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December 1, 2010

Peter Acton & The Lights

When I photographed FDNY Firefighter Peter Acton and the other guys at Engine 79 and Ladder 37 in the Bronx, the lights went out.  Tonight, Peter helped turn the lights back on in a really big way.  They were seen around the world.
While photographing the guys on August 14, 2003, the power went out at 4:10 pm.  Initially, we didn't think it was a big deal.  The guys took proper steps to turn on all the back up power sources.  The station was without television or lights but the rig's battery radios were operating and connected to headquarters.  Any 911 calls would be received.

Assuming the power would return shortly, we decided to keep shooting.

But a few minutes later, someone arrived to start his shift.  He gave us the news he'd heard on his car radio. . . the power was also out in Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Newark, NYC and everywhere in between.  It was the Blackout of 2003.  

Instinctively, I stepped back to get out of the way.  I watched as some of the guys took a quiet corner, made the sign of the cross and prayed that this wasn't the next 9/11 we were all expecting.  All grabbed their cell phones to call home.  I saw proof that firefighters are willing to take risks that most of us will never have to consider.  I was in awe of their courage, their readiness, and their commitment to serve.  But what was coming?  Who did this?  Were terrorists responsible?  

Eventually, we learned it was a power grid problem with a domino effect that staggered city after city.  Peter and the other members of Engine 79 and Ladder 37 were kept busy the rest of the night.  Without buses, taxis or subways, I was stuck in the Bronx . . . but that's another story.

Peter was a first responder on 9/11 and was, according to media reports, deeply touched by the outpouring of respect and gratitude from New Yorkers who lined the West Side Highway holding signs that read "Thank You Firefighters" or donated cash and gifts to support the guys at Ground Zero and the firefighting families who lost their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. 

Stephanie Acton, left, her husband Peter Acton, ...
The press reported that when he had the chance, Peter found a way to say "Thank You" to New Yorkers and all of America.  Peter and his family donated their 75 year old Norway Spruce tree to Rockefeller Center and tonight they helped light the Christmas Tree.

We all watched across the country as the lights went on.  Peter returned a few - make that a lot - of smiles to the faces of New Yorkers.  Thank You Peter, Stephanie, Seamus and Fiona!  We will never forget your generosity.  Have a Merry Christmas.  You've made ours brighter.

Tree Photos © Yahoo

November 17, 2010


Eric Matteson asked how long he had for his wife and daughter to join him for a photo before I left the station.  I told him it didn't matter, I'd wait for them.   It was a busy day and I could tell I'd be at Station 20 near the San Diego Sports Arena as long as the sun held out.  

I finally got a couple of minutes to gobble down some  lunch while Eric and his crew responded to a call.  I ran across the street to a Mexican restaurant and returned to the station with take-out.  

While I was eating, Eric's wife, Rachel, and his daughter, Izzy, arrived to be photographed with him and came over to introduce themselves. 

It's hard to talk with a mouth full of taco.  So when she asked me a question, I put my hand up to pause while I chewed and swallowed.  Rachel, an elementary school teacher, saw this as a teachable moment.  "She has good table manners," Rachel told her daughter, Izzy.  "She doesn't talk with her mouth full."

Rachel explained that Izzy doesn't like to have her picture taken and warned me that she might be difficult and resist.  I learned later from her father, Eric, that it was even hard to get Izzy to go to the station when they told her it was for a photo.

Stalling for time while I finished my lunch, I invited them to look through my portfolio of photos of firefighters from across the country.  Izzy raised herself over the edge of the desk where I was eating.  Her legs dangled off the side.   Aggressively, she flipped through page after page and boldly explained, "I'm looking for a picture of my daddy."  

I told her that I was waiting for her father to return to the station so I could take his photo.  It prompted her to ask, "Then will you put my daddy in here?"  She repeated the question over and over as her mother and I tried to talk between bites of lunch.  

"We're having a conversation," her mother said.  "Please don't interrupt."

Izzy waited.  As soon as Rachel and I finished, Izzy asked again, "Will you put my daddy in here?"

So I bargained with her.  I'd take her daddy's picture and put it in the portfolio if she would take one with him.  She agreed.  

When the engine returned, we went right to work.  We took several photos of Eric and his daughter, with Rachel and Izzy.

Rachel, Eric, Izzy & The Guys
I got a kick out of it when we took a family portrait and she kept asking, "Can I get my guys in it?"  She earnestly positioned her stuffed animals on the bumper of the engine, including a "firefighter."  Clearly, she's the child of a firefighter who wanted to make sure she took care of her "guys."

Next, it was time to work on some solo portraits of Eric.  As I was setting up a shot with him, Izzy wandered into the frame.   Eric didn't know she was there.  He was looking at the camera expecting me to click at any moment.  Rachel saw her and started to reach for Izzy.  Instinctively, I put my hand up - once again - to halt Rachel and quickly grabbed the photo above.  

