977 classic. But the perspective I knew of the city was different.
It was my first time there, in that city that had been projected to the world as “the one that never sleeps”, “the top of the world”.
As a photojournalist, he imagined meeting her at her best. For many years I have admired the photographs of workmen having lunch during the construction of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center in 1932, which paint a picture of the development and strength of the American economy. Yet I met her on her knees, shocked, beaten, and devastated.
In those hours it was easier to find a fan wearing an Osama Bin Laden shirt than to board a taxi. There were few, and they were busy, access was limited.
In a corner of the JFK airport was one of those classic yellow service cars that appear in the movies. He looked broken, but the driver shyly got out and offered the ride. A lucky break.
– “What country are you from?” I asked during the journey.
– “I’m Arab,” he replied, ashamed.
– “You look like Latino,” I replied.
– “I had to take off my ethnic clothes, I shaved and I try to look different; if not, people don’t get in my car. I try not to speak, to avoid being heard by my accent. Do not understand! I am not a terrorist… ”, he lamented.
Even with the suitcases in the taxi, the mission was to get as close as possible to the impacted area. In Ground Zero, most of the streets were closed. Vigilance was constant and the army was constantly patrolling with high-caliber weapons and vehicles. Hundreds of people were looking for the missing.
A group of religious comforted the desperate relatives with songs and prayers. On one of the main avenues of the World Trade Center, the screams were shocking. A delirious, panting mass echoed off the walls of the huge buildings.
– “Is it your mother?” I asked a young man who was comforting an old woman.
– “No, but I can’t find my mother, and she can’t find her son,” he replied, as if throwing a life preserver at the woman who was drowning in tears.
A German correspondent was filming that moment, and she was crying. He did not stop recording.
The days passed by in a dizzying way. It was common to hear alarms and sirens. People ran with terror drawn on their faces. It was an almost impossible task trying to control the mass hysteria caused by the false bomb threats.
The scattered skeletons of the Twin Towers were visible in the distance. The atmosphere was hazy, the weather suffocating, most of the people used a mask due to the dust that still clouded the place eight days after the attack.
Many cried when they saw that scene that was suggested Dantesque, others applauded the firefighters returning from Ground Zero, with tired and blackened faces, slumped shoulders and misaligned uniforms.
“I have been trying to recover bodies for more than 72 hours, but there are none, they are all waste,” explained one of the rescuers as he walked to the makeshift tent to stock up. After a 10 minute nap, he returned to hell.
The patriotic spirit surfaced as time passed. A Harvard economics student walking by confessed, “This will make us stronger.”
Two workers moving debris in a municipal car stopped the march to place a US flag in the cabin, the crowd applauding the action that was perceived as heroic in the circumstances. Many showed and boasted the cover of the New York Daily, with huge typeface that said: “We love New York, today more than ever.”
One of the main missions of this coverage was to try to locate Guatemalan victims. That was like looking for a needle in a haystack. There were no records. Most of the nationals worked in cleaning services and had come to the United States as undocumented migrants.
They will remain anonymous, they will not appear in films, documentaries or posthumous tributes.
Claudia Martínez, a 26-year-old Guatemalan stockbroker, recently married, worked on the 105th floor of Tower 1. The impact of those planes on the World Trade Center cut short her dream of climbing in her profession.
Little by little the economy gave signs of life, the owners of the shops sailed through the dust. The material losses were incalculable. A seller of hot dogs it offered breads with kebab, while military helicopters flew over the island.
– “Are you an Arab?” I asked.
-“No. I am Mexican, but these hot dogs Jews, Arabs, Europeans, Latinos, and even gringos like them; food does not fight with anyone ”, he expressed with that wisdom that ordinary people have.
That event hit the US, but shook the world. After that fact, nothing was the same.
Free Press He narrated it in the front line, true to his principles of providing perspective and the best information to his audience. And since then, the world’s population has held its breath. The story is not over yet.