responsiveslider_lol_02 The Language of Light DVD - More
MeetJoe_02 Meet Joe McNally - More
inthebag What’s in the Bag? - More

The Foley Family

Sep 13

In Friends at 5:59am

All 911’s are strange now, but this one was particularly odd for me. I was in the air early in the morning, flying back to NYC. Clear and cool. Just like that Tuesday years ago. Manhattan was laid out in hard, shadowed relief. Still can’t get used to the missing piece of the skyline. Went from the airport to Ladder 9 on Great Jones St. It is where I have gone every 911 morning for 9 years. Saw John Baldassare, the first NY firefighter to step in front of the giant Polaroid camera. His was the first portrait in a project that came to be known as Faces of Ground Zero.

Checked in with a few of “the guys.” Louie Cacchioli called. He and his DeNiro-like good looks were the cover of the book, and the face of the project. Talked, caught up. Promised to see each other soon. He’s working on a book, his life story. It’s a story worth telling.

And spoke with Joanne Foley Gross, as I generally do around this time. The Foley’s are a fire fighting family. Fathers, husbands, brothers, brothers-in-law. Good people. I got to know them, just a bit, in those days after 911.

For me, doing someone’s portrait is an exchange of gifts. The subject extends the gift of vulnerability and trust by getting in front of this unflinching machine with a big glass eye. Photographers extend also, expressly or tacitly, a reciprocal gift. The shutter sound is not just a click that allows light to hit a sensor. Those clicks are a language–photog speak, Morse Code, drumbeats–call it what you will. With every exposure, you are saying, “I will take care. I will do my best. I will reward the trust.”

The whir and click of a camera is actually the sound of tumblers falling. Something has just been locked in time.

Sadly, I never got a chance to do a portrait of Tommy, Joanne’s brother.  Tommy was a lot more than a firefighter, though, to be honest, that’s plenty enough to be. He was a bull rider at the rodeo, a football player, and, as a lark, a model. He posed for a “Firefighter Hunks” calendar, and was so damn good looking he made the cover of People, right up there with George Clooney, as one of world’s hundred most eligible bachelors.



When the WTC call came in at Rescue 3, “Big Blue,” up in the Bronx, 8 men got on the truck. None came back. The rescue truck crews are among the most highly trained firefighters, often the first responders. On 911 morning, the rescue companies took a hard hit.

Danny Foley, Tommy’s brother and a firefighter, rushed to the scene with Joanne’s firefighter husband K.C., desperately searching for Tommy. As Joanne said, “They called me and said Tommy was missing. I said, ‘No! He’s helping.’ They went every day to search for him. Every morning it was like sending them off to war. This is his cowboy hat. He loved it, loved rodeos. Tommy lived life.”


In those emotional days after 911, when the skies were still full of smoke, Joanne came to the Giant Polaroid studio on East 2nd St. for her portrait. I was amazed and grateful. I had assured her it wouldn’t take long, and it didn’t. Indeed, this was the only Polaroid I shot. The camera is so enormous, it doesn’t lend itself to fast frames. The subject has to collect themselves, and stand quietly, while I focused them, not the camera. The camera is the size of a one car garage. There are two people inside of it, looking at the inverted image of the subject and calling out to me on radio, “Please move the subject back two inches.” Then the person has to stand there, still, while the camera is prepped, which generally takes about 30 seconds. They can’t waver. At f45, the camera has about a half inch of depth of field. Then, the studio would go black, and I’d pull a cap off the enormous lens, and hit a plunger wired to a Mamiya 6×7 camera. That would fire about 35,000 watt seconds of flash. The result would be a Giant Polaroid, and an identical frame of 6×7 film.

During all the camera work, Joanne, standing, alone with Tommy’s hat and helmet, having just met me, confronting this huge contraption, began to weep. The person in me fought with the photographer in me.  Stand down! Let her compose herself! Shoot the picture! I closed the lights. Started to cry in the dark. Hit the shutter. It was New York just after 911. It was a time for tears.

Joanne is one of the most decent, giving people I’ve ever met. We talked of this frame later. She looked at me and told me that taking the picture was the right thing to do. She gave me absolution, really. It is a gift I will never be able to repay.

