TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11
French filmmaker Jules Naudet, shooting downtown, heard the roar of a plane above him. He raised his digital video camera. He aimed a bit ahead of him, to the space in the sky where he thought the plane was headed. His response was uncanny: just in time, and position, to record the impact of the plane as it plunged into the north face of the north tower.
At the same instant, across the East River, a Czech immigrant named Pavel Hlava was sitting in the passenger's seat of an SUV in Brooklyn, video camera in hand. He was accompanied by his brother Josef, in town for a visit and eager to see the sights of Manhattan. As Hlava focused his camcorder on the Trade Center towers in the distance, he caught an indistinct blob moving toward one of the buildings. He continued taping as a puff of white signaled the plane's collision. Hlava's shaky video next captured the fiery gash in the side of the structure, along with the approach, seventeen minutes later, of a second plane as it tipped its wing and tore through the south tower.
Also fixed on the twin towers that morning were two unmanned Webcams, positioned in an apartment window in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Several days before, Wolfgang Staehle, a German-born Internet-art pioneer, had carefully calibrated the cameras' shutters to trip at four-secondintervals, hour after hour, day after day, automatically snapping postcard-style views of lower Manhattan. Staehle's photos would then be transmitted over the World Wide Web to twin film projectors, their beams directed at the wall of a West Side art gallery. In the name of art (Staehle's show was called "2001"), the Webcams silently documented the aircraft's approach, then its concussion, then the explosion (Image 1). The resulting high-resolution triptych--three panoramas shot in the span of twelve seconds--showed the downtown skyline as it degenerated from a placid morning vista into a cityscape under siege.
A French documentary filmmaker, a Czech immigrant, and a German artist--New Yorkers all--each happened to have cameras rolling and focused on the World Trade Center when it was attacked. Moments later, artist Lawrence Heller, who had heard the first jet slam into Tower One (the north tower), picked up his digital video camera. He had just set it down on the window ledge in his Franklin Street loft, taking a short break from shooting video "still lifes" of several wall sculptures he was about to crate up and send off for an exhibition. Over the next few minutes, Heller and his wife, Mi-Kyung Hwang, took turns filming Tower One engulfed in smoke. On the tape, Heller can be heard on the phone with his grandparents: "Hey Grandma. I'll tell you what woke me up. They bombed the World Trade Center ... I'm looking at it, Mi-Kyung's videotaping it ... Terrible ... Grandpa, I saw it. Could have been a plane. But I think it was a bomb, a missile. This could be World War Three ... I don't know, Grandma ... How early? Just happened, I don't know, three minutes ago."
And so it went. As the morning crept on, New Yorkers poured into the streets, many to help, many in flight, all of them aghast. Out, too, came their cameras. Men and women by the hundreds, then thousands--bystanders with point-and-shoots, TV news teams, photojournalists by the score--felt compelled to snap history, fiery and cruel against the blue.
People photographed from windows and parapets and landings. They photographed as they fled: in cars, across bridges, up avenues blanketed in drifts of ash and dust. They even photographed the images on their television sets as they watched the world changing, right there on the screen.
Patricia McDonough was jolted from sleep by a shake and then a high-pitched wail outside her window. She lay still a moment, taking in the roar of the sirens. These were the same sounds, and the same rumble, she realized, that she had felt in 1993 when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, just four blocks away.
McDonough, a professional photographer, jumped from bed and took her Nikon with its fish-eye lens (a bulbous "trick" attachment she happened to have left on the camera) and directed it at the smoking structure outside her picture window (Image 2). The exaggerated curve of the 16-mm lens made her apartment appear to warp and buckle. Her living room, swollen with morning sunshine, seemed set to implode. Out beyond the lamp, the potted plants, the thin tissue of the glass, smoke columns billowed like ink, then milk, then cumulus.
"At first," she says, "when I was taking my pictures, I was doing it as a personal document: This is this morning. This is what happened, to me, in my apartment. Soon, however, thousands of people were there. And ambulances. There were all these photographers." Then downtown Manhattan literally transformed in front of her. And photography, strangely enough, "suddenly seemed superfluous," she says.
"When I saw the first building come down on all these trucks and ambulances, the situation became something else. I felt immediately needed. I have had a lot of Red Cross training, CPR classes. I have preternatural calm in disasters. I thought, This is New York. What good is another photographer--and a million people who think they're photographers? What was needed was another person who could help."
McDonough threw on a T-shirt. (She thought it odd, later in the day, when she realized it sported a caricature of a butcher with a mustache and a sneer, holding a butcher's knife.) She loaded her bike bag with disposable gloves and water bottles. She grabbed her heavily stocked first-aid kit. She decided to leave her exposed film and equipment behind, taking along a single camera and a few rolls. Since the building's electricity had gone out, a result of the towers' collapse, she rushed down seventeen flights of stairs in the dark.
