Faces exhibit a brilliance that overshadows evil

ROB MORSE
Friday, May 17, 2002

Eight months and six days later and we're not over it. Sometimes we think we are, but we're not. And we shouldn't be.

At lunchtime Thursday, the lobby of One Market Street was filled with ordinary Americans walking slowly and reverentially through an exhibition of life-size photographs of other ordinary Americans. The silence was the same silence you hear at Washington's Vietnam War Memorial.

The traveling exhibition is called "Faces of Ground Zero." The 58 photographs of rescuers and survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center were taken by Time-Life photographer Joe McNally with a unique 16-foot-tall Polaroid camera. A short video shows McNally at work, telling subjects to pose with the tools of their trade and peeling back huge swaths of Polaroid film.

At the opening reception earlier this week, McNally told me about Archbishop Demetrios, whose St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed in the attack. When the film was peeled to reveal the archbishop's image, he said, "This is perfection."

The photographs show people as they are at their best, the way the viewers of the exhibition would want to be if they suddenly found themselves on the front line of war in their own city.

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There's Joe Demczur, big as life in his window washer overalls, holding the squeegee he used to open an elevator door and break through a wall to save himself and other passengers. A small eloquent quote accompanies each photograph, and Demczur's is "I can't talk about it."

The photos were taken just two weeks after the attack. "Joe is more voluble now," said McNally.

Katrina Marino lost her firefighter husband, Kenneth Marino. In the photo, her 3-year-old daughter Kristin is covering her eyes with her hand, probably because of the flash, but the gesture has a sculptural eloquence. The eloquence goes on and on.

There are firefighters who found no one to rescue, nurses who had no one to treat, priests who had all too many dead to bless and a humane society worker who rescued people's pets.

There's Omar Rivera, a blind official of the Port Authority who descended 71 floors of Tower One with the help of his guide dog Salty. At the opening reception, Rivera and Salty stood in front of their photograph, along with Rivera's wife, Sonia, and their 9-year-old daughter, Erica.

"I realized that life is very fragile and I should be giving more of me to the ones I love -- and even the ones I don't love," said Rivera, when I asked how his life had changed. "Life by itself is a gift."

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By the end of the opening night speeches, there were lots of red eyes in the crowd, which included many employees of Morgan Stanley, which was the largest tenant of the World Trade Center, and sponsors the exhibition.

Assistant Chief Earl Sanders of the SFPD said we learned our enemies hate us just because we're Americans. "Let us say to these enemies that all we have to do to defeat you is be Americans."

Above all, Sanders said, we should live up to our own ideals of liberty and justice for all.

San Francisco Fire Chief Mario Trevino said that the connections between the New York and San Francisco fire departments are "more than traveling to attend St. Patrick's Day parades."

Indeed, I later met Jeff Moreno, who was one of 11 San Francisco firefighters who flew to New York on Sept. 17 and stayed for eight days. They searched the rubble at night and attended funerals during the day, because there were so many funerals and too few New York firefighters.

When Joe McNally got up to speak, he said his subjects would just say they were doing their jobs.

"Quite honestly, all I can do is shoot the pictures," he said. Then McNally paraphrased Archbishop Demetrios: "Out of the darkness of evil came brilliance. "

You see the brilliance of plain people in the pictures and hear it in their words. In comparing the simplicity of this exhibition to the Vietnam Memorial, Chief Trevino of the Fire Department said, "You wouldn't think that names carved in granite would have that effect."

You hear that same silence in the lobby gallery, but emotions behind it are different. The photographs are of the living, for the living, and the war is not over.

"Faces of Ground Zero" runs until June 7. It's open, free of charge, Monday through Friday from 7 am. to 6:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Rob Morse's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. His e-mail address is rmorse@sfchronicle.com.