JENNA Piccirillo was pictured with her three-month-old son on the morning of September 11th, 2001 in an image that became world-famous.
The snap was taken on her Brooklyn Heights rooftop as history unfolded across the Hudson River as the World Trade Center towers burned. Her three-month-old son, Vaughan was facing her, in an effort to shield his vision from the horrors of the world he had been born into.
On that perfect September morning, Jenna woke to a loud crack of what she thought was thunder.
When she opened her eyes to sunshine and blue sky, she thought it was going to be a “perfect day for a rainbow,” she told the Smithsonian magazine in 2003.
She carried Vaughan downstairs to a deli for her morning coffee. “The clerk and a customer were talking about the second plane hitting,” Piccirillo remembers.
She thought they were joking, but soon realized something horrible had indeed happened. “I wanted to see it,” she says. “I grabbed hold of my son, I took my coffee, and climbed up to the roof.”
“Not knowing what was going to happen next was terrifying,” she remembers.
“Was the world going to end?” People were trying to make cellphone calls, usually to no avail. Rumors circulated. Fears grew. People speculated wildly about the identity of the attackers. “The conversations were sort of background sound to me,” Piccirillo says, recalling how she silently, raptly watched events unfold. A girl suggested the towers would crumble, but Piccirillo felt certain she was wrong.
Alex Webb, a veteran photographer for Magnum Photos and his wife, Rebecca Norris Webb, who is also a photographer, lived in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. At the time of the attacks, he was out buying groceries. He overheard passersby talking about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. He ran home and turned on the television. He and Rebecca began packing their cameras.
The subway was shut down, so they rented a car and drove toward the Brooklyn Bridge, which was closed. They parked and continued on foot. A woman leaving an apartment building called out, asking if they wanted to see the city from the roof.
They went up and found a crowd of people looking toward Manhattan. The Webbs took some pictures there and walked from rooftop to rooftop, looking for a vantage point. Then they saw Piccirillo. It was sometime after 11 A.M. when Webb took her picture. He says he was struck by the “sense of the continuity of life in the face of disaster.”
Two years later they revisiting the rooftop with Piccirillo in May of 2003, cameraman Alex said was struck by the boy’s growth and energy. “September 11, 2001, seemed so long ago.”
This September, Jenna and her son spoke to The Wall Street Journal ahead of the twentieth anniversary and not-so-small Vaughan shared his thoughts on the snap.
Vaughan Piccirillo-Sealey said he was “about 11” when his mom told him that he was in a well-known photo from 9/11.
“It was kind of surreal. ‘Is that really me?’ ” he recalls thinking.
As he grew older, the photo made more of an impression on Vaughan, now a student at the University of Connecticut.
He noticed how his mother had placed his carrier so he was facing her and not the terrible scene across the river. And she is looking at him.
“Obviously my mother cares about me and my well-being and put me above the tragedy at hand, and I think a lot of parents would have done the same,” he says.
“It’s a good message,” he adds. “You have a choice to decide which narrative to point your eyes at, and I think my mother chose the ones of love and care over despair.”
Jenna added: “We are a little blip on the map of those people who lost lives,” she says.
It also reminds her that the future for her son turned out better than she could have seen at the time.