"There was an ambulance outside my door," she says, "and I just opened the back and got in. [Inside] were ambulance drivers from Yonkers. They may have been hiding. They were scared. They didn't know what to do. I saw it as a ride to go and help." After a bit of prodding from McDonough, the men gunned the engine and raced with her toward the Trade towers.
That day, McDonough guided people to emergency vehicles and helped set up operating tables at a triage center at Chelsea Piers. Later that week (after a stop to retrieve the film she'd left behind), she assisted rescue workers at hydration stations. Her photos of the view inside and outside her apartment window that Tuesday morning, tightly framed and claustrophobic, would later run in Esquire, then other magazines, winning her awards.
Jonathan Torgovnik noticed that his hands were trembling. "I should shoot this at a high shutter speed because I'm shaking," he thought.
Around nine in the morning, Torgovnik had spied the edge of an airplane wing from the kitchen window of his top-floor apartment on Houston Street and Sixth Avenue. He watched the wing disappear as the plane plowed into the south tower. It then registered: one building was spouting smoke; the other had just been hit; terrorist strikes must be under way Torgovnik, a frequent contributor to Newsweek, intuitively shifted into work mode. He opened the refrigerator, where, like many photographers, he stored his film in a temperature-controlled environment, and gathered fifteen rolls of Kodak negative, then packed two Canons, one Hasselblad panoramic, and three lenses. He saw that he was still shaking.
Torgovnik had covered conflicts around the world. As an Israeli citizen he had completed three years of compulsory military duty, serving in Gaza and Lebanon. Yet only once before in his life had he experienced the fear he felt that moment in his kitchen: during the first Gulf War, when Iraq began hurling Scud missiles through the night skies, targeting cities in Israel. "You're looking at your grandmother in a gas mask and she's ninety-two," he says, recounting how they sat in his parents' apartmentin Tel Aviv. "She went through World War II and three wars in Israel. And I'm trying to keep calm. In both cases, 9/11 and the Gulf War, you're in your home. You're in your protected space. And [suddenly] you've peeled off all your shields of protection."
He bicycled the twenty blocks to the World Trade Center. At one point he turned his camera vertically to capture Tower One, above the glass-roofed Winter Garden, just a stairway and a plaza away from him, to the east. His mind registered that he was in danger because he saw, through his viewfinder, that two businessmen with briefcases were fleeing for their lives, one staring back at the building in free fall. "I saw the top of the tower crumbling," says Torgovnik. "I thought, 'What am I doing? I can die.' But I said to myself, 'I'm here. I have to take a picture of this.'" He squeezed off four frames, then thought, "Now I have to run."
Dave Brondolo was a printing plant account manager and aspiring photographer. He hurried downtown from his Nineteenth Street office on the number 1 subway hoping to use his high-end Nikon to garner his own firsthand view of the scenes he had glimpsed on TV He caught the last subway train to discharge passengers at Chambers Street, one stop north of the tower, arriving just in time to see the south tower plummet before his lens, the camera's motor drive tripping the shutter in rapid, blurry bursts (Image 3).
"Every time I press the shutter," he says, "the viewfinder closes. And it happens so fast what I'm mostly seeing is black: the shutter, closed. I didn't know what was occurring in front of my eyes. As I'm taking the pictures I heard a sound like cracking spaghetti and just kept firing.
"Then I turned and saw these monstrous smoke clouds coming down the street, straight at me, moving faster than people could run. The ground was shaking. Although it was a horrible sight, my adrenaline was pumping. [I kept shooting. I still] hadn't realized the building had fallen.
"I ducked into Trinity Church," Brondolo remembers, "and I actually thought I was going to die. Objects landed on the roof. I was afraid we'd suffocate from the smoke. Then some security guy tried to evacuate us out the back door toward the towers. Two women with babies," he says,his eyes welling with tears, "rushed through the dust and were in a panic to get out. I turned around and went back into the church. And just as I did, we heard the second tower come down. And the women and the babies were out there somewhere. They had left their strollers behind."
For eight months, he kept his photographs to himself. "I let them sit on my shelf," explains Brondolo, who lives in Rockville Centre, Long Island, which lost thirty-eight people that day "I didn't want to exploit the deaths. I thought it would reflect poorly on my community and me. We lost the soccer coach in my son's league. I lost my father's cousin. For a year, my kids, eight and five at the time, didn't know what I went through. But I had to go down there. Others were running away. Photographers were drawn to it."
