Faces of Firefighting, Taken One at a Time
By LYDIA POLGREEN

Now the project is a life-consuming obsession. But it began quietly enough, with a single photograph, before the New York City firefighter became the human symbol of a nation's grief. Before the words "ground zero," "Al Qaeda" and "war on terror" became part of the public vernacular.

Laura Yanes, an amateur photographer, walked by a firehouse near Union Square in July 2001 and simply snapped a picture of a firefighter.

"There was something about the light, and the grille of the truck, the way he was sitting there," Ms. Yanes said. It was nothing more than shutterbug instinct. The firefighter asked her to bring back a copy, and she promised she would, as soon as she could get into the darkroom at the High School of Fashion Industries in Chelsea, where she was volunteering as a teacher's aide. It did not occur to her to ask his name.

Then came that day in September. Not knowing whether the firefighter had survived the attack on the World Trade Center, she took the photograph to his firehouse, Engine Company 14, two weeks later.

"I figured someone wanted this picture, whether he was dead or alive," Ms. Yanes said. "But I was afraid."

Hands trembling, she gave the envelope to two firefighters at Engine Company 14. Their hands trembled, too, she said. One of the firefighters tore open the envelope. After a moment of silent suspense, both men cried in unison: "It's Eddie! He's O.K.! He's O.K.!"

His name was Eddie Mecner, they told her, and he had been at ground zero when the twin towers collapsed, but had survived.

"I have never felt such relief," Ms. Yanes said. "Then the two guys asked, `Will you take our picture?' And what could I say but yes?"

The resulting black-and-white photograph