September 11th, 2001 was a day that changed the world. For one New York City police detective who moonlights as a still photographer, it was a day that changed his career, his marriage and his life. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports on how the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks ended one path in retired Detective John Botte's life, and started a new one.
His hair is graying...
His lungs are permanently damaged and he routinely runs a fever...
He says he is severely in debt...
His 12-year marriage is over...
He was forced into early retirement as a New York City police detective...
Now he's facing a potential lawsuit from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office...
All because John Botte found himself in the right place at the right time to capture some of the most haunting images taken in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"[It] Just shows the emotion. The emotion of the police officers. Of the rescue workers. Of human beings,” says Mr. Botte. “Of people that would do it again a thousand times over. Every single person would give their life again including me."
Botte was born in the United States. But he grew up in Italy and spoke no English when his family came back to the U.S. when he was a young child. His love affair with photography began when he was eight years old, at a soccer game at Giants Stadium he attended with his father.
"Actually, I had asked to get money to go get something at the concessions, and he hands me the camera and says, 'Here, play with this,’ and I fumbled with it, and I started getting into it and I became pretty good."
But John Botte did not grow up wanting to be a photographer. He chose to be a police officer.
From patrolman to undercover detective, Botte found himself in the heart of New York's crime wave in the 1980s. Murder, drugs and robbery were all parts of his daily job.
"You had a crack epidemic. Homicides were 2,000 -- 2300-plus homicides a year. And at a very young age -- I was 22 -- I went to organized crime as a narcotics agent. So you're basically living in the crack dens buying crack and heroin and you're acting like a street guy and becoming one of them."
Life on those streets led to one promotion after another until his career led him to the Crime Scene Investigation unit. A cover of Newsweek magazine captures him on duty at the scene of a homicide.
All those days and nights intercepting drug pushers and murderers. All those grisly scenes of misery and death captured by his crime scene camera could not prepare him for the moment that would forever change his career… and his life.
"When that second plane hit… that was like the kiss of reality, man."
It was no surprise to Botte that New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Keric wanted him to be part of a special security detail at Ground Zero in the wake of the attacks. Keric was a fan of his photography work. Botte could not be an official photographer for the NYPD because of a conflict of interest. But Keric encouraged him to do what he did best.
"He was aware of my method of photographic expression. And he gave me the unique situation to express myself photographically."
It was an assignment that would curse John Botte. From September through December of 2001, he took hundreds of photographs of the urban destruction in Lower Manhattan. He did so in the worst health conditions, breathing in toxic air that would eventually cripple his lungs.
"It felt like walking into hell. And the smell and the vapor would draw you in. And as you walked in, the air got thicker and heavier and the ash, the dust, was ankle deep."
His images are some of the most iconic of the aftermath of 9/11.
All that he saw, all that he took pictures of, all that you see in stark black and white, would take its toll on his emotions… and his family.
"When I say that I lost all regard for much around me, it was just… you know, I became distant. I kind of lost interest."
Because of his failing health, Botte was forced into early retirement in 2003 and now collects a disability pension.
The images he took those four months in 2001 appeared in several books, including Bernard Keric's autobiography "The Lost Son." Though that book made millions of dollars, Botte says he never saw a cent for the pictures he took.
He was in the middle of a divorce, unemployed, and tens of thousands of dollars in debt when he received an offer to publish the pictures in a book of his own. Botte was hopeful it would help him recoup some of his expenses.
"Aftermath: Unseen 9/11 Photos by a New York City Cop" was released in mid-August in the United States. That same week, the city of New York threatened to sue the publisher for the book's profits.
The city contends that Botte was on police time using privledged access to take the photos. While Botte admits that's true, he says he did not use police equipment or money to take and develop the pictures. He adds it would also take a lot of book sales to begin making a profit, which is not what his book is about.
"The whole mission of those photographs was about the dedication of my profession. The dedication of my profession visually and as a public servant."
Any potential lawsuit has yet to make its way into the court system. Botte claims complete ownership of the photos. But he has indicated he's willing to reach a settlement by donating some of the profits to the New York Detectives Widows and Childrens Fund -- after he's managed to recover some of the costs it took to get the book published.
One thing a settlement won't help him cure is the pain he'll carry with him for the rest of his life. Pain in his lungs from breathing the toxic air. Pain in his heart for parting ways with his wife and his career. And the pain of betrayal he now feels by the same city he once swore to serve and protect.