The lives of both Judson Box and Erik Troelsen were changed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. A photograph brought them together.
The pair, one a retired Town of Hempstead highway maintenance foreman, and the other a Danish engineer, met for the first time onstage at a Manhattan fundraiser for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum last week, when Box fervently thanked the man who had brought his family a measure of peace.
Troelsen, now 42 and living in Switzerland, posted photographs last fall on the museum's online archive of 9/11 images, videos and stories. One showed a firefighter in full gear striding through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel ahead of his traffic-stalled fire truck shortly after the attacks.
When Box's wife, Helen, saw the photograph online, they found it was the only known image of Box's son Gary on the day he and 11 others from his Brooklyn firehouse lost their lives in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
The remains of the 37-year-old married father of two from North Bellmore were never identified.
"Just having that picture, it gives you a little peace, a piece of the puzzle, and just being able to see him on that day is beyond words," Box, 67, said Wednesday in an interview from Weirsdale, Fla. where the Wantagh native moved in 2003 to breed horses.
Without finding the remains, "whether you are doing it consciously or unconsciously, you're searching," he said.
Box said he's pored over the photo with a magnifying lens, "trying to look into my son's eyes, just trying to see. One thing I can tell you, there was no fear in his eyes. He was focused on what he was doing; he was looking straight ahead going through that tunnel."
His ex-wife, Hilary Clarke, Gary's mother, lives in Colorado and also attended the fundraiser with their daughter Christine and other family members.
Troelsen, chief technical officer for two small companies, also had a story to tell. In an interview Wednesday, he recounted how on the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, he dined with two visiting Danish friends at Windows on the World, located high in the doomed North Tower. Troelsen learned of the events unfolding at the center while stuck in traffic in the tunnel the next day. He took the photo of the passing firefighters through the windshield of his car.
In the attacks' aftermath, he said, life's purpose became clearer. He forgot to call his then-girlfriend to say he was safe, instead calling his friend Jette, who would become his wife and mother of his two children. And he soon changed jobs.
"Suddenly you realize you either do the things that make you happy, or you do them just because you're doing them," he said.
He was rather embarrassed at the attention on stage last week, he said, but was happy he could give the Box family some relief. "While I don't feel I deserve any recognition, it feels nice to be part of that event."
As for 9/11 itself, he said, "It'll always be part of my life, whether I want it or not."
Box, who didn't know he'd meet Troelsen until a few hours before the fundraiser, had originally declined the invitation to speak because he's uncomfortable with public speaking.
But he changed his mind: When he was stopped at a Florida intersection to make way for a wailing fire truck, he saw it bore the same squad number as his son's unit. A museum official asked why he'd decided to accept. "I told him that story and said that my son wanted me to do it," he said. "I don't believe in coincidences."