Thomas E. Franklin of NorthJersey.com reports that the photographers working that day knew very little about the scope of the disaster unfolding as they rushed to the scene. Nor did they realize its lasting impact, but each instinctively rose to the occasion and became a witness to history.
The images are surreal, the subject matter is beyond belief, yet the photographs reveal the essence of what happened that day — from unspeakable horror to the power of the human spirit.
“We were documenting the facts,” says Star-Ledger photographer Aris Economopoulos, whose 9/11 photos such as the Statue of Liberty framed between the burning towers received numerous photography awards. “And by doing that, we became historians.”
“The photographers created some of the best news pictures taken in my lifetime,” says Vanity Fair Editor David Friend, who wrote perhaps the most comprehensive book on the subject, “Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Photographs of 9/11.” “Not only were the images memorable because the event was so pyrotechnic, but the situation was not to be believed.”
“I can’t think of another day that was documented so well,” says Reuters photographer Shannon Stapleton, who made the iconic image of the first responders carrying the lifeless body of FDNY chaplain the Rev. Mychal Judge, identified as the first official casualty of Sept. 11, 2001.
For the most part, the most dramatic images were made near the epicenter, later to become known as Ground Zero, such as the Daily News’ David Handschuh’s wide-angle image of the fiery explosion of the second plane, which crashed into 2 World Trade Center. Taken at 9:03 a.m. from the foot of the tower, the award-winning photo captures the incongruity of the day — using the sharp vertical lines of the building to lead the viewer’s eye upward, toward a great ball of fire framed by the brilliant blue sky.
“When the second plane hit the south tower it was completely unbelievable,” recalls Handschuh. “I knew I saw it. I knew I witnessed it, but was I really seeing what I photographed?”
Handschuh barely escaped with his life. With both his legs broken from the south tower’s falling debris, he gave his damaged cameras to a colleague after he was rescued. He never even saw his photographs until the following day.
“There on Page 2 of the New York Daily News,” recalls Handschuh, “is this full-page picture in brilliant color where you see this beautiful blue sky … yet the towers are belching orange flames and black smoke.”
Ruth Fremson, part of a team of New York Times photographers who collectively won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, barely escaped the collapse of the south tower.
“I remember hearing a rumbling, sounded like a jet airplane to me,” she recalled. “And I thought to myself, I cant believe they’re flying a third plane into here now. I pointed my camera up framing the burning two towers, expecting to see a plane to come into my frame. Instead I saw the building imploding.”
Before she began working for the Times, Fremson was an Associated Press shooter based in Jerusalem and had experience covering terrorism. “Suicide attacks, bombs going off in markets, those types of attacks I covered. In some ways it prepared me to focus, but I don’t know anyone could say that they covered anything like this before.”
Other memorable shots were taken from as far away as Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey. Self-employed photographer Robert A. Cumins shot a stark sequence of pictures of the second plane using a 500mm lens from his apartment in Verona. He cut short his morning coffee run after hearing a report on his car radio about a plane in the tower. Details were sketchy, but he decided to turn the car around and head back up to his apartment.
The moment he stepped out to his ninth-floor balcony — 20 miles to the west — he shot a burst of images of United Airlines Flight 175, one taken a fraction of a second before the hijacked jetliner hit the south tower. That photo landed on the cover of People magazine — a double-page spread.
“It was just staggering to me,” says Cumins, shaking his head nearly 10 years later. “I couldn’t believe that I actually caught that plane.”
“I covered the Middle East peace process for a number of years,” says Cumins, who’s been on the road much of the past 40 years, having made more than 200 overseas trips. “As I think about it … it was ironic that I’m the guy that made this shot. Is it the best shot I ever made? Had to be. Is it the most important picture I ever made? Yeah.”
Friend, who wrote and researched extensively about the images for his book, estimates that 9/11 was the most widely observed event by media in history.
“There were certain technologies that came to fruition. You had digital news gathering, 24/7 news, a thing called the Internet… and you had many more people with portable cameras. You had photographers shooting digitally who could immediately upload their images. So you had this matrix of image gathering and image dispensing all over the world, at the same time.”
