© Reuters. Kayla Bergeron and others walk out of the World Trade Center tower in New York City early September 11, 2001. REUTERS / Shannon Stapleton
By Maurice Tamman
NEW YORK (Reuters) – At 9:59 a.m. on September 11, 2001, the South Tower of the World Trade Center toppled over. About 15 minutes later, photographer Shannon Stapleton struggled to find debris, peering through the smoke and dust for photos near the still-standing but paralyzed North Tower.
Stapleton, then a freelancer for Reuters, took several frames of a group of people emerging from what was left of the building’s foyer. In the middle of the group, a blonde woman clutched her coat to her face. The corners of her mouth dropped, her eyes dark.
Kayla Bergeron, public relations chief for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the buildings, had just come down 68 dark, flooded stairs. It took her almost an hour to reach the bottom.
Just before leaving the stairs, Bergeron recalled seeing a bright light ahead, and she was filled with hope that she would exit the building with her life. She stepped into the light, but couldn’t see anything, the smoke from the South Tower was thick.
The light she saw was the lobby of the North Tower. There, she heard a voice telling her to follow the footsteps in the dust. She staggered along her path, following the trail of the others who had escaped.
She did not see Stapleton taking pictures of herself and the other survivors.
“At that moment, I heard someone say run, run, run.” And she did.
Around the same time, Stapleton looked at the screen of his digital camera – the first he owned – and so pleased with his photos, he decided to hand them over to an editor. Minutes later, after the two left the area, the North Tower collapsed. Stapleton thinks that if he had been using his regular film instead of having immediate confirmation of a good digital picture, he might have stayed on the scene and was there when the tower fell – and become another victim.
The PR executive and photographer were connected in that shared slim moment and by deep psychological holes they both say they’ve only gotten to know each other recently.
Twenty years later, they finally meet, bonded by that picture. Both said they were humbled by what happened to them that day and what followed.
Although Stapleton’s photo was published around the world, Bergeron didn’t realize it existed for several weeks after the attack. Her sister, Bergeron said, happened to see it in People magazine.
Bergeron said: “She was a celebrity junkie, and she saw the photo and couldn’t believe it.
Bergeron continued to work at the Port Authority for nearly six more years. She helped the organization through the immediate crisis and subsequent rebuilding of the now 1,776-foot tower about a block west of the old Twin Towers.
“I’m always full of energy. Go, go, go. Never stop.”
When she left New York, she moved south to lead public relations for the South Florida Water District, a key agency in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a multi-billion dollar project to rehabilitate restore damage to important wetland ecosystems.
But there was a near-permanent anxiety eating into her. And there are night tremors and flashing lights while driving.
She didn’t stop long enough to think about what was happening to her, she says now. And when the anxiety became overwhelming, she took it upon herself to drink, she said.
“I’m like a drunk, okay? I know something’s wrong, but it’s not. If I had a little drink, I wouldn’t feel worried.”
In 2013, after her job as a water manager was dropped, she spent all her savings, lost her West Palm Beach apartment to foreclosure, and was arrested in Parkland, Fla., for driving under the influence of water. alcohol. She lost her driver’s license for six months.
During that time, she said, her mother died of lung cancer in Georgia, and she didn’t see her mother to say goodbye. Bergeron says she doesn’t want her parents to know how bad she’s gone.
And to some extent, she said, she doesn’t want to admit it to herself.
After her mother died, she moved to Suwanee, Georgia, to be closer to her father. But her troubles are not over yet. After a drunken night in 2017, she drove into the back of another car and ended up in the Forsyth County Jail. She was arrested about a mile from her father’s house.
As part of the plea agreement, she said, she entered a treatment program and was later diagnosed with PTSD and depression. As part of that treatment, she also participates in the Special Equestrian of Georgia, a program that uses exposure to horses as a form of therapy. It remains an important part of her life.
“The first time I went to that ranch, there was a big, beautiful mare,” she recalls. “Her name is Lily. I was just talking, stroking her. I wasn’t really paying attention. Suddenly, she put her head right on my shoulder. And suddenly, all that energy was clinging to me. down, it’s like it was released into the atmosphere.
“I’m not a fanatic,” Bergeron said. But the horse had a magical effect on her. “They have a sixth sense. There’s something magical about them that is healing.”