Danny came to the camera as well. He and K.C. found Tommy’s body on Sept. 21. He said, “First day, I searched 36 hours. I had a hard time calling home. When I spoke to my father, I promised him, one way or another, I’d find Tommy and bring him home.”


About a year after 911, I caught up with Joanne and Danny again. Danny had taken Tommy’s place at Rescue 3.


I took Joanne’s picture, again, with Tommy’s hat, on their family porch.


The Foley’s are like any other family, in many ways. They live, they laugh, they cry, and they endure. They have a wonderful home way north of the canyons of Manhattan, where animals abound. I can attest to this, as I once tried to wrestle Jack the donkey into a photograph with Joanne. Danny has three beautiful young girls, so as the father of two girls myself, I’ll say a Novena for him. K.C. had to retire with lung damage after all the work at WTC. He and Joanne have three kids. Every year, as a family, they make the emotional pilgrimage to the site, and participate in the reading of the names.

And, typical of Joanne, she has thrown herself into commemorating Tommy. There is a website up,, and a scholarship. It is just the beginning. Over the last two years she has amassed 80 interviews with family and friends of Tommy, and collected 344 pieces of video, as well as thousands of photos. But some crucial footage is evidently missing. NBC has important “B roll” footage of Tommy, and Joanne has been trying, repeatedly and in vain, to gain access to it. Anybody out there have any pull with NBC? Anybody who could talk to somebody who could talk to somebody?

Time flies. Every year, Joanne and I talk here and there, and always around 911 day. I struggle with the call, the same way I struggled with the shutter all those years ago. We intersected because of this awful loss, and my voice on the line is surely another reminder. But I make the call, and I’m always glad I do. Talking with her, and so many folks I stay in touch with from that tough, tough time reminds me again of the job we have–to make the picture and stay the course. In the click of the shutter and the flash of light, there is remembrance. More tk….

arun says:

on September 13, 2010 at 6:18 am

Thanks for sharing Joe. The memories and the pain will never go away. Our prayers to the families that lost loved ones.
God Bless.

Steve Hyde says:

on September 13, 2010 at 6:29 am

Lost for words, as I so often am by the way you put so much humanity, compassion and empathy into words, Joe. Please don’t stop.

Jeff Bartlett says:

on September 13, 2010 at 6:54 am

Another amazing moment of truth and emotion. I’m constantly amazed with every image I’ve seen from your work with NYFD crews and the powerful connections you made during one of the hardest days in American history.

Staying the course is often tough, but you’re images show that its always worth it.

Michael Nielsen says:

on September 13, 2010 at 6:57 am

Awww Joe, you made my eyes water over.. Thank you for sharing the story.

Tom Curtin says:

on September 13, 2010 at 7:02 am

Absolutely amazing work Joe!!! As always you find a way to showcase the humanity in your subject. One of the reasons I look at you as my idol in my photographic career.


BeachsidePaul says:

on September 13, 2010 at 7:05 am

Not sure how you do it Joe but every time you look back or, for that matter, look forward, you pass along an emotional, heartfelt piece of yourself. Don’t ever forget, a lot of us are out here listening. Thanks for sharing, Paul

Al says:

on September 13, 2010 at 7:15 am

Joe, thank you for writing this. I can only imagine how hard it was. It just reinforces why I follow your work and “stalk” you on Kelby training and read your blog every day. You are not only a great photographer, but more importantly, you are a wonderful human being……thank you.

Sherried says:

on September 13, 2010 at 7:33 am

Joe, Thanks to you and the families that have given a piece of themselves. May we never forget.

Jonathon says:

on September 13, 2010 at 7:39 am

Great piece! The work you do is great, and the stories that accompany them make your work that much more amazing! Thank you for sharing your story and images!

david says:

on September 13, 2010 at 7:43 am

What a touching piece, Joe. I am a Canadian. On 9/11 I was on canoe trip in Northwest Ontario and came across 3 Americans from Michigan, I think it was. They were devastated. It had just happened and they would not have known the full extent of the devastation yet. Probably just a radio news account before they got in their boat to go fishing. I came across them at an old abandoned cabin on an island on the lake. Fishing was the last thing on their minds.