Almost immediately Engine 20 got another call that brought my session with Eric to a halt.   So, used the time to return to my computer to download the photos and get them off my camera.  Izzy followed me and started looking through the portfolio again.  "Did you put my daddy in here?" she asked again.  She is a very determined child but I'm not that fast.

When Eric returned to the station, I asked him to fill out a photo release for my files.  Izzy jumped up on the desk, grabbed a release and a pen then began to fill one out, too.  I'll keep it in the files with her father's.

Afterwards, some of the firefighters and I were looking through the photos on my computer and couldn't stop smiling at the photo of Izzy and Eric.  There was a long silence as everyone just stared at it.  

Then someone said, "Imagine what Izzy's children will think of this photo when they see it."  

Suddenly, the project came into clear focus for everyone in the group.  They got it!  These photos are for the families of firefighters to treasure for generations to come.

Izzy makes the photo.  The smile on her face says it all.  Like so many family members, they are proud of their firefighter.

Izzy and her father are now prominently featured in my portfolio.  I tried to arrange for her to see it before I left San Diego but the flu prevented her and her family from meeting me.  I will stay in contact with them and make sure she knows we are all proud of her father and grateful to her and her mother for giving him the support and confidence he needs to do the job he loves. 

Another teachable moment . . .  she can trust some people to keep their word.

March 23, 2010

A Mother's Pride

Shortly after I took this photo in September, 2004, Chris Dunic’s mother called me. Her son, she said, was being deployed to Iraq. A member of FDNY’s Squad 288 in Queens, Chris was part of the elite unit’s team that rushed to the pile in a futile attempt to find survivors. Squad 288 shares a fire house with Hazmat 1. Together, they lost 14 of their members on 9/11. The search, rescue and recovery effort was a grim job, but one that had to be done, and Chris was well trained to do it. Of course, he was only one of many ready and willing to get the job done.

Linda Dunic wanted me to know how much the photo meant to her, especially now that he would be so far away and in harms way. She and her husband, Slavko, own a very popular restaurant in Manhattan, Campanile. She planned to proudly display the framed portrait at the entrance to the restaurant for all to see.

"I want everyone who comes in to see my son," she told me. "I'm so proud of him." Her voice quivered on the edge of tears.

We never met, but we exchanged a few emails. Then time slipped away. I left New York a few months later to visit other fire departments.

But a recent article in the New York Post about the rescue of a young boy made famous by a photo of him rising out of the rubble, arms spread wide, embracing life, caught my attention. It described the work by members of the New York Task Force who rushed to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January. While all the highly trained police officers and firefighters joined in the search and rescue efforts, one name leaped off the page for me.

Looking deeper into the story, I read the London Times article which stated:

“The final, magnificent breakthrough fell to Chris Dunic, a veteran New York fireman whose tunnelling skills were forged in the smouldering ruins of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.”

I got chills. I also got back in touch with Linda Dunic to tell her how proud I knew she must be - indeed, how proud we all are. But proud is not the word to describe what Linda felt. Like many of us who saw the rescue on television or saw the now famous photograph of 7 year old Kiki in newspapers, magazines and on-line, Linda saw it too. While watching the evening news with the rest of America, Linda said she was moved to tears at the amazing sight of that young boy and his life-affirming smile and joyous response to recovery.

But she didn’t see her son in the pictures. As soon as Chris lifted the boy out, he went back down for the sister. The tv cameras didn’t catch that.

And Chris, a humble man, didn’t tell his mother about the crucial role he played in this miraculous recovery. He would occasionally reassure her in phone calls and emails that he was safe and well, but never mentioned Kiki. It wasn’t until he got back to New York and, together with his mother, was watching another news report about the rescue that he finally told her, “That was me.” It must have overwhelmed her.

I can't imagine how it must have felt for Chris and the other rescuers to make such a successful recovery - especially since so few such successes were possible following the terrorist attack on September 11.

By now the story has been told in newspapers and magazines - most recently Reader’s Digest. But no story can capture the emotional pride and joy of a mother who has instilled in her son the integrity, humility and bravery that inspires him to commit his life to protecting other’s whether it’s Ground Zero in New York, Afghanistan and Iraq, or the devastated streets of Port-au-Prince. Without a doubt, he will be called upon again and he will answer the call without hesitation. It's who he is. It's who she raised him to be.

Maybe it will take a photo to express her pride - worth a thousand words, right? It’s certainly a mother and son photo I hope to take one day. I will be honored if it too takes it’s place on the wall at the entrance of Campanile along with the new photos - seen here - that she’s added from Chris’ extraordinary days in Haiti.

Haiti photo credits: Matthew McDermott, January 2010