LANSING — Eighteen years ago, David Aben lost his cousin during the attacks on 9/11.
At the time, Aben was heading out on his boat with friends and family. Before leaving, he said his friend came down to tell him that the World Trade Center had been hit. With the boat loaded and his kids eager to get out on the water, he took a moment to sit down in the captain’s chair, think, and he ultimately decided to leave the dock.
“They wanted us to stop,” Aben said. “There’s nothing I can do — nothing — so we went out, and we had our day.”
But Aben couldn’t stop thinking, he said. Out on the water, he remembered how his uncle always would visit the WTC to see his daughter, Debbie Bellows, who worked in the South Tower of the WTC. After returning home, Aben called his uncle, but there was no answer.
“Two days, three days, and then he finally called and said, ‘They got Debbie, they got Debbie,’ and we were just mortified,” Aben said.
It was in that moment that Aben, a photographer, graphic designer and former U.S. Navy operations specialist, decided to go back to the drawing board.
One year prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Aben visited New York City with his family. Originally from Queens, N.Y., he was no stranger to the city and its towering skyscrapers, but it was during that visit when he realized he had never taken a photo of the World Trade Center.
After asking his family to block traffic, he laid down on the street and took the photo — a picture he would then use one year later to memorialize not only his cousin, but the thousands of men and women who lost their lives at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
The initial design for the memorial print came only days after the 9/11 attacks, Aben said, consisting of an American flag superimposed over his image of the World Trade Center. After learning of his cousin’s death, he then added a photo of her to the design.
“Then, I had an idea after I saw the stars and everything — let me get the names of the victims,” Aben said.
After collecting the names of all of the victims of the attack, Aben placed each name, one by one, on the image. He said that all of the major ladders who participated in rescue efforts on 9/11 amounted to the number of stars in the flag, placing those fire departments, engines, police departments and precincts within the stars.
From start to finish, Aben said the project took around three months, completing the final memorial print on Nov. 9, 2001. After it was finished, he then set out to share it with as many first responders as he could.
Aben and his wife, living at the time in Apex, N.C., then returned to New York City and visited every police and fire department they came across to offer them a copy of the memorial print, he said.
“There are some people who just don’t want to remember,” Aben said. “This is a day where everybody should remember.”
Aben donated the original copy of the print to the International Association of Firefighters to use as a fundraiser, he said. He received recognition from a number of people for the memorial, including the chiefs of the New York City fire and police departments.
Currently, Aben lives in Lansing with his wife. During the past 18 years, he said he has donated at least 300 copies and visited around 200 police and fire departments.
This year on Sept. 11, he visited local businesses around Ashe County to offer copies of the memorial for a donation. He then donated those funds to Fleetwood Volunteer Fire and Rescue, he said.
“I don’t want people to forget,” Aben said.