Amidst the heartbreaking tragedy of 9/11, a stranger finds a photograph discarded on the ground. In it, six friends pose together, smiling against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. For the next 13 years, Elizabeth Stringer Keefe will try to unravel the mystery of this haunting image.
Stringer Keefe is a professor at Lesley University in Boston, Massachusetts, and she also serves as the Co-President of the Massachusetts Council for Exceptional Children. And as if that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she’s studying for a Ph.D. at Boston College as well.
However, despite her busy academic schedule, Stringer Keefe has found time to keep up one tradition over the past 13 years. It all began in September 2001, just days after a terrorist attack in New York City claimed the lives of some 3,000 people.
In the aftermath of the attacks, a friend of Stringer Keefe’s made a heartbreaking discovery on the street. There on the ground, blocks away from Ground Zero, was a photograph of six people snapped in happier times. Stringer Keefe’s friend picked it up and subsequently handed it to the professor.
As Stringer Keefe told Fox & Friends in 2014, her friend’s only request was that she “do something meaningful with it.” So, the professor decided that she would try her best to track down the original owner of the photograph. She hoped that eventually her efforts might become a tiny beacon of hope in dark times.
“It was my small contribution, trying to do something good in conjunction to 9/11,” Stringer Keefe subsequently told the NY Daily News in 2014. “The purpose for me was to bring some small comfort to someone.” That first year, Keefe consequently made a digital copy of the photograph and shared it on her social media accounts.
Although she hoped that someone would see her posts and recognize the people in the photograph, it seemed that Stringer Keefe was out of luck. Every year, she asked the internet for help in solving the mystery – and every year she drew a blank. Meanwhile, she kept the snap safe inside a copy of A Moveable Feast, her favorite Ernest Hemingway novel.
For 13 years, Stringer Keefe repeated her ritual. And for 13 years, it seemed as if the people in the photograph might never be identified. Then, however, in September 2014 everything changed. That year the Boston news website Universal Hub found out about the professor’s mission.
A centralized network of blogs based in the city, Universal Hub helped to propel Stringer Keefe’s search into the mainstream. Soon, in fact, a staggering 68,800 people had shared her post on Twitter. On top of that a user known as scottkelly started a thread on reddit that quickly garnered more than 1,000 replies.
Unsurprisingly, Stringer Keefe was stunned by the response. “I feel like people are giving it the exposure it needs to get the right set of eyes on it,” she told Boston magazine. “Twitter has literally taken it up. I think that it could be the year that it gets back to the owner. I hope so.”
Although she welcomed the new attention, Stringer Keefe admitted that she still couldn’t be sure that the photograph even had a direct connection to the tragedy at the World Trade Center. Given the location where it was found, however, she believed that it was likely.
And despite the continuing lack of information about the image, Stringer Keefe was trying her best to remain optimistic. Even if it had come from the scene of the attack, she reasoned, it was possible that it had fallen from someone’s office or that a survivor had carried it with them when they escaped.
As Stringer Keefe’s search gathered momentum, the professor found herself flooded with messages regarding the photograph. While receiving ten tweets per second, unfortunately she missed one from a man named Fred Mahe. A Colorado native, Mahe had lived in New York at the time of the attacks.
“I KNOW THE PEOPLE IN THE PICTURE!” Mahe wrote. “I was at the wedding.” Mahe didn’t stop there, thankfully. On September 12 he subsequently managed to track down Stringer Keefe on LinkedIn, sending her a message about the photograph. Intrigued, she immediately picked up the phone.
In fact, Mahe claimed to not only know the people in the photograph, but also to be one of them – a young man dressed in a sharp suit and bow tie. As Mahe and Stringer Keefe spoke, the story of the mysterious snap began to unfold.
According to Mahe, the photograph was taken at the 2001 wedding of his friends, Christian and Christine Laredo, in Aspen, Colorado. Taking a liking to the snap, Mahe consequently decided to display it in his cubicle at Baseline Financial, on the 77th floor of the World Trade Center’s second tower.
Mahe had not yet arrived at work on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the first plane plowed into the north tower. So for 13 years he assumed that his beloved photograph was just one of the countless memories lost that fateful day. A friend then recognized him in Stringer Keefe’s photograph – and the mystery was finally solved.
Much to Stringer Keefe’s delight, Mahe was also able to confirm that all of the people in the photograph were alive and well. Later that day Stringer Keefe was even able to talk to the former bride and groom on the phone. Now living in California, Christian and Christine have a young daughter and are happily married.
Understandably, both Mahe and the Laredos have been touched by Stringer Keefe’s unwavering dedication. “The photo has become a symbol of resilience after 9/11,” Christine told NY Daily News. “I can’t wait to show it to my daughter.”
Stringer Keefe’s efforts, meanwhile, have only solidified Mahe’s personal beliefs about September 12, a day on which he witnessed his community coming together for the greater good. “We saw the worst of humanity on 9/11,” he said. “But on 9/12 we saw the best of humanity. Elizabeth embodies that.”
But of course, Mahe’s photograph isn’t the only poignant object that was found in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In fact, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum has an entire collection of personal items recovered from the debris. And as you may well imagine, each of them has a heart-rending story to tell.
Pictured above is a pair of smart business-dress shoes. But these are unusual in comparison to many other items that were unearthed from the debris. That’s because the owner of the shoes, Linda Raisch-Lopez, actually survived the terrorist atrocity, while the owners of nearly all of the other objects that you’ll see died in the attack. Raisch-Lopez injured her feet as she evacuated from the South Tower, but only later did she notice the dark stains on the shoes – her own blood.
