‘He’s a hero’

James Branaman

I spotted William Randolph on a street corner in New York City holding a small poster with the word “Missing” written across the top. He held the flyer loosely but lovingly in his hands.

It showed Randolph with his arm around a cheerful man sporting a wide smile.

The date was Sept. 13, just two days after two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. Randolph was looking for his domestic partner, Wesley Mercer, who worked as vice president of Corporate Security for Morgan Stanley Investors in the World Trade Center.

Leaving for New York

The morning of Sept. 11, I stood on the sidewalk next to Garrett Center as several photojournalism students frantically rushed around.

They were heading to New York City. While I wrestled with the idea of whether I would do the same, I found myself disappointed as their cars pulled off without me.

That soon changed.

I felt the need to see New York City and stand at Ground Zero. So I went, not to view the remains of a disaster, but to document the soul of the city itself.

No answer

Randolph was at the Beth Israel Dialysis Center in New York receiving treatment for kidney damage when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.

The program he was watching on TV was interrupted by news that a plane had struck one of the twin towers. Randolph immediately called Mercer’s office. His secretary said he had stepped out for a minute.

Randolph left a message.

Then he saw the second plane hit. He quickly tried to call back, but there was no answer this time.

Randolph wanted to spread the word that his partner was missing. He was ready to talk.

After our first meeting, he agreed to meet with me the next day so we could talk more.

Friday, Sept. 14

I met with Randolph at the dialysis center. It was his and Mercer’s 26th anniversary. Instead of celebrating, his time was occupied with filling out a seven-page missing person report.

“He was a person that put his own life in front for others,” Randolph said. “When this all happened, I knew he was not the type of man . who would have gone home. I wouldn’t have expected him to do anything less than to go in and get people out, and then to go back in to make sure that people were out.”

Randolph said Morgan Stanley workers informed him that Mercer and members of his security team helped 2,500 company associates and employees out of the building before it collapsed.

Randolph glanced at a picture of Mercer. He wept quietly.

Saturday, Sept. 15

Randolph invited me to go with him to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine where he was an organist.

He changed the planned music for the day, instead playing a series of Mercer’s favorite songs. He hung his head and covered his face after each song.

He looked up at me with a weary smile and said, “I can imagine him humming along.”

No survivors had been found, but Randolph still believed Mercer was alive.

“He is not in the morgue,” he said defiantly. “He is not in the hospital. He is just missing.”

Randolph believed Mercer was still helping people trapped in the rubble.

After the service, I went with Randolph and a friend of his to Randolph’s apartment in Harlem where the two talked about old times.

Randolph and Mercer were building a house in Barbados, where they hoped to move after Mercer’s retirement in December 2001.

“When they find him, he’ll say he doesn’t want to work any more, and we’ll go ahead and move,” Randolph said with a weak laugh.

Randolph and I left his apartment and took a cab back to Lexington Avenue in downtown Manhattan, where we first met.

I walked with him until we met Mercer’s brother and sister-in-law. We stood in line with others still hoping to find their loved ones. They filed missing persons reports and handed over personal items to help with identification. Randolph had collected Mercer’s toothbrush and comb in a plastic bag for possible DNA testing.

That was the last time I saw Randolph.

Back home

It was an eerie feeling to leave a place that you know is still hurting. It was even stranger to return to Bowling Green, where the effects of the event seemed invisible.

I often felt anger that first week back, simply because there were no memorials and signs of patriotism that could compare to those I saw in New York City. It felt like no one, other than those who were there, understood pain like that of Randolph’s.

One month after the terrorist attacks and Mercer’s disappearance, Randolph’s answering machine still picked up with the same message: “We are still looking for Wesley and being hopeful. Please keep him and his family in your prayers.”

In October, I received an invitation to Mercer’s memorial services. I did some soul searching and hesitantly decided that I should document the service. Two months after the World Trade Center collapse, I was in New York City again.

After taking photos of him crying the second day we met, he must have sensed how uncomfortable I felt at times and offered encouragement. He thanked me for taking photos of him during his darkest hour.

“It helps me to be able to talk about Wesley,” he said.

Years from now, he will be able to look back at the photos, and they will help him see how he felt during that time, he told me. They will remind him how much Mercer meant to him.

Back to New York

Randolph and I have kept in touch. I left yesterday to travel back to New York City for the one-year anniversary of the attacks. I hope to meet up with him again.

Many simply remember the attacks through images replayed on television or in newspapers. But for Randolph and the others who lost loved ones, the effects are still being felt. Their lives have been changed forever.

“He died doing what he wanted to do, helping others,” he said of Mercer. ” . He’s a hero.”