Calgarians relive dark day in New York

Ric Kokotovich is a well known Calgary photo-based artist and filmmaker, whose documentary short was supposed to premiere in NYC on September 11, 2001. Instead he spent the day trying to donate blood and helping to do what he could. Photograph by: Gavin Young, Calgary Herald

Ric Kokotovich is a well known Calgary photo-based artist and filmmaker, whose documentary short was supposed to premiere in NYC on September 11, 2001. Instead he spent the day trying to donate blood and helping to do what he could.
Photograph by: Gavin Young, Calgary Herald

By Valerie Fortney, Calgary Herald September 10, 2011

When terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, they were striking at the heart of America - its seats of governmental and capitalist power. New York, though, is a place unto itself, an international city where people come to play, work and live. Three Calgarians, who, for various reasons, found themselves in the city on that day, were first-hand witnesses to the chaos and carnage. These are their stories.

"THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE"

He was an imposing man, broad-shouldered and dressed in what Ric Kokotovich guessed had to be a $2,000 suit. He sat at the bar swigging alternate sips from a pint of Guinness and a scotch served neat, then pounded on the polished wood when the glasses were empty. Although his suit was impeccable, his leather shoes were coated in a thick film of white soot.

Kokotovich walked over to him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked: "Is there something I can do to help you?"

The man looked up with the most sorrowful of expressions and uttered, "If there was something you could do, believe me, I'd ask."

That encounter is something Kokotovich, a Calgary filmmaker and visual artist, remembers the most about Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists attacked Washington, D.C., and New York City, the place he considered a second home. Like so many who found themselves in Lower Manhattan on that day, he saw more - much more. But it was the grieving man, whose story Kokotovich never got but knew was tragic, that lingers today.

For Kokotovich, like so many others, the day started out promising. It was a beautiful, hot Indian summer morning, and he was in town to receive an award at the New York Independent Film and Video Festival for his dramatic short film entitled Bitter My Tongue.

"It was a big honour. I was pretty excited about it," says the 56-year-old, who visited the city at least three times a year.

That morning, he went to his favourite cafe, just around the corner from the Lower Manhattan apartment of his close friend Mark Musters, a fellow Calgarian who'd made a name for himself in New York as an event planner for the city's celebrities and society types. Sitting with his morning coffee, he heard the news on the radio just inside the cafe. "I asked the waitress, 'Did you just hear that? A plane's hit the World Trade Center,' " says Kokotovich. "She said, 'That's impossible.' "

Kokotovich, though, believed his ears. He raced back to the apartment and turned on the television. At that moment, the second plane hit. He immediately called his mother, then his ex-wife, who was housesitting for him. A photographer for most of his adult life, he looked down at his camera bag. "This is too big," he thought to himself. "If I go down there and start photographing it, see what's happened to everyone, I'll never sleep again."

Instead, Kokotovich headed down to nearby St. Vincent's Hospital. "I wanted to help, so donating blood was the first thing I thought of," he says. But the hospital, in complete chaos, was not set up to handle donations at that time. He went to his friend's office in Midtown, where he learned that one of Musters' friends was missing. "I helped work the phones," says Kokotovich, trying to find the friend, who they eventually learned had been killed on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.

Stranded in the city like so many others, he spent the next couple of days in its aftermath, running for his life on Sept. 12 after a bomb scare in the Empire State Building and seeing the city awash in an indescribable sorrow as leaflets displaying the missing faces blanketed the city.

Ten years later, Kokotovich says he's allowed the experience of being in a terror zone to make him a better man. "I looked at my life, and the life of those around me," he says. "It gave me more respect for everyone, even people I don't know."

He'll be thinking of all those things Sunday. Mostly, though, he'll be wondering about that grieving man with the soot on his shoes. "I know something terrible happened to him or someone he loved," says Kokotovich. "It happened to a lot of people in New York City that day."

VALERIE FORTNEY IS A CALGARY HERALD COLUMNIST. VFORTNEY@CALGARYHERALD.COM

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald