Sixteen years ago, Detective Amadeo Pulley was stuck in traffic when he saw smoke billowing out of the twin towers. Pulley, who works for the NYPD arson and explosion squad, was one of the tireless rescue workers who looked for bodies and the blackboxes among the rubble in what has since been called the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States. When he was working between the north and south towers, Pulley remembers seeing butterflies to the right of him. “They were just flying around,” he said, describing the 200 to 300 butterflies he saw. “You know, just hovering over a little area. And at that point, I stopped what I was doing and just stared at them.”

When Mexican filmmaker Ali Alvarez read this anecdote about 9/11, she had a hunch they might be orange monarch butterflies. Alvarez had been working on her documentary Muerte es Vida, a film that captures the stories of people who encounter the remarkable annual migration that orange monarch butterflies undertake each year. “Three hundred million orange monarch butterflies leave Canada every August and fly all the way to Mexico,” Alvarez told Nowness, which presented a short clip of the doc. “It’s the most beautiful natural phenomenon I’ve ever seen. Butterflies normally live two weeks, but this ‘super-generation’ lives two months and travels to Michoacán state in central Mexico, arriving in late October, just around the Day of the Dead. The Mexicans say they are the souls of your family, coming back to visit you each year.”

Alvarez was interested in Pulley’s story, and set out to interview him, despite his initial reluctance. “Who knows why they stopped there, in a place so toxic,” she said.

The end result is a moving anecdote and a symbol of hope set amongst an unspeakable tragedy. Watch it below:

This story was originally published on September 11th, 2015. 

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