Bravery and Sacrifice: NYPD Heroes 9/11 and Beyond, a new art exhibit at John Jay that celebrates the service of the men and women who risked their lives during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Towers, opened on September 8 and is on display through December 2017.
The exhibit, located in Memorial Hall alongside John Jay’s own 9/11 memorial, is comprised of 18 pieces of artwork depicting the men and women who risked their lives in the line of duty. The exhibition was spearheaded by two individuals, Elizabeth Williams and Catherine Hughes, who personally observed emergency responders in action on 9/11/2001, and partnered with the NYPD to execute their vision of memorializing those men and women through works of art.
The paintings and illustrations in the exhibit were produced by the Society of Illustrators, a group of artists who have been known to support the military and law enforcement. It is the first exhibit for the public of all the original works in the collection, and it was made possible by the NYPD Foundation and other supporters.
Police Commissioner James O’Neil attended the opening of the exhibit. “This exhibit brings the stories of our heroes to life in vivid illustrations so future generations can learn about the sacrifices of that day,” he said. “We thank John Jay President Karol Mason, faculty and students for inviting this exhibit into their home. We also thank the families of those depicted in these illustrations and the first responders who participated in this project to share the stories of their loved ones or themselves so others never forget.”
The paintings are not works of imagination. Rather, each one is based off of a photograph taken at Ground Zero. The subjects of the paintings are real individuals, some of whom lost their lives on that day, and others who are still living. As chance would have it, one painting features the father of a current John Jay student.
That painting is entitled “Police Officer Ramon Suarez,” and it depicts two officers carrying a woman to safety. The officers are Ramon Suarez and Christopher Castro, and their heroic actions were captured in an iconic photograph represented in the painting. After the woman was rescued, Suarez headed back into the North Tower, and did not return. Castro, however, made it through, and is now the father of Christopher Castro Jr., a fire and emergency services major in his junior year at John Jay College.
As if this weren’t coincidence enough, Castro Sr. is married to Officer Judith Hernandez, who is also featured in one of the paintings. Hernandez was awarded the Medal of Honor, the NYPD’s highest award for bravery.
According to Castro Jr., his father was in the car with Hernandez driving towards City Hall when the first tower was struck. They made their way to the scene where they joined the rescue operation, but at some point they both became trapped on a basement level floor. It was pitch black, and they could hear the sound of the floors collapsing above them. But as the building was falling, it knocked a hole in the wall, and they were able to escape. A few years later, Castro Sr. and Hernandez got married and today they live in upstate New York.
Castro Jr. said he walked past the exhibit a few times before noticing his father was featured in one of the pictures. “It was a strange coincidence,” he said, “what are the odds that my school happened to have a picture of him on the wall?”
Like his father, Castro Jr. aims to go into public service. He said he plans to join the fire department. “If my dad ever questioned whether or not he made his kids proud, that moment right there was definitely a moment where I could hold my head high and say ‘That’s my dad,’” he said.
On 9/11/2017, the exhibit was on full display when President Karol Mason, Vice President of Student Affairs Lynette Cook-Francis, FDNY Captain Michael Nigro, and numerous other John Jay faculty, students, and community members held a 9/11 tribute ceremony in Memorial Hall.
During the ceremony, the names of 67 John Jay community members who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks were read aloud, as students placed votive candles for each them at the foot of John Jay’s permanent 9/11 memorial, a pedestal containing a twisted shard of metal recovered from the Twin Towers.
The ceremony concluded with a touching rendition of Amazing Grace by adjunct professor and general director of Opera Ebony Gregory Sheppard.