For many, 9/11 did not end on that day. First responder Joe Conzo looks back on a series of events that would change countless lives.
Photographer Joe Conzo remembers getting an early start on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, to vote in the mayoral primary, which saw billionaire media mogul Mike Bloomberg throw his hat in the ring for the very first time. As the grandson of Dr. Evelina López Antonetty (1922-1984), the legendary Puerto Rican activist affectionately known as “The Hell Lady of the Bronx,” Conzo was raised to fight for the rights of the community throughout his life.
Growing up amid the rubble of “benign neglect,” wherein the Nixon White House implemented a policy to deny government services to Black and Brown communities nationwide throughout the 1970s, Joe Conzo learned the only way to create change was to do it yourself. Whether accompanying his grandmother and mother Lorraine Montenegro to protests or photographing the early years of Hip Hop as it came up on the streets of the Bronx, Conzo understood “all power to all the people” was not simply a slogan — it was the truth.
While serving in the Army, Conzo trained as a combat medic and decided to continue in that line of work after being discharged. In 1992, he became a member of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS), which merged with the New York Fire Department (FDNY) in 1996. By 2001, Conzo was working as a union delegate, a position that would come to serve him and his colleagues in ways he could never have imagined.
A Beautiful Morning
On the morning of September 11, the skies were a perfect blue — extraordinarily clear and sunny after thunderstorms down the previous night. A cold front pushed Hurricane Erin out to sea, diverting the imminent threat looming over the city that week. After casting his vote in the mayoral primary, Joe Conzo and his partner Billy got a call to bring an individual from a shelter to the hospital. Then all hell broke loose.
“We heard a call over the police department radio: a plane flew into the World Trade Center,” says Conzo, who immediately called his dispatcher and asked to be sent to that job. After dropping off the patient at the hospital, they got on the West Side Highway and could see smoke coming from the tip of the island.
“We started hearing the word ‘terrorism.’ There was nothing in our training for that,” he says. A cold wave of fear gripped them — until the adrenaline kicked in. Joe Conzo remembers vividly the memory of driving to the Towers, while thousands of people were running away. After parking, they found a chief who instructed them, “Whatever you do, don’t look up.”
People had begun to jump.
“As we were walking into the Marriott Hotel, we heard this roaring sound like a loud freight train. The tower fell,” says Joe Conzo, who ran inside the hotel for shelter. “I was buried alive.”
After what seemed like an eternity, Conzo and two others were able to dig themselves out through a collapsed sidewall. “We found ourselves back on West Street. It was a ghost town,” he says. “I started screaming for my partner. I went into a grocery store and got some water to clear my face. I made one phone call to my mother and she was screaming at me, ‘Get the fuck out of there! We’re under attack!’”
Being on the ground, Conzo had no access to what was happening in real-time. His mother, who was watching the news, told him the South Tower collapsed.
After finding Billy — alive but suffering from a broken leg and collarbone — Conzo put him on a boat bringing victims from Battery Park to New Jersey for medical help. Then the North Tower started to fall. “I was trying to get on the boat and they left me,” Conzo says, “I was sitting on the pier with my feet dangling off, ready to jump into the Hudson River.”
After the cloud of smoke and dust cleared, Conzo found a Parks Department scooter car, hot-wired it, and then spent the next 12 hours transporting injured people from Ground Zero to the boats so they could be ferried to the hospital’s area.
On September 12, Conzo arrived at the station house ready to work, but displaying signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He spent the next two years in therapy working through what he experienced and witnessed that day.
“What came out of therapy was that it wasn’t my time to go,” says Conzo, who struggled with survivor’s guilt. “Literally, if you ran left you lived and if you ran right you died. Why was I still alive and thousands of people were dead? You can’t make sense of it.”
Indeed, fate was on Conzo’s side. Soon after 9/11, he received a call from photographer and filmmaker Henry Chalfant to license one of Conzo’s photographs for the 2006 documentary film, From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale.
Conzo, who was not only the first photographer to document Hip Hop during the 1970s, was also the son of Joe Conzo Sr., Tito Puente’s personal manager. Growing up alongside Latin legends like Celia Cruz, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, and Ray Baretto as well as Hip Hop pioneers including the Cold Crush Brothers, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kool Herc — Conzo had amassed a singular archive of an era that had largely gone unseen for three decades.
“I now know in retrospect that I didn’t die on 9/11 because I had to fulfill my dream of becoming a successful photographer,” Conzo says.
But that’s only half of the story.
On September 18, 2001, Christine Todd Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that the air at Ground Zero was “safe to breathe.” But the truth was exactly the opposite. In 2006, Cate Jenkins, a senior scientist at the EPA, accused the agency of using misleading data to downplay the dangers of the dust released in the towers’ collapse — made up in part by 2,000 tons of asbestos and 424,000 tons of concrete.
“We had no PPE protective gear that day. None of us were wearing masks,” says Conzo. “We knew this was going to be bad down the road and we started making phone calls to politicians.”
One or two weeks after the attacks, Joe Conzo remembers discussions began about the health implications of the collapse. He became one of the first spokespeople for the movement to pass what eventually became the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to provide health monitoring and aids to first responders, volunteers, and survivors. Introduced in 2006, the act took years to pass Congress and was finally signed into federal law in 2011.
But for Conzo, the horrors of 9/11 didn’t end in 2001. In 2019, he was diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer — and became one of the very people whose lives he fought so hard to protect. “My oncologist calls me his miracle patient because I had no signs, no symptoms, no pain — no nothing,” he says.
After spending eight days in the hospital and six months of chemotherapy, Conzo has been cancer-free for over a year. While his prognosis remains strong, he bears the weight of beating the odds. With a 10% survival rate over the first five years, it takes a strong mind and a peaceful heart to understand that once again, we are not fully in control of our destinies.
Forward, Always Forward
“You keep going forward,” Conzo says, making a powerful allusion to “¡Palante Siempre Palante!” (forward, always forward!) — the slogan of the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican-American civil rights organization that worked closely with his grandmother during the 1960s and ‘70s.
“You know, I survived growing up in the South Bronx and drug addiction — I’m a survivor. I’m so humbled that I’ve been to places people dream of going and rubbed elbows with so many stars, pioneers, and politicians. I have two beautiful kids, three beautiful grandchildren, and people that are about me. I’m grateful for all the hard work I’ve done because it’s getting me through this chapter in my life,” Joe Conzo says.
“It’s incredible how it’s been 20 years because on some days it still feels like yesterday. I’ve spent 20 years suffering emotionally and physically, dealing with it, and advocating for others. I don’t look at it as an anniversary. I look at it as a day of remembrance.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Read more: A Woman Journalist at Ground Zero