9/11: 20 years later

The Woman in White

Twenty years after 9/11, a photographer searches for an elusive subject.

Photo: Robert Stolarik/Polaris for Time Magazine
Photo: Robert Stolarik/Polaris for Time Magazine

Robert Stolarik saw the first tower collapse through his viewfinder, watching as it disintegrated into a cloud of thick gray dust and debris that chased people through the canyons of Lower Manhattan. Millions of bits of matter — shredded paper, wisps of insulation, ashes — wafted through the air and gathered in drifts. The streets turned silent except for the roar of flames and the soft, insistent beeping of battery-powered devices worn by firefighters. Those chirps, activated when a firefighter was motionless, seemed to come from everywhere at once, rising like a chorus of electronic crickets hidden among burned-out vehicles and piles of shattered steel.

When planes struck the Twin Towers, Stolarik, a freelance photographer, grabbed two Nikon cameras and drove from his home in Brooklyn to Manhattan, convincing police officers to let him pass one roadblock and driving around another. While crossing the East River he stopped to take a picture that showed black smoke pouring out of both towers. He was seven blocks from the World Trade Center when the South Tower turned into a column of dust. His picture of that moment is dominated by people fleeing, some glancing back over a shoulder, some staring straight ahead as they run past the man with the camera.

Then, as he approached the trade center, Stolarik glimpsed a woman covered in pale dust, stained with blood and walking on a debris-strewn street. She appeared out of the haze, almost like a mirage. He pointed his lens at her and clicked the shutter twice before moving on. Over the next six or seven hours he worked until he ran out of film, taking shelter when the second tower imploded, then walking across the field of rubble where the towers had stood. That afternoon he made his way to the midtown office of the Gamma Presse photo agency. There, an editor went through negatives with a loupe, using a red grease pencil to mark the pictures he wanted to distribute.

In one frame, taken just before the second tower crumbled, a police officer holds onto his partner. Another picture shows a line of firefighters in bunker gear leaning against the charred husk of a car. Several show rescue workers searching the wreckage of the towers for signs of life, dwarfed by the destruction surrounding them. But it was the picture of the dust-streaked woman that seemed to resonate most widely. Both her hands are extended away slightly from her body, as if for balance. She wears a bracelet or watch on her left wrist. Her long dark hair is caked with powder and there is a thick smudge of blood on the front of her shirt and a smaller one on her cheek. Her expression is harrowed but not panicked. Though the sides of the frame are shadowed she is illuminated by a ray of sun, as if she is emerging from a tunnel into the light.

It ran in dozens of publications around the world, including Time magazine, Le Monde, and Paris Match, capturing a sense of profound shock and seen by many as emblematic of the day. Months later, Stolarik’s September 11 pictures, including the image of the woman, won first-place and second-place awards in separate categories in an annual competition run by the National Press Photographers Association.

Over the next 15 years he shot for the Gamma and Polaris agencies and for publications like Time and the New York Times, covering turmoil surrounding national political conventions, the devastation wrought in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and months of Occupy Wall Street protests.

Like many photojournalists, Stolarik is unsentimental about the craft. He sees photography as a way to record history, not as a form of advocacy or a means to influence opinion. He had never before sought out past photo subjects, but while working on a project in 2006 he looked for and found several of the people in his pictures from September 11. The woman was not among those he was able to locate, and that tugged at him. Their fleeting interaction, barely enough to qualify as a form of contact, had ended up playing a significant role in his life. And he had no idea of his impact, if any, on hers. He wondered whether the woman knew about his photograph and how she might react to it. Would she cherish the image, he wondered? Would it stir up dormant feelings of fear? For years she remained at the edge of his consciousness, coming to mind whenever someone mentioned 9/11 or the Twin Towers or when he thought back on the arc of his career.

His last assignment as a news photographer came in 2016. Stolarik now earns a quieter living, creating books — journals — from scratch, tearing pages, stitching them into a spine, and attaching wood covers. In early August he decided that looking again for the woman would be a fitting coda to his journalistic existence and hoped the reach of social media might increase his chances of success. The Polaris agency posted a copy of a page from Paris Match showing the woman. A few days later Stolarik added a comment asking for information about her. He also posted an image of the woman on his own Instagram account with the same request. Friends and family members spread word of his search for the woman. “She and I shared a moment and it was an overwhelming moment,” he said. “I think about her a lot.”

At least one other journalist encountered the woman on 9/11. Two ABC News clips showing her can be found on YouTube, buried in hours of live coverage. In one a man with a jacket marked “Police” helps her into a news van. In the other she talks to a reporter. “I was standing next to One World Trade Center and then all of a sudden I heard rumbling,” she says, adding that a window “blew out and threw me onto the sidewalk.” She was caught up in what felt like a dust storm and couldn’t see. The reporter asked how badly she was hurt. Looking at the dried blood on her arms and shirt, the woman responds: “I have no idea.”

Around the same time that the woman was describing her experience Stolarik was approaching the churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel. There, two blocks from the Trade Center, he photographed police officers Judith Hernandez and Christopher Castro. They had been in the North Tower when it swayed back and forth, rocked by the collapse of its twin. The shock threw people off their feet, including a third officer, who was knocked unconscious. Hernandez crawled through the dark, she told the Times five years later when she and Castro were married. She found the unconscious officer by feeling for his gun belt. When Stolarik encountered the two officers, Castro was grasping Hernandez by the wrist. They had just carried their colleague to safety.

The second tower fell moments later. Stolarik watched it drop floor by floor, feeling as if each successive plunge was sucking the air from his lungs. “There was glittering in the sky,” he said, adding that it took a moment to understand that he was seeing shards of glass. He ran into a subterranean parking garage on Ann Street. People were screaming in terror and shouting for a metal gate to be pulled down to keep out the dust and debris. “We thought we were going to die,” Stolarik said.

He emerged to find an altered world, spending hours documenting rescue efforts that were largely futile. That’s when he photographed Fire Department captain John Garvin, one of the firefighters leaning against the car. In another picture from later that day, firefighters gave thumbs-up signs as a figure was removed on a board from the remnants of the towers. At first Stolarik believed they had found a survivor. Then he realized they had just found a body intact enough to carry.

The picture of the woman almost never saw the light of day. Stolarik thought both frames were too undefined to use. But a Gamma editor, James McGrath, disagreed, seeing a ghostly quality in the image that made it stand out. And something about the way the woman’s hands were positioned reminded him of a picture by the Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut that showed a 9-year-old girl, running naked after being burned by napalm in 1972. “It was a beautiful picture if you can call haunting beautiful,” McGrath said. “We moved it and it went all over the world.”

As September approached the social-media posts had not yielded any information about the woman. On the last night in August, Stolarik sat in his backyard in Brooklyn, talking about extending his search. Next, he would write to a friend whose wife works at ABC and see if she could help figure out whether reporters might have surviving notes with the names of people they spoke with near the Trade Center on September 11. And, he said, he would call a Manhattan law firm with a large number of clients who have made claims related to the terror attacks. Maybe someone there would recognize the woman.

Stolarik said that he knew he might never speak with her or learn her name. She might never come across one of the social-media posts. She might not have made any 9/11-related claims or she might have made them without a lawyer. She might, unlike the image of her, no longer be in this world. And she might not want to be found. “I’m comfortable not finding her,” Stolarik said. But then he listed reasons why he was still trying. “I’d like to know if that picture is as defining for her as it is for me,” he said. “I’m not saying that me photographing her had to have changed her life, but I wouldn’t mind her knowing that in some ways she changed mine.”

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The Woman in White