GAHS Presents 9/11 First Responder Photo Exhibit
On Monday September 12, the Greater Astoria Historical Society unveiled an exhibit of Ground Zero photographs taken by 9/11 first responder Steve Spak. Astoria Assemblymember Aravella Simotas was also in attendance to express her support for both the Society’s work and the evening’s event.
Society board member Richard Melnick began the proceedings by presenting some facts about both the original World Trade Center and the new 1 WTC building now under construction, which Melnick said he preferred to call the “Freedom Tower”.
Spak has been a freelance photographer for more than 25 years. His award-winning photography has appeared in the New York Times, Daily News, Newsday, New York Post, the Associated Press, UPI, Firehouse magazine and Fire Engineer. Spak has also been honored by Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, who promoted him to the rank of Honorary Deputy Chief.
In addition to his photography, Spak worked for New York City Emergency for eight years as an EMT, dispatcher and communications instructor before becoming a court officer in 1983.
Spak began his presentation by noting that at the time of the September 11 attacks he was off from work. He learned of the first plane crashing into the North Tower from his wife. When Spak heard on the radio that a second plane had crashed into the South Tower, he said he “knew it was terrorism”, left home and headed for the World Trade Center.
Spak was amazed to see people “still getting on the train to go to work”, even though by now it was common knowledge that something terrible had happened at the World Trade Center. While he was on the subway he heard on his [Fire Dept. band] radio something about a “collapse”, though he was not sure what it meant at that point. When the train stopped at West 4th Street, Spak got off and bought 10 rolls of film and 2 mini DV tapes, so he could record whatever was happening.
When he finally got to the area, Spak said it was snowing paper and a gray, dusty fog was settling over everything. An EMT gave him a paper mask to fasten over his mouth. Spak saw a man in a business suit looking up, then looked up himself and thought, “Where’s the towers?”
After September 11, Spak was unable to get back to the site of Ground Zero for days because of tight security and had to take photos from under the Brooklyn Bridge. On September 28, he was finally able to get back and retraced his steps from 9/11. He also visited the site again to take photos and shoot videos on November 11 and January 12 and February 9 the following year.
Spak also refuted the idea put forward by 9/11 conspiracy theorists that the Twin Towers were brought down by controlled demolition. He said the reason the buildings collapsed was that they had been constructed “like a house of cards”, to allow for the maximum amount of rental space with no floor beams and a core that was not built for strength.
He also took strong exception to assertions made by then EPA head Christine Todd Whitman that toxins released into the air by the attacks posed no threat to people living in the area of Ground Zero or cleanup and rescue workers. Spak said the air was, in fact, filled with highly toxic benzene, Freon, burning plastic and dust and that those overseeing cleanup and rescue efforts had not done enough to insist that every worker in the area wear anti–chemical masks.
Since then, Spak has been involved with efforts to lobby Congress on behalf of first responders whose health has suffered because of exposure to these chemicals. He also praised John Feal, founder of the Feel Good Foundation (an organization formed to provide assistance to chronically ill first responders), U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, Congressmember Carolyn Maloney and comedian/TV show host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart for helping to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, named for an NYPD officer who died of a respiratory disease attributed towards his participation in rescue and recovery operations in the area of Ground Zero.