The 9/11 Decade: The spontaneous snapshot that has endured in a German woman’s life

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 – Globe and Mail

She still isn’t sure what compelled her to do it. Why, standing in bewilderment with her colleagues by the Flatiron Building near 23rd Street, they chose to take pictures of each other as the Twin Towers smoked in the distance.

And as she turned toward the camera, she didn’t know what to do with the muscles in her face. Some of the books and blogs that reposted the photo called it a “Mona Lisa” look. Others wondered how she could appear so clueless to the gravity of the events unfolding behind her.

“I didn’t get what was happening. Definitely not then,” she says. “For me, the focus was much more personal – on me and my belly, and not on the Twin Towers.”

Maybe, she adds, she felt compelled to document the moment “to explain to my daughter, later.”

Isabel Bessler had been having a really rough several months. She was on her own. She had no health insurance, no U.S. passport and a visa contingent on the job she was about to lose so she could have the child she hadn’t been sure she wanted to keep. “I have never, ever been that low.”

The then-32-year-old German architect arrived at work one morning to the news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. As an amateur pilot herself, she had flown close enough to the Twin Towers to peer inside from the height the planes had crashed that day. “I could look into the windows watching people work,” she says. “It’s crazy that it was not prohibited.”

And so she first thought that another amateur pilot had crashed a small turboprop into the building by mistake.

It wasn’t until she was back in the office that news trickled in of what had happened.

If she was torn about staying in New York before, the attacks made up Ms. Bessler’s mind for her. But in the immediate aftermath, she had no choice but to stick around.

There were no planes out. All hopes for a quick getaway to her parents in Germany were dashed.

For a week, she couldn’t even get into her own apartment because the streets were blocked. She slept, instead, on a co-worker’s couch.

When she finally got home, what haunted her most was the ensuing health scares, starting with the foul-smelling dust.

“This toxic melted steel and plastic – like when you burn garbage,” she said. Then anthrax. “They said you should not drink water from the tap. You couldn’t brush your teeth.”

She gave birth Oct. 2. Then, “I packed our things and I flew. One way,” to Zurich.

On a whim, before leaving, she submitted the photo to Here Is New York, a compilation of photos from 9/11. “I said, ‘Yes – why not?’ … It’s history now.”

And that was supposed to be it.

But for years later, the image intruded on her life.

Here Is New York made international tours for years afterward. Idle Web searches brought up the image, along with comments dissecting everything from the look on her face to the baby in her swollen belly.

When her daughter was 4, they walked past the photo exhibit at the Kunsthaus Zurich art gallery, and the man at the desk stopped her to ask if she was the one in the photo.

The most vivid reminder is the photo’s other, hidden subject: her daughter Amelia, who turns 10 in October. Amelia has seen the photo, part of an album Ms. Bessler put together of those last nine months in New York. But Amelia doesn’t think much of it. “She’s more interested in ice cream,” Ms. Bessler says.

“I can’t say if I’m proud of this, if I’m not proud. It’s history. That’s it. For me, my time changed completely,” she says. “I got much, much stronger because of this part of my life. That’s why I’m the person I am now.”

She still has the photo – “in a cupboard deep, deep, deep in our storage. But I still don’t want to have it in my living room. Definitely not.”


A random photographer long ago forgotten

Isabel Bessler was standing outside her office building with her colleagues when someone suggested they take photos of what was going on in front of them.

She can’t remember the name of the colleague who took her picture as they passed the office camera around, although she says she can see his face in her mind’s eye. “We just said, ‘Oh, come on – we’ll take a picture.’ … But I cannot tell you who took the camera first. I cannot remember his name.”

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