Ken Toney says:

on September 13, 2010 at 8:09 am

Awesome blog! Very heart felt and this hits home for me. As a fireman in the brotherhood I know how devastating it is to loose one of our own, it’s unthinkable to loose 300+. I really admire you for your love of the firefighter and after meeting you in Vegas I can understand where your heart is. I am praying Joanne gets her footage from NBC.

bizior photography says:

on September 13, 2010 at 8:29 am

really touching story Joe. Hats off to all the heroes of 9/11 and to you for making the right decision and pressing the shutter… thanks

Steve Black says:

on September 13, 2010 at 8:35 am

Thanks for this Joe. Very touching and a great reminder.

Bill says:

on September 13, 2010 at 8:37 am

Joe –

I look forward to a good laugh when I see your name in my email list. This time you put tears on my cheeks. May we never forget.


Frank Bruch says:

on September 13, 2010 at 8:42 am

What a great read Joe! Each time I come to this blog I wonder whether I’m going to howl with laughter from your pithy irreverence or shed a tear as you share an emotional personal story. I’m sure the friends you made after 911 appreciate the continued contact and the reassurance that America will never forget.

Tony M says:

on September 13, 2010 at 8:43 am

Very touching & poignant story, Joe – you’re e helluva guy. Thanks for taking the time to share & help us all to remember this horrible tragedy. And if you think an e-mail campaign to NBC could help, let us know; I know I’d be honored to help Joanne.

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on September 13, 2010 at 8:44 am

Beautiful images and words, Joe.

~ Mark

Lee Love says:

on September 13, 2010 at 8:47 am

Joe, you have once again pointed out the real essence of being a photographer, and that is people we photograph. It’s not about the gear or technology but the gifts we are handed when people allow us into their lives.

You are blessed to be touched by so many wonderful people, and I know you realize this because you are so open in sharing that gift with others.

William Chinn says:

on September 13, 2010 at 9:05 am

I often say your story behind the photograph has more impact than the photo itself. ‘Nuff said.

Frank Damon says:

on September 13, 2010 at 9:17 am

Everything that can be said has already been posted. But I want to add that you are as gifted a writer as you are a photographer.


David Kenny says:

on September 13, 2010 at 9:34 am

Thank you for putting names, and their stories, to the faces. Very emotional reliving 911 through your words.
Thank you again for sharing!

Tim Skipper says:

on September 13, 2010 at 9:42 am

I was talking with some people on 9/11 about that day. About how I could remember everything I did in exact detail as the day unfolded. Listening to the events on the news, the panic, the fear.

Every time I see images from the men and women who put their lives on the line that day I am reminded of what true courage is. Our nation may have its problems, faults, and shortcomings, but it also has some of the bravest most giving people in the world.

Thank you for sharing the experience with us.

Tony Corbell says:

on September 13, 2010 at 10:12 am

Joe, unbeknownst to you, you’ll always be one of the many people we all think of on 911. I remember being so touched when I heard you were doing this project. I’m so glad to hear it lives on in you each year. See you in New York, my friend..Tony

Erika Plummer says:

on September 13, 2010 at 10:21 am

Joe – I’m sitting here in a coffee shop sobbing. Thank you for articulating so well the impact of this day on all of us via a story about just one family of thousands. At the time I worked for the Company that actually owned the Towers. Remarkably only 1 employee was lost – Bruce Eagleson. He went BACK in to help after calling his wife to say he was OK. And such is the story of so many heroes from that day. But this weekend I realized I had no ritual, no process for honoring and remembering that day, and this made me uneasy. Your ritual and reading about your personal connection to these families gave me a much needed cry for that day. Thank you

Garen Johnson says:

on September 13, 2010 at 10:29 am


Thanks you for creating these images that speak volumes about the grief and pain associated with 9/11! It made me tear up and I hope that it always does for tears are a small price to honor those who paid so much more!


Glyn Dewis says:

on September 13, 2010 at 11:26 am

Holy c$£p Joe that is one powerful post you’ve added there!
Personally I can remember 9/11 so incredibly clearly; where I was, who I was with, the times…everything and I’m over here in the UK. Such a tragic time that feels like only yesterday when footage is shown on TV, in the media or whatever.