The operation to clear the rubble and debris after the attack was massive. Some 1.8 million tons of rubble were trucked away in 108,000 loads. All of the debris was then minutely examined for human remains and any artifacts. Many of the objects found were then handed to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It has carefully catalogued them, recording details about their owners whenever possible.
Many of those who lost their lives were rescue workers and first responders. This Port Authority Police Department baseball cap was 47-year-old James Francis Lynch’s. We know that because his badge number is written on the inside. And the soiled and tattered condition of the hat bears witness to the conditions that Lynch worked in when he lost his life.
Born in Wellsville, Ohio, and an alumnus of the University of Cincinnati, Catherine Patricia Salter was living in Brooklyn in 2001. And on that fatal September day she went to work as usual at Aon Corporation’s South Tower offices. Salter, 37, had worked for Aon for a decade, rising to assistant vice-president. But her everyday purse, discovered in the ruins, takes on an almost unbearable poignancy.
Unsurprisingly, firefighters paid a high price on the day of the attacks on Lower Manhattan. A total of 343 subsequently lost their lives. One of those was 28-year-old Kevin M. Prior of Lifelong Bellmore on Long Island. Even a cursory glance at this battered firefighter’s helmet illustrates the dangers faced by those trying to quell the flames and rescue survivors. Happier times for Prior included a vacation to Ireland with his fiancée in summer 2001.
This cellphone belonged to Andrea Lyn Haberman, a 25 year old with a bright future ahead of her. She had made her first ever trip to New York from Chicago for a business meeting on the North Tower’s 92nd floor. Earlier in 2001, Haberman and her fiancée had bought a home together in Chicago.
These elegant but battered shoes belonged to Joanne “JoJo” Capestro – under all that dust they are actually black. She was on the North Tower’s 87th floor when the plane hit, however she managed to escape from the tower moments before it collapsed. Afterwards Capestro sheltered behind a vehicle parked in the street and a firefighter brought her to safety. After surviving the attack, she subsequently gave her shoes to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
Of the many personal items discovered in the rubble after 9/11, few could be more evocative than this handsome gold wedding ring adorned with a row of tiny diamonds. Originally from the Bronx, 55-year-old Robert Joseph Gschaar lived in Spring Valley, New York, with Myrta, his wife of 11 years, and her four daughters. The attack caught him on the South Tower’s 92nd floor.
This wallet’s owner, Giovanna Galletta Gambale, lived in Brooklyn all her life. The tragic victim was 27 years old and living with her parents in September 2001. Gambale was a vice-president at a firm called eSpeed and was in her office on the 105th Floor of the North Tower when the disaster unfolded. She was a New York Mets fan and enjoyed nothing more than spending time with her boyfriend Tom.
This damaged car key once operated Joseph F. Holland’s Mercedes. The 32-year-old was born in the Bronx however now lived in Glen Rock, New Jersey. He had also recently become the father of a son with his wife Kathleen. On September 10, he’d been passing out cigars to celebrate the arrival of his newborn, however on the following day he was at a meeting on the 92nd floor of the North Tower.
This religious pendant belonged to 34-year-old Durrell V. Pearsall, Jr. and is inscribed “St. Florian Protect Us.” Florian is the patron saint of firefighters, and Pearsall was a member of the New York Fire Department’s Rescue Company 4. Pearsall lived with his partner Karen in Hempstead, N.Y.
Firefighter William Wren lived with his wife Patricia in Long Island’s Lynbrook. Wren, 61, had actually retired from FDNY’s Ladder Company 166. He took a job as resident fire safety manager at the Twin Towers and joined in the rescue and evacuation effort, but at the cost of his own life.
Badly twisted and with the lenses missing, these were the glasses of 54-year-old Aon Corporation senior vice-president David Wiswall. Wiswall and his wife Patricia had two grown-up children and lived in Long Island’s Massapequa. The couple filled their time enjoying dinners with friends, bowling and golf. He was in his office on the 105th floor of the South Tower on 9/11.
This New York Police Department shield and medal display belonged to Moira Ann Smith. She was one of the 23 NYPD officers who lost their lives on 9/11, in addition to 37 officers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department. Living with her husband James, the couple had a two-year-old daughter. However she died as she helped in the evacuation of the South Tower.
As we’ve seen, firefighters paid a high price for their habitual bravery in the face of danger. This crumpled, dusty jacket belonged to assistant chief of department and citywide tour commander Gerard A. Barbara. He lived on Staten Island. At the age of 53, Barbara and wife Joanne had two grown-up children, and he’d been a firefighter for 31 years. He died when working on the rescue operation at the South Tower.
This brief case, much the worse for wear, was the property of Thomas J. Fisher. The paper stuck on the outside of the case has hand-written notes. Fisher was from Queens but lived in Union Township, New Jersey, at the time of the atrocity. He lived with his wife Susan and their three children. A vice-president at Fiduciary Trust, 36-year-old Fisher was in his 97th floor office in the South Tower on the morning of 9/11.
This final artifact is not actually from the Twin Towers, rather it belonged to 58-year-old flight attendant Lorraine G. Bay who was aboard United Airlines Flight 93. That was the plane that the hijackers intended to fly into the White House but was brought down after passengers overwhelmed the terrorists. Bay lived in East Windsor, New Jersey with husband Erich.