The attacks, the destruction, and then the search and rescue, were captured in hundreds of photographs made that day, by tourists, citizen-journalists and professional photojournalists alike. Some were shot by the world’s best-known photojournalists, such as Peter Turnley and Steve McCurry. James Nachtwey, a highly accomplished magazine photographer who lives downtown near the South Street Seaport and spends the majority of his time abroad covering war, captured an award-winning set of images of the war zone in his own back yard.
Veteran AP staffer Richard Drew, a photojournalist for more than 35 years, has witnessed history unfold in front of his lens many times — Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 and the first WTC attack in 1993. On 9/11, Drew shot a dramatic sequence of images of the south tower collapsing onto the Marriott Hotel. The tightly framed telephoto images show the tower plummeting in an enormous wave of debris. Pieces of the building’s familiar metal facing are seen in remarkable detail. Drew says that, later on, one of the editors even detected a man clinging to one of the sections of the towers as it splintered.
“I heard this sound like a rock slide … and I distinctly brought my camera over to where I saw some debris falling, I thought maybe some pieces of the facade were falling. And I instinctively followed that down until it fell on top of the Marriott Hotel. It wasn’t until I took my eye off the camera, I realized the actual … tower was collapsing.”
Drew also made what is perhaps the most widely debated picture taken that day, of a man plunging headfirst from the top floors of Tower One. The image, deemed by many to be too upsetting for publication, has become commonly known as “The Falling Man.”
Despite many journalistic attempts to identify him, the jumper remains anonymous. But the image perhaps best encompasses the brutal reality of that day — people who went to work and found themselves faced with a choice of burning up or jumping to their deaths.
“That image captured the desperation, the horror of the moment,” explains Frank Scandale, editor of The Record, one of the papers that chose to publish the photo. “It needed to be seen.”
As ubiquitous as cameras were that day, back in 2001 the world was not yet dominated by social media such as Twitter and Facebook, nor did most cellphones have picture-taking capabilities, let alone high-def video. Friend believes this was a good thing, or perhaps the horror felt would have been even greater.
Still, one of the more unforgettable shots came from an improbable source. Carmen Taylor was a tourist from Arkansas waiting in Battery Park for a ferry to take her to the Statue of Liberty when she snapped the image of Flight 175 disappearing into the south face of Tower Two.
“I was a tourist taking pictures,” Taylor said recently via telephone. “I was a person who was by myself at a time of fear. When I put myself behind the camera I was better able to deal with what was happening.”
Despite not having the credentials, nor years of experience covering large news events like many of the professionals working that day, Taylor did have the courage to make the shot, and it gave her a whole new perspective on the field of photojournalism.
“I tended to look differently towards photojournalists after this event. They want to be the eyes of every person who’s not there, they want to show the picture … and they want the picture to show what happened. Then each person can draw their own conclusions.”
“It changed my life totally,” says Taylor, a former office assistant who now works in a camera store back home in Fort Smith. “There’s not a day goes by that I’m not consciously aware of 9/11.”
Indeed, 10 years after the fact, the images can be hard to look at. All the emotions of that awful day come flooding back: fear, pain, panic, uncertainty and sense of loss. But the passage of time has served to underline the importance of the work done by these witnesses to history.
“There were photographs that were taken,” says Handschuh, who has fully recovered from his leg injuries and is still shooting for the Daily News, “that people will look back at 50 years from now and realize that someone with a really good eye, really good vision, and at 1/500th of second captured that horrible day.”
“This was an attack on our soil, our Pearl Harbor,” says Drew. My images are a witness to history, for future generations, for the next day’s newspapers, or for the Web a few hours later.”
On 9/11, the New York photography community shined, says Fremson from the Times. “That day, I’m really proud of us as a community. Everyone did their share and I think collectively the photographers told the story.”
Images: A firefighter at Ground Zero (top), the Statue of Liberty (middle), Tower One comes down as Star-Ledger photographer Aris Economopoulos runs for cover (bottom).
Photo Credits: AP (middle), Joe Tabacca (bottom)