The Faces of Ground Zero was an incredibly important project to do; it simply had to be done and geez did you do it justice or what! Every portrait I could stare at endlessly; every portrait stirs up heaps of emotion.

To be honest I don’t know what else to say; this post has really stopped me in my tracks but I guess if anything your words are a stark reminder of the importance of this craft we call photography; moments in time captured at the sound of a click.

All the very best to you Joe; you’re a good man!

Oliver says:

on September 13, 2010 at 11:39 am


Thanks for the reminder, in the days of a camera in everything and pictures taken without second thoughts, that it can(should?) still mean something to capture and articulate that moment.

Jerry Hoare says:

on September 13, 2010 at 12:12 pm

You made me cry, you big palooka.

Mike Neale says:

on September 13, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I am crying…the loss never ends.

Dawn Norris says:

on September 13, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Moving, breathtaking, and memorable. Thank you for encouraging us with your own experiences and for your tremendous heart and grace as a photographer and for giving the people who you worked with on this project a voice. With so much gratitude, Dawn

Ian Lozada says:

on September 13, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Thank you for continuing to tell the stories of September 11th, Joe, long after many have decided to just pass it by. Never forget.

Rob Byron says:

on September 13, 2010 at 1:21 pm

It’s sad to me how many people fail to commemorate 911 these days. My neighborhood used to be a sea of red white and blue on September 11th each year but now just a few fly the flag. I have even heard a few people complain about television “bringing that up again.” Comments like that sicken me.

Thank you Joe for bringing this up again. For flying the flag, sort of speak, on your blog. As for me, I will always remember those who were lost on that fateful day. Thank you for remembering them too.

Paul Evans says:

on September 13, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Thanks Joe , you have a true heart for service.

Michael Alan Bielat says:

on September 13, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I thought those life size 9/11 portraits you shot on that large format camera were absolutely amazing!

Troy says:

on September 13, 2010 at 1:37 pm

You never cease to surprise. You call yourself numnuts, but then write something as eloquent as this.

Ian Pack says:

on September 13, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Joe, a moving post. You are truly a great wordsmith and photographer. Even here in England I remember the day clearly. Long may we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Paul says:

on September 13, 2010 at 2:34 pm

I was teaching at a high school in Warrington,here in the UK, when it happened. I remember only to well trying to keep the pupils reassured. One of the things they couldn’t grasp was the sheer number of people that those two buildings could hold.

It’s still a little difficult even now for me to visualise just how many died. But when you put such images and the story for each in plain sight, it really, really slams this tragedy, this travesty home hard.

Good on you, Joe, for remembering, and for this annual pilgrimage. My thoughts go out to those who died and to those left behind.

Frank Severa says:

on September 13, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Joe wonderful, thank you for sharing your private moments with us. It must have been very very hard.

Thanks again


stephen says:

on September 13, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Great post. I imagine early september is a tough time for you each year.

I am curious about the…polariod you use? Maybe someday you could do a post about it.

Scott says:

on September 13, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Thank you…

Bonnie says:

on September 13, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Joe, I thank you for sharing this with us all. I know it came straight from the heart and must have been very wrenching for you to write. I cry because it ever had to be written here and in history. Bless you, the Foleys and all the other families and friends who lost loved ones.

Byryan Butterfield says:

on September 13, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Joe, you have just confirmed with this post that you are a hero, my hero. Thank you! I hope to meet you in San Diego in December. You are amazing brother!

Joe says:

on September 13, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Thank you Joe. Your words are as great as your images.

Ryan O. Hicks says:

on September 13, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Incredible quote … well said.

{For me, doing someone’s portrait is an exchange of gifts. The subject extends the gift of vulnerability and trust by getting in front of this unflinching machine with a big glass eye. Photographers extend also, expressly or tacitly, a reciprocal gift. The shutter sound is not just a click that allows light to hit a sensor. Those clicks are a language-photog speak, Morse Code, drumbeats-call it what you will. With every exposure, you are saying, “I will take care. I will do my best. I will reward the trust.”}

Johannes S says:

on September 14, 2010 at 1:17 am

It is the everyday people that give themselves in service to others that inspire me… like the Foleys.

Beautifully written.

