independent

Friday 25 April 2014

The girl who still haunts Ground Zero

Irish photographer Nicola McClean was in New York on 9/11 and captured many moving images as the tragedy unfolded. She talks here to Barry Egan about her special tribute to the victims

HOME: Nicola and husband Paul, a former NYPD officer, plus children Bobby-Dee, Mikey, Paul and James. Photo: Tony Gavin

IT'S a beautiful warm, sunny morning in Howth, same as on that morning nearly 10 years ago in New York.

Nicola McClean's four young boys are playing in the other room. Pauleymac, the eldest, is seven. His twin brothers, Mikey and James, are five. Little Bobby-Dee, who was born in Manhattan on January 2, 2008, happily plays with his Buzz Lightyear toy.

Nicola encapsulates all the complexities of human emotions as she talks about her moving photographic exhibition Ground Zero 360° -- the terrible tale of September 11, and the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. The exhibition has the unique perspectives of a New York City police commander and a New York photojournalist -- both born in Ireland and both destined to marry and have children together. We can hear them, little Bobby-Dee et al, playing in the other room and occasionally in the garden.

"I think eight kids died in the attack. The youngest was two-year-old Christine Hanson. All the kids were on the planes. Christine was on her way to Disneyland in Los Angeles on United Airlines Flight 175 with her parents Peter and Sue. No doubt she died in their arms," Nicola tells me.

I ask her how she could have survived emotionally had any of her own kids been on the plane that day.

"Does anyone emotionally survive the death of their child?" she asks. "The light goes out inside you, I would imagine. And I figure the only reason you would still remain in existence would be that you had other children that you had to be there for."

In his novel The Good Life, Jay McInerney writes about how New York turned into a small town after the Twin Towers fell from the sky. And how the mood in the city saw New Yorkers cherish each other and whatever in the way of love they had had on September 10.

"9/11 made us realise that you never know what tomorrow will bring and that life is precious and can be stolen from you at any minute, that you must try to slow down and capture the joy, as it is fleeting," Nicola says. "It has taught me that evil truly exists, but that the human spirit endures and can rise up even in the worst of times. It brought most people together emotionally, you called your family and you told them that you loved them, I can't really imagine anything worse than not having told someone how much you loved them and then they die. I am a firm believer in emotional honesty."

Nicola has barely got the words out when her husband Paul comes in the door with Pauleymac, Mikey, James and Bobby-Dee following after him. Officially retired as one of New York's top police chiefs (he was a deputy inspector when he stepped down from the force last year), 42-year-old Paul now commutes twice a month to New York, where he runs a training school for the NYPD.

He and his wife, four years his junior, couldn't be more different. She is from a well-off family in Sutton -- "a privileged background; we wanted for nothing growing up and I was a bit of a party girl," she says. Paul's early life, it appears, was everything Nicola's was not. He grew up on a farm in Donegal. "Can you imagine a farm in Donegal in the Seventies?" he laughs.

They met in Christmas of 2000 when Nicola, who worked for The Irish Voice as well as Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, was sent to photograph him. "I thought he was going to be this fat old bore!" she laughs. If Nicola had listened to her commissioning editor she would have realised that the reason she was photographing Paul was that he was the youngest commanding officer in the history of the NYPD at that time.

"I think he was 31," she says, adding with a flourish: "It was love at first sight. I think I fell in love with him straight away." Nicola, who was living with her Italian boyfriend at the time in Queens, and Paul (who was living with his parents in Yonkers and was also in a relationship) soon ended their respective romantic involvements. They went out on their first date in March 2001 to SoHo. It was drizzling rain all night, she smiles.

Seven years later -- on September 20, 2008, at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin -- "Our wedding song was A Rainy Night In Soho by The Pogues," remembers Nicola. "It was Paul's choice, so perhaps he is a little bit of a romantic after all. I'm a bit of a romantic too." That passion for things romantic comes from her parents: she can remember as a young kid watching her dad, Syl, paint something on the back wall of the mansion they lived in by the beach in Sutton -- "Syl Loves Jean".

I know Nicola well. I was at their wedding and at parties of theirs in New York and Marbella (where Nicola's parents Syl and Jean have homes).

Nicola is great crack. And I am not surprised when she says she went out with Gerry Ryan on the town in Manhattan when he came over after 9/11.

"He was a lovely guy. I met him a few times. We went to Ground Zero in a squad car and he mentioned how the girls in his house loved those little blue boxes from Tiffany's. He'd bring them back as gifts." Nicola, who studied Fine Art Photography at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, certainly has an eye for detail -- in this case the most heartbreaking of detail of that fateful day in New York.

"I remember a beautiful girl and her fabulous long red hair," Nicola says. "She frantically looked behind her and then down below and then behind her again, the absolute horror of what was happening to her clearly etched in her face. I don't recall if she jumped, I presume she did, but the look of her amazing red locks blowing up and around her little petrified face is something that I shall never forget. She was the centre of someone's world and there she was, standing alone, with fires blazing all around her, on the top of the tallest building in the world, with no one to make it OK."

Her blue eyes are welling up with tears as she recalls it and other memories like it.

"I struggle still with it, Paul and I don't talk much about the finer details, the very personal stories ... there are so many ... as it always ends the same way," she says.

"I go right back there and I see that girl and it's all too much. I didn't even know her name. How must it be for the families who lost someone? Unimaginable. It is for these families and the girl with the red hair and the thousands like her, that we decided 10 years ago that we would play our part to help the world to always remember."

As soon as Nicola heard what had happening at the World Trade Center, she scooped up all the film she could find and her trusty camera and raced from her home in Queens into Manhattan. She had to use all her contacts and guile to get near the area which was locked down by police.

The 200 rolls of what the young Dubliner shot that day and the days after 9/11 formed the basis of an exhibition that opens in Dublin this week and in Chicago at the end of this month ( Michelle Obama is due to make an appearance, as is Hillary Clinton -- who offered Nicola a job on her last campaign documenting her every move). Asked what she wants people to take from the Ground Zero 360°, Nicola says she feels that she has "a responsibility to honour those that died that day. I was right there at Ground Zero while many family members of the victims were not. They were elsewhere, praying and hoping that their loved ones would make it home. For most of them, their prayers went unanswered," she says.

"I am not a particularly religious person, but like most Irish people I was baptised Catholic and attended a Catholic school, I felt a deep spiritual sense of loss as I stood there alone on the streets of Manhattan in the middle of that dust cloud. I promised myself then that I would never ever forget, that I would always remember their loss and the inevitable pain and suffering that I knew all of their families would endure for the rest of their lives. Families torn apart, children orphaned, too much to really take on board."

As her own children run wildly about her, Nicola goes from firm mother ordering them to behave to the mother exuding that grace that glows in a moment of perfect communion with the children she gave birth too.

"All of them were born in Dublin apart from Bobby-Dee, who was born in New York," Nicola says. "Family is very important to us, so in August 2009 we moved home to live permanently in Dublin. I wanted Pauleymac to start school in St Fintan's National School, in Sutton."

The twins are also starting there in September, Nicola beams. However, New York, you suspect, will always have a place in their hearts.

Ground Zero 360° is at the National Museum, Collins Barracks, Aug 18-Oct 1 & at the RDS Sept 6-Sept 11. 'Ground Zero 360° -- A Photo Book' is available at www.groundzero360. org

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