Bergeron is currently the program and outreach director for a nonprofit called The Connection Forsyth, which works with local courts in Georgia’s Forsyth County to help people facing misdemeanors control manage their addiction and mental health problems. Many veterans served in Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Many people, like her, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
DOCUMENTATION OF DEATH AND DESCRIPTION
For Stapleton, the years after 9/11 were filled with professional successes. In 2005, Reuters hired him as an employee, and over the next 15 years he went from one disaster or conflict to another. He says he rarely stops to pause or reflect on that dark day. He just kept going.
He documented the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in 2005 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He worked in Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli invasion and in Iraq. He has covered many horrific mass shootings, including the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that left 20 children and 6 adults dead.
Stapleton says he’s made a career documenting death and despair. He remembers riding his motorbike through the streets of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. A young boy lay dead on his soft shoulder in the street, his head smashed inwards. The bag he picked up. His shoes and socks are stolen.
“You don’t forget these things. Little girls and schoolboys walking through it as if it were nothing. Or in Lebanon, showing up when United Nations workers are killed, and you know, the smell of.. . corpses rot in bags, at 100 degrees of temperature, you don’t forget that.”
In the summer of 2018, he said, it all fell apart. He couldn’t cope with having seen so many deaths over the years, he said. When not working, he said, he became nervous around people and so withdrew from even his close friends and family. At work, he couldn’t deal with death photography anymore.
In the end, he said, he couldn’t even work and took some time out of the viewfinder to seek counseling and therapy. It was a slow process, and when he returned to work, he was as far away from the office and co-workers as possible. His boss, Reuters North American image editor Corinne Perkins, will meet him at restaurants around the city to keep an eye on him.
But in the end, he fixed it, he said. After struggling to find the right therapist, Stapleton was diagnosed with PTSD and major depression. He gets prescriptions to treat his anxiety and depression.
Last year, he spent months on the road documenting how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the country. He drove from California to Las Vegas to Chicago and beyond.
One day, just before Christmas last year, he took a photo of an elderly woman who was unresponsive to COVID at a hospital in Chicago. Her nurse held up an iPad so family members could say something to her. When he returned to the hospital the next day, her bed was empty. She died overnight.
“I went in and out of the parking lot. I smoked like five cigarettes, rolled my eyes and called out to Corinne, and she was crying with me. It hit me really, really hard. Die over and over again.”
Perkins says she’s happy to see Stapleton in bloom again and laughs that he sometimes calls her his second mom.
“We’re getting more and more aware that it’s not just war zones that can affect your mental health,” says Perkins. “It’s the pain of covering up a pandemic or having COVID or worrying about your family, or covering up fires and having a shotgun pointed at you and called fake news.”
A REUNION, 20 YEARS AFTER
Late this spring, Bergeron emailed Stapleton about the 9/11 photo. A French documentary filmmaker asked her about it.
“I contacted her and it was like, we’ve known each other all our lives,” he said.
Stapleton decided he wanted to see her. In June, he went down to Georgia.
During her visit, Bergeron took Stapleton to see her beloved horse ranch, and then to the courthouse in Cummings, where she often worked. The same court where she pleaded guilty a second time to the charge of influence driving and where a judge ordered her to enter a court-administered treatment program.
Here, Bergeron says she asked Stapleton to help her with an Army veteran who was struggling with PTSD and alcoholism after spending time in Afghanistan. The veteran was in court for a hearing after pleading guilty to traffic charges, including one involving the DUI, his fourth in less than a decade.
“I was trying to get him out of myself,” she recalls. “He has a lot of problems.”
Stapleton agreed to try. He stepped forward and touched the man on his shoulder.
“Hey, brother. I’m Shannon, Kayla’s friend,” Stapleton said he told the man. “I just want you to know I’m here. () You want to talk to someone, I can.”
Bergeron said she didn’t expect anything to happen to it, and Stapleton went back to her hotel room to take a nap. Not long after falling asleep, he was awakened by a call from Bergeron. The man, she said, wanted to talk to him. Stapleton got out of bed and drove 40 minutes north, back to her office.
“Me and him, we had this deep and profound conversation,” Stapleton said. US involvement in Afghanistan is coming to an end. “He was in Afghanistan. So he saw this whole thing fall apart, and he saw all his efforts in vain.”
Stapleton isn’t sure the conversation made a difference, but he says the man at least opened up about his experiences, and that’s a start.
When Stapleton visited Bergeron, she said she gave her a little piece of advice on how to cope with PTSD: “I said to Shannon, ‘It’s therapy — therapy and medication. This will follow you all along. life. It never goes away, but it fades over time.'”