Rocky Pinciotti was in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, loading trucks when he saw the first plane slam into the World Trade Center.
An artist and photographer, the Toledo native had been on top of the big building just five days earlier, snapping pictures and taking measurements for a client’s commercial display.
Now he was watching in horror as the building burned and fell to the ground, transforming the neighborhood where he had lived for 15 years into an apocalyptic disaster scene.
“It’s indescribable, and visually you keep thinking, ‘OK, somehow there is a lot of damage up there and somehow they’re going to stop it,’?” he said in a telephone interview from his home outside the city where he lives with his wife and son. “And then this building crumbles. It’s beyond words.”
Jessica Locke was hundreds of miles away on that day, but she felt all the pain and suffering that was emanating from New York. Several months after the tragedy, she was drawn to visit Ground Zero and help any way she could.
As a musician, the Monclova Township native who was living in the Boston area felt compelled to compose a work that would convey the enormity of the event. And as a massage therapist, she wanted to help the rescue workers heal.
So she traveled to Manhattan, and through her own doggedness and the generous nature of a group of grieving firefighters, began a life transformation that led to writing a book, forming a nonprofit organization that helps firefighters, and establishing a lasting relationship with Engine 32 company that continues to this day.
“It was so horrible. It was so bad that it was a time if you ever felt called to do something, this was the time,” she said in a phone interview from her home in suburban Boston.
Two northwest Ohio natives, both artists touched deeply by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and both changed forever by that day. These are their stories.
Mr. Pinciotti is a St. John’s Jesuit High School and University of Toledo graduate who moved to New York in 1979 to pursue a career in art. He received his master of fine arts degree from Pratt Art Institute and began working with neon in addition to doing photography. He’s had numerous exhibits of his work and is gallery director at the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance Gallery in Narrowsburg, N.Y.
He moved to Lower Manhattan in 1982 and had lived there for 14 years before moving to the Chelsea neighborhood. The World Trade Center was a regular destination for people who lived in the area. They dined in the Windows on the World restaurant and took out-of-town visitors to Tower 2’s observation deck to look out on the city.
Consequently, the attacks became deeply personal for Mr. Pinciotti — who was standing at White and Church streets when the first plane hit — even though he didn’t directly know anyone who was killed that day.
“You talk to anybody, and they either know somebody or know somebody who knows somebody who was in that building,” he said.
After the first building fell, he headed to his home and from that point on felt himself both repelled by and attracted to the site that would become known as Ground Zero. He recalled going back to the area for jobs and being overwhelmed by the sensory overload.
“The smell … it was a weird smell that you don’t forget it if you smell it again,” he said. “It takes you right back there. It’s kind of like burning garbage smell, truthfully — the smell of death. And it went on for months and months downtown and it would blow right up the street.”
When Mr. Pinciotti discusses 9/11, he keeps coming back to how much he loves New York and how strong his attachment is to the city — its art scene, its energy, and the people. For him the wounds from 10 years ago are still raw even though he now lives in a suburb with his wife, fellow photographer Joan Blase, and their 13-year-old son.
“I am still affected by it today. I actually went through a difficult time for awhile, and I think a lot of people did and it depends on your connections, your strength, your emotions, and how you move past it,” he said.
“But for me, it’s never really far from the surface. I could not explain to you why I’m choked up now. I couldn’t really put it in words. It’s a really horrible event, and I know people all over the world go through things as bad or worse. It’s something that doesn’t ever really leave you, and those emotions come back easily.”
Ms. Locke is a 1969 graduate of Anthony Wayne High School. She attended Ohio State University and received a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. She’s also a massage therapist who practices the Alexander technique, an approach that has as its goal releasing tension from muscles and alleviating pain.
In the months after 9/11 she simply wanted to help. She eventually made her way to Ground Zero about three months after the disaster to see what she could do. She found a scene of utter sadness and destruction, and when she was finished viewing the site, she had about four hours until her train home.
So she walked up to the Engine 32 fire station nearby to see if she could give the firefighters massages. She felt strongly that she had something to offer to help them heal.
But her own emotions were overwhelming.
But she knocked on the door anyway and was greeted by a firefighter who politely told her he wasn’t interested in her offer. Walking away, she was crying and questioning her own motives, wondering why she had come this far only to give up. So she went back and knocked again and this time he let her in and agreed to a massage.
“As I put my hands on him … I felt that he didn’t want this body work, but he was sitting in this chair to make me feel better about coming down here,” Ms. Locke said. “This felt so good to be doing something at this time. Many years later, I asked him, ‘Did I have that right, did I intuit that you sat in that chair for me?’ And he said, ‘Of course I did.’?”
The massage relieved longtime nagging pain in his shoulder, so he encouraged another firefighter who had chronic pain to work with Ms. Locke. Before she left, they asked her if she could return in the ensuing months and work with more of them.
A relationship was established, and Ms. Locke, through the help of an acquaintance who gave her access to a condominium in Manhattan for several years, traveled to the city every few months to give the firefighters massages.
Over time she was accepted into their culture, eating meals with them and helping out around the station.
“I kept showing up, and I kept my mouth shut and I kept working hard. I started to earn their respect. And I had never in my life understood what self-esteem felt like,” she said. “This was a sense of nonstop community, and I had a sense of family.”
She noticed a significant change in them when the first anniversary of the attacks came in 2002. Before that milestone, they could talk about losing their friends — four firefighters from the station were killed — and they seemed stable, which wasn’t true given what was going on under the surface emotionally.
Over the years she became an advocate for the firefighters, working through private businesses to acquire donated beds, a dishwasher, and other amenities for the station. She wrote a book, Rescue at Engine 32 released in 2007, and formed a nonprofit organization called the Jessica Locke Firefighters Fund (firefightersfund.org) to help raise money for relief efforts, including trying to force the city of New York to provide treatment for the post-traumatic stress that the firefighters still suffer.
She also wrote a choral memorial piece called “The Reading of the Names,” which includes singing the names of the more than 300 firefighters who were killed on 9/11. The piece has been performed all over the country, including by the Masterworks Chorale in Toledo.
Ms. Locke said she’s acutely aware that out of this disaster she was able to form relationships and find a purpose in life that previously had eluded her. “I felt guilty for a long time that something so horrible was allowing me to find myself and my place,” she said. “But it just means that I have to work harder, you know? It’s such an honor to serve these men and women, seeing how they just destroy their bodies in their work.”
And she still visits Engine 32 about four times a year.
“They’re family. They’re my brothers. I can’t say enough about them,” she said. “They’re the greatest men I’ve ever met in my life.”
Contact Rod Lockwood at: email@example.com or 419-724-6159.