Jacob says:

on September 14, 2010 at 1:48 am

I’m from Sweden and saw the 911 tragedy on live television… even then it was a totally horrifying experience, by far the most confusing and shattering scene I’ve ever witnessed. Thanks for sharing, Joe. And your writing is just beautiful.

Bob DeChiara says:

on September 14, 2010 at 6:27 am

very heart warming…

gregory peel says:

on September 14, 2010 at 6:31 am

Like I really needed to have tears before work! Amazing story crafting Joe! See you tomorrow in Hartford.

ken carl says:

on September 15, 2010 at 7:30 pm


Nat says:

on September 16, 2010 at 7:26 am

Photography is about this moment. A moment when I can look at an image that reflects on something that happened 9 years ago and still move me, make me cry and just evoke emotion. You’re such an awesome photographer and writer, thanks for continuing to share your work.

Art says:

on September 17, 2010 at 12:33 am

It funny what you do Joe. I flew past the Towers the evening of 10th and had a return ticket home for the 11th that I never used. For months I spent a part of every day sobbing quietly by myself. It was only fitting that on a plane ride back home today I catch up with your blog and read this incredibly powerful piece. I turned toward the window so no one would see the tears streaming down my cheeks. How is it that you have taken such unspeakable hate and ugliness and turned it into one of the purest expressions of love I’ve ever witnessed. Don’t stop. Thank you.

Eric Muetterties says:

on September 18, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Thanks for sharing that Joe

karl bratby says:

on September 19, 2010 at 3:43 pm

nice work as ever joe…

Nancy Roberson says:

on September 23, 2010 at 12:49 am

There is but a fleeting moment as the light finds it way to our eye, the passing of but a breath as we close the shutter and memory is seared forever in an image. But long before that irretrievable moment of instance, is the image captured with the heart….thank you Joe, for entwining the two.

JPayne Photography says:

on November 19, 2010 at 5:53 am

Interesting article, the last shot has so much emotion.

抓猴 says:

on June 1, 2011 at 8:44 am

my sentiments and I will instantly snatch your rss feed to be updated on any upcoming content you may publish,I am really fan of your site;2

Jacqueline O'Malley-Satz says:

on March 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Please email me an address for Mrs. Foley. Saw and bought a copy of the video with some of my grandchildren at Orange County Community College. My husband is taking two groups of people to the 9/11 Memorial site/museum this spring and will also show the movie to them … I understood Mrs. Foley might give us a tour (the groups are coming from Pearl River and it would mean alot to have her escort us). Can you help? Jackie

Mark W Gregory says:

on May 4, 2015 at 3:06 am


Hail to Tommy Our Hero, strong and true!
Who fought the fight and saw it through
Who soldiered forward, so bold and brave
Willingly gave his life, our land and countrymen to save
From his beloved New York harbor’s shore
Far above this mighty metropolis’ roar
Let us proclaim his bravery from every town and hillside
Of Heroes like Tommy who swell our hearts with American Pride
Now with the Lord Our God, he does reside
But Tommy Our Hero sleeps not, for he is still saving lives!
For his is truly a Heart of Gold, so as a Holy Soldier onward he strives
To keep us all safe he was called Home at God’s Command
Tommy is part of The Lord’s Master Plan
To continue in Spirit to serve his fellow man
In mysterious ways we may not understand.
Because this world is in such a mess
Our Heavenly Father must take the very best
For Heroes like Tommy, there is never any rest.
Now, all Thank God for Our Hero Tommy,
For with him, mankind is truly Blessed!
~~~~~Mark Wayne Gregory, 2013

**So long as there is a breath left within me, I will NEVER allow your legacy or contribution to saving The American Way of Life to ever be forgotten. I was lost several years ago and you came quickly to lead me back to the Lord with your Spiritual Guiding Light from Heaven. God has truly blessed me with a Guardian Angel like you. If the decision were soley mine, you would be cannonized a saint. My heart, thoughts, and prayers are with you Tommy and the Foley family during this sad, solemn time in America. Thank God for Heroes like Tommy and all of the 9/11 Fallen who have joined him with Christ Our Savior. All of them are now Warrior Angels who continue to defend the Will of God. As the Holy Bible proclaims their strengths and abilities have been increased 100-fold in God’s Holy Realm.

Leave a Reply