A man front and center in one of the most iconic photos from the most unforgettable day in modern American history has died due to complications from the coronavirus.
Stephen Cooper, 78 at the time of his death, grew up in the Queens borough of New York City and was headed into Manhattan the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, to drop off some signatures he gathered for a friend running for a local office, according to his partner of 33 years, Janet Rashes.
He was commuting on the train when the conductor speculated over the intercom that Steven Spielberg was filming at the World Trade Center as a possible explanation for all the chaos, Rashes recalled Cooper telling her. He decided to get off and see what was going on.
"There was a big cloud of smoke, and the police were telling everybody, 'Run,'" Rashes told TODAY of what Cooper said he saw. "Many of the people went into the subway, which was a vacuum. It sucked up all that smoke and debris. He couldn't see in front of himself, and he was just following voices to get out of there."
Rashes added that Cooper, covered head to toe in dust and asbestos, was able to get in touch with her that day by calling the school where she worked. Unlike so many, he made it home that evening.
Cooper, 60 at the time, had no idea he was photographed in that moment and learned of his strange fame when a co-worker at the New York City Transit Authority, where he worked as an electrical engineer for 40 years, showed him the photo in TIME magazine.
"He always got a kick out of his photograph being taken," Rashes said. "He wasn’t able to do small talk. If somebody asked about that picture, then he’d talk about it."
Rashes' daughter, Jessica, whom Cooper helped raise, told TODAY that he "enjoyed" talking about the photo and what it was like to be in downtown Manhattan that day.
"For the longest time after (the magazine) came out, he would carry it around with him," she said.
Even though Cooper spent most of his time in the years leading up to his death with the Rashes in Manhattan, he was still attached to his childhood community in Far Rockaway, Queens. He was involved in local politics and his labor union.
"There was never a day he didn't read the news," Jessica Rashes said, adding that he also participated in Far Rockaway's Toastmasters club. Toastmasters is a nonprofit that teaches public speaking, which Janet Rashes said appealed to Cooper because he had a stutter as a child.
Naturally, Cooper was emotionally affected by what he witnessed the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I think the whole thing with 9/11 put a lot of fear into him," Janet Rashes said.
Jessica Rashes added that he became "more cautious" and concerned with knowing her and her mother's whereabouts so he could be sure they were safe. This mindset continued even when he was hospitalized after taking a fall in October 2019 and again in January 2020.
"He always looked out for me and my mom to make sure we were OK," Jessica Rashes said.
When Cooper died on March 28, he'd been in the hospital for five days after initially being diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). He was given a COVID-19 test upon admission, but the positive result wasn't available until after he died.
Janet Rashes last spoke to Cooper on the phone a few days beforehand. She told him she loved him and that she'd talk to him later, she recalled.
"We were very devoted to one another," she said. "He was always a very kind man."