MIDTOWN — Former NYPD detective John Botte was among the first responders after the first plane struck the World Trade Center’s north tower at 8:46 a.m. on Sept 11, 2001.
As a member of then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik’s inner circle who also served on Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s personal security detail, Botte, a lifelong photographer, experienced the horror and aftermath of the attacks first-hand.
A decade later, the intimate and powerful images he captured there are on display in honor of 9/11's tenth anniversary, giving viewers an unprecedented look at the hours and days that followed from behind the scenes, through the eyes of the officials and rescue workers who led the city's recovery efforts.
In one, former mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, Kerik and other top officials are gathered at an undisclosed location at 5:40 a.m. on Sept. 12, the morning after the attacks. Huddled together, the men are shown bowing their heads in prayer.
In another, snapped at 8:25 a.m. on Sept. 13, we see two rescue workers standing silently, backs to the camera, with their arms around each other and staring at the rubble before them.
Later that morning, at 9:46 a.m., Botte capture the image of rescue workers huddled around a colleague lying injured on the ground. Curator Timothy White explained the man had been burned by flames that would randomly shoot from the pile, threatening the lives of rescue workers.
Botte, who'd made a habit to keeping a camera slung around his shoulder in his years on the force, said he began shooting the aftermath about 10 hours after the towers fell.
“Once we started to stabilize and wrap our heads around it, [Kerik] just looked and me and said, ‘Do your thing with your camera.' And that was all he said,” Botte explained.
The police commissioner had taken a liking to the photographer's gritty black-and-white shots, hanging numerous prints in his office, Botte said.
While Botte’s images were published in a book called “Aftermath,” White said he decided more than a year ago that the printed product just didn’t do justice to Botte's compositions.
“The book didn’t have the impact that I saw… I saw this story,” he said, gesturing to the works hung on the walls at the new exhibit at the Gallery at Calamut on West 22nd Street, whose opening coincides with the anniversary commemoration.
What strikes the curator most, he said, is that in the midst of all the chaos, the noxious odors and deafening sound, Botte was able to compose himself enough to take the shots, which White said share a striking air of silence.
“He still had the wherewithal to stop to create these compositions, given the duress he was under,” White said.
“In some way, there’s beauty in the horror."
Botte said he shot anywhere from one to 300 pictures a day, but refused to shoot grisly images of body parts, which were everywhere.
All of the images were taken on film with a Leica Rangefinder, continuing a tradition Botte began at the age of 12, when he first started working at local darkrooms in Westchester.
While photography has always been a passion, Botte said he knew long before he ever met a cop that police work was what he wanted to do. He took the test in high school and joined the force at 21.
“It was the only test I was eligible to take. It was my calling,” he said, describing how he quickly rose the ranks, making detective at 23. He then spent five years making drug busts undercover, and eight years on the homicide squad. He was assigned to Kerik’s police detail in August 2000.
Botte retired from the force in 2003, and is now suffering from the scars of his work at Ground Zero.
During the rescue operation, Botte said he felt no pain. But by April 2002, he said, “You wake up and your bed’s full if blood. That’s when it hits you."
He's had numerous surgeries for respiratory issues to try to heal the damage, and now describes himself as a chronic insomniac who hasn’t slept a full night since the attacks.
“There are good days and bad days,” he said.
But, he added, "I would do it again and again."
John Botte: The 9/11 Photographs, presented by the Morrison Hotel Gallery, will be on display through Sept. 24 at the Gallery at Calamut, 22 W. 22nd St., weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.
A special artist reception will be held on the anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 11 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.