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 360Â° -- 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).
"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.
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