Artefacts pulled from the rubble of 9/11 become symbols of what was lost

Items left by victims of the attacks and those who tried to help them tell stories of bravery, loss, and perseverance.

Photographs By Henry Leutwyler
Published 3 Sept 2021, 17:28 BST
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Long Island resident Joe Hunter earned a business degree from Hofstra University, but he’d known since childhood that firefighting was what he really wanted to do. A television news video from the morning of 9/11 shows Hunter and other FDNY Squad 288 members, sober-faced and laden with gear, heading to the World Trade Center’s south tower to join the evacuation effort. When the tower collapsed, Hunter and his squad mates perished. Hunter’s helmet was found in the wreckage several months later.

Photograph by Courtesy Bridget Hunter and Family

What forces can sanctify an object, giving it meaning beyond itself? Selflessness. Courage. Endurance in the face of the unspeakable. The forces that Joe Hunter and hundreds of other people summoned on September 11, 2001.

Joe Hunter’s dreams rode on fire engines. At age four, he’d pedal his Big Wheel to the corner as the red trucks passed. At 11, he’d run fire rescue drills with a ladder and a garden hose, and if his pals didn’t take it seriously, he sent them home: “OK, you—out!” 

He started as a volunteer fireman, graduated from the New York City Fire Department academy, took rescue training for terrorist attacks and building collapses. When his mother, Bridget, worried, he’d tell her, “If anything ever happens, just know I loved the job.” 

(Five things to know about new documentary 9/11: One Day in America.)

Eighteen days shy of his 32nd birthday, Firefighter Joseph Gerard Hunter of FDNY Squad 288 died helping evacuate the World Trade Centre’s south tower. He was one of 2,977 people killed on 9/11 when al Qaeda hijackers used passenger jets as weapons in the deadliest ever terrorist attack.

In February 2002, searchers at ground zero recovered a Squad 288 helmet bearing Hunter’s badge number. “Of course, it’s mangled,” says Hunter’s sister, Teresa Hunter Labo. But the family is grateful it was found because “it’s the only thing we have of him that was down there, that was with him.”

Dispatched to the twin towers after the first attack, EMT Benjamin Badillo stayed with his ambulance as his partner, EMT Edward Martinez, looked for survivors. Hearing an awful roar, Badillo saw “the top of the building coming down.” Martinez was struck by debris. Both men sought cover as the south tower disintegrated. Martinez was taken to a hospital and survived thanks to emergency surgery. Badillo recalls searching the area, “screaming for my partner.” Their ambulance was destroyed, but part of its map book survived.
Photograph by Courtesy the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

In the two decades since 9/11, memorials have been built at the crash sites in New York City, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and in a field in Pennsylvania. Artefacts in each place reflect the particulars of each tragedy: When United Flight 93 crew and passengers tried to retake the plane, hijackers flew it into the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at more than 560 miles an hour. Other than one section of fuselage and two crumpled engine parts, most of what remained was in small pieces.

At the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York, more than 70,000 objects help tell the stories of victims, responders, and survivors. Artefacts are as small as a sapphire-and-diamond ring and as massive as a half-crushed fire engine. Many are utterly common: a food container lid, perhaps from a lunch packed on what started like any other Tuesday. But some common items’ poignance is in the details: The unfinished knitting, still on the needles, was the hobby of an executive at Cantor Fitzgerald—a company that lost 658 employees in the north tower. 

In Joe Hunter’s memory, his family has donated his helmet to the museum: “It belongs there,” his sister says. It’s preserved with the other artefacts, common but uncommon, in silent witness to history. 

Recovery workers spent nine months excavating debris from ground zero and searching for remains of victims. In 2006, New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner launched another search for remains in the area where the World Trade Center buildings had stood. Among the many everyday items discovered during that canvas: a broken, dirt-encrusted keyboard from investment holding company Garban Intercapital.
Photograph by Courtesy the Port Authority
Also found in the excavation of debris from ground zero was this plastic lid from a food container.
Photograph by Courtesy the Port Authority (BOTH)
The pilot of American Flight 77, Charles F. Burlingame III, carried a precious talisman: a laminated prayer card from the funeral of his mother, Patricia, who had died less than a year before. Recovery workers found the card, largely intact, at the Pentagon crash site. Burlingame’s brother said its discovery brought comfort: “My family believed that was my mother saying, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got him now.’ And that was her little sign to us.”
Photograph by Gift of the family of Capt. Charles F. Burlingame III
When passengers tried to retake Flight 93, hijackers aiming for Washington, D.C., crashed the jet in rural Pennsylvania. One piece of the Boeing 757’s engines was found lodged in a field; another fell into a pond. On the four hijacked flights, 33 crew members and 213 passengers died.
Photograph by Courtesy National Park Service, Flight 93 National Memorial
Some once common objects that endured the destruction seem poignantly anachronistic today. A crumpled roll of plastic film was discovered in lower Manhattan years after the initial recovery operation.
Photograph by Courtesy the Port Authority
On 9/11, almost every floor of the twin towers had offices. Equipment found after the attacks includes the remains of a Rolodex, a rotating file for cards with contact information—as indispensable in the late 20th century as databases are today. Some of the cards are charred, some warped, others still legible.
Photograph by Courtesy the Port Authority (BOTH)

Limited series 9/11: One Day in America is showing on the National Geographic Channel.

Patricia Edmonds, senior director for short-form content, oversees the magazine’s EXPLORE section. Henry Leutwyler is a Swiss photographer based in New York City; he was there on 9/11. Hicks Wogan contributed to this report.

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