Also inside the church on Tuesday was Evan Fairbanks, a videographer who had been helping set up a four-camera teleconference scheduled to include the Anglican Archbishop of Wales, visiting New York at the time. "I was in the right place at the wrong time," Fairbanks says. For a moment, the lights flickered, inexplicably. Soon he heard that there had been an explosion at the twin towers. Intrigued and alarmed, Fairbanks went out in the street with a Panasonic DVC Pro video camera and started shooting.
Seeing hundreds of people streaming away from the Trade Center plaza, he headed against the human tide. "I was kind of drawn to the energy," he says. "I never worked full-time for a news station. But I've always been a big photojournalism fan. I guess like everybody in that business you always are fantasizing about the big story that you're [going to be] Johnny-on-the-spot for." His storyteller's instincts kicked in. As much as his attention became fixed upon the gaping hole in the tower up above, he was determined, he says, not to focus on the building but on the human drama around him. In all, he would record twenty-three minutes of tape. (Though he had shot with the audio turned on, the FBI had impounded his footage as evidence, returning a single copy to him with the sound inexplicably erased.)
His video shows firemen on the march and pedestrians dazed. Itshows clusters of employees inside the World Trade Center lobby, filing down stalled escalators. (Fairbanks ducked into the complex for a while.) Most memorably, it shows the mayhem in the streets, the scenes made all the more disorienting because the camera gyrates while Fairbanks, still shooting, runs through the crowds or crouches behind a car or swivels his lens to glimpse the sky. Here are tilts and pans of debris-filled streets, there a flurry of paper, or disembodied legs fleeing across the frame. Because the photographer's life appears to be at stake, the viewer feels vulnerable too. The footage is unvarnished and authentic, hallucinatory and hesitant--terror vérité.
At one point, a neat, clean-cut man suddenly appears through the viewfinder, like some Pinter character come to life, "just leaning against his car," as Fairbanks remembers. "On the other side of the hood was this battery-operated multiband radio. [I was taken with] his kind of calm demeanor in the middle of all this ... confusion. [He had] his hands on his chin, just hangin' out there. It was kind of a freak situation to come across. He was listening to [news reports on] the radio and would occasionally look up to the left, to the buildings. In retrospect it was odd." But Fairbanks, trained in the news photography dictum that a single shot should tell the whole tale, decided to stoop down low to present the man in the shadowy foreground against the smoking building, which towered behind him in the bright sunlight (Image 4). To get the right angle, Fairbanks bent over, cradling the camera in his arms. "I was adjusting the focus and exposure," says Fairbanks, "and as soon as I settled the shot and locked it in and steadied it up, I saw this flash in the left corner of my viewfinder."
The nose of a passenger plane came from behind another building, then the entire aircraft disappeared into the skin of the south tower, Tower Two. Fairbanks caught the jet's passage in twelve frames of video. "I was looking down into the viewfinder and pointing the lens up," says Fairbanks, describing the posture of videographers in the digital age: heads bowed toward their LED screens, almost in the manner of a person at prayer, as if paying homage to the image, out of deference to, or fear of, the actual. "I essentially saw it on TV, just like everybody else."
"His videotape," Sarah Boxer would later write in The New YorkTimes, recorded "25 stunning, silent minutes [that reveal] the very climate changing minute by minute ... Over the head of [a man], who clearly does not see what is happening, a plane silently penetrates the ... tower. The man's head reels out of the frame as he reacts to the crash. His head snaps back in time to watch the aftermath. A black cloud envelops the tower. Debris sprays out like a fountain from the top. The sky goes dark. The traffic stops."
Despite the danger, Fairbanks felt the urge to continue taping, and shot what he calls "shock and awe" in those around him. "I felt a sense of obligation," he now says, having seen no other cameramen in his vicinity. "Since I was the only one down there, I felt, This is something that I have to document." But the debris specks on his lens were getting progressively larger. He took this as a sign that he needed to seek refuge. For cover, he jumped underneath a van and continued to shoot. Through his lens, he saw "groups stream by panic-stricken. Flailing arms. People running really fast, scared. Total havoc."
Fairbanks senses that he may have been destined to be there with a camera--and to have been spared. "Before that one event," he says, "I would have called it a freak of luck. But I think of the circumstances that forced me down there--I'm in a church--and put me on that corner. I had been kind of randomly shooting people's reactions, but I suddenly felt compelled to tilt the camera toward the towers at [a] perfect moment. That now makes fate or God certainly seem to me an option. Even though I'm not religious, I have a feeling there's a power that kind of keeps an eye on things. Even if it's not necessarily a guardian angel, I have some kind of a force looking out for me ... saying to me, Listen, we've kept you here for [a] reason. Leave a mark."
Around 10:15, Fairbanks fell in with two Port Authority officers who wanted a copy of his footage as evidence. He agreed to cooperate, walking with them toward Trinity Church, where he planned to make a duplicate tape in the building's audiovisual facility. At the last moment before heading inside, he decided to turn his camera skyward for a final shot. "I did this very graceful zoom out from the plume of smoke," he remembers, "and put these two people in the foreground," careful to providehuman scale. Just as he did, he heard and felt a rumble. He looked up to record the north tower coming down.
"I knew I was going to die," he says. "That's it. There's a one-hundred-and-ten-story building falling and I'm basically across the street. I just remember kind of wishing that I could stop the clock, thinking that I really got greedy. Why didn't I get out of there? I had gotten the shot of a lifetime--the plane going in. What could be more dramatic that day than getting a plane crashing into the World Trade Center? What am I still doing on the scene? It was unfathomable that worse than that could happen."
He recalls the last moments that appear on his tape. "I just turned and ran," he says, "even though I felt almost certain that it was a futile attempt." As he sprinted away he somehow turned the camera backward under his arm, leaving it on wide angle. His lens absorbed it all. "You saw the cloud come down to the ground, then billowed up over Building 5, came across, and obscured the traffic lights at Vesey Street, just kind of chasing me ... like a tidal wave down the block. I never once looked behind me. It was the point of no return." Halfway up the block, Fairbanks dove under a rescue-unit fire truck he happened to sprint past, and was able to roll within the three-foot clearance of its chassis. "I curled myself into a ball, put my back to the south. And that's where the video cuts off. It just goes black."
Grant Peterson was in a quiet photo studio near Broome Street and Broadway. His photo assignment: a Brides magazine story, "Quintessential Wedding Gifts." Peterson was about to take a few still lifes of ice buckets and vases when he looked out the eighth-floor window and noticed smoke pouring from the upper reaches of the Trade Center. He grabbed his 4x5 view camera.
There was a crater, he recalls, ripped in the tower facade, as large as an airplane hangar. The gash conferred proportion upon a building he had always viewed as remote and monolithic. "It was a very tangible experience," he says. "Everything was close-up and in-your-face. You feltyou could barely breathe because of the scale. How many people could be in that fire?"
Peterson took sixteen exposures in all, on oversized sheet film, which provided him enough of a canvas to bring the towers into stunning relief. Later, determined to give others a visual sense of the immensity of the inferno out his window, Peterson scanned the shots, creating colossal two-gigabyte files. Next, he retouched them electronically, before locating the largest available print carriage he could find--as tall as a man--and producing enormous, five-by-nine-foot panels, 32,000 pixels across, with almost pristine definition. His work would be displayed at the New-York Historical Society for thousands to see. "My whole goal," Peterson insists, "was to re-create that experience: the first fright. I thought I'd create pictures of the magnitude of the day."
Some of the first news bulletins and police alerts implied that a bomb might have gone off at the World Trade Center, like the one in 1993 that had killed six people and wounded more than a thousand people. Other reports suggested that a private plane or commuter aircraft had crashed into the north tower. In the sketchy, frantic interlude that followed the first attack, enough people had gotten the message (through television, radio, telephone, or the naked eye) that the impact of the second hijacked flight, at 9:03, just seventeen minutes after the first, was "covered" like an elbow-to-elbow photo op, the scene filmed or taped from myriad angles. From downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey men and women spotted the distinct outline of a jet speeding toward the tower from the south, then suddenly banking its wings at the last instant before it sheared, diagonally, two-thirds of the way up the building. And they focused their cameras.
Some were pros, many were enterprising amateurs. Most were poised and ready, like sharpshooters. Video sequences of the plane's approach and collision were photographed by the likes of Maurizio Benazzo, Peter DiPilato, Chris Hopewell, and Jennifer Spell, and by others working for video agencies or local, cable, and network outlets. HBO would later show footage of the plane streaking toward Tower Two, andthe explosion's fiery corona--from Scott Myers (positioned on John Street), Michael Kovalenko (King Street), Mike Toole (Desbrosses Street), Park Foreman (Brooklyn Heights), and Ronald S. Pordy (Long Island City). The same scene was photographed by dozens, among them: Sean Adair, Tamara Beckwith, Moshe Bursuker, Kathy Cacicedo, Tom Callan, Chao Soi Cheong, Robert Clark, Anthony Cotsifas, Adger Cowans, Robert A. Cumins, Frank J. DeNicola, Dr. Harry Dym, Giovanni Giannoni, Kelly Guenther, Tammy Klein, Ernesto Mora, Spencer Platt, Sara K. Schwittek, James Sullivan, Carmen Taylor, and Steve Ludlum, whose photo of the two towers--one disgorging huge coils of flame, the other jet-black smoke, stunting the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground--would appear on the front page of the next day's New York Times (Figure A).
The