A new photo exhibit at the Queensborough Community College (QCC) Art Gallery, entitled “A Tribute: 2001-2021” by a university alumnus and former first responder, is commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.
The haunting exhibit features more than 80 Ground Zero photos taken by retired FDNY forensic photographer Chris Landano, a former QCC student.
The impressions of entangled steel beams as well as toxic and smoldering debris at Ground Zero show a scene that can only be compared to a war zone. Landano’s images captured the worst of humanity and illustrate the heroic rescue, recovery and cleanup mission by first responders in the aftermath of the attack on the twin towers.
The then 23-year-old firefighter had been with the FDNY forensic photo unit for nine months and was near the Brooklyn Bridge when the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded before his eyes.
He remembered talking to his supervisor, who told him to get as close to the World Trade Center as he could — and pray.
Landano was on the Brooklyn Bridge when the first tower collapsed, and he eventually found his way to Church Street in downtown Manhattan.
“It was a whole other world with all the dust,” Landano said.
His mission was to reach the command post in the lobby of the north tower and join his supervisor and colleagues.
“They were in the lobby photographing,” Chris said. “They barely made it when the buildings came down, but that was my mission. My mission was to get to the lobby, which never happened.”
Even though he had a bag full of cameras and film on him, Landano didn’t take any photos of the horror that unfolded.
“I was helping people here and there, wherever I could,” Landano recalled. “I was on the pile, just trying to move debris. I was kind of all over the place as everyone was. I felt a little bit out of place because I’m a photographer and a first responder. I’m assigned to the photo unit, but I didn’t take one photo that day.”
Landano, who grew up in Queens, studied photography at QCC. He took hundreds, if not thousands, of photos at Ground Zero between Sept. 12, 2001, and May 2002.
“I photographed on the ground, from the air, even from rooftops,” he said, adding that he took photos from a 54-story building while sitting on the ledge.
Landano even captured the scale of the destruction from a NASA helicopter, which was equipped with a thermal imaging camera trying to locate bodies under the mountains of debris.
“I was up on rooftops all around. So I got a good 360 view of the site. I remember, sometimes, as far as October when they lifted the steel, and a puff of smoke would come out. So it was still smoking a month later,” he said.
Landano retired from the FDNY in March 2021 and is one of the many first responders who suffers from 9/11-related illnesses.
He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had half of his thyroid removed last March because of exposure to the toxic dust at Ground Zero.
“But I’m lucky, ” Landano said. “There are hundreds of firefighters that are sick now. There’s hundreds of firefighters that are dying. I know guys that were down there for one or two days, and they’re sick, or they’re dead. So, I’m enjoying life.”
And that he does. He invented Trakbelt 360, a utility belt that rotates tool pouches and holsters around the waist for safety, comfort and versatility. He noted that NBC picked his product for one of their inventions shows.
He also started up a consulting business helping inventors and entrepreneurs get their products to market. His entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t leave much time for photography these days.
“It’s crazy,” Landano said. “When I met my wife, I was big into the cameras and photography. Then I invented this product, and it took over my life.”
The fire department is still part of his life, and he planned to spend 9/11 at his old firehouse in Springfield.
“I love the fire department. I love the people. I love the members, people I battled with, bled with, you know,” the 43-year old said. “I will always be at my firehouse for as long as it’s in my control.”
Assemblyman David Weprin said the exhibition showed that the recovery was a mission with real meaning, which Landano captured through his lens.
“The good thing about it is how everybody came together,” Weprin said. “The positive of humanity came together, and everybody was a little nicer to everybody else. And it really changed us and our lives forever.”
Queensborough Community College President Dr. Christine Mangino said that it was essential to tell the stories and experiences of 9/11 to the younger generation and that art exhibitions, memorials and vigils kept the memories alive.
“As someone who grew up in the 9/11 generation, it is such a formative part of my experience as a New Yorker,” Dr. Mangino said. “It is meaningful and important to commemorate 9/11 every year and never to forget the action of that day, both tragic and horrific. I don’t think we will ever be the same.”
The installation is complemented by a student-curated exhibit of archival photographs and images of artifacts from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s permanent collection, and will run through Oct. 10.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, visitors are encouraged to contact the QCC Art Gallery office at 718-631-6396 to schedule an appointment.
For more information, visit artgallery.qcc.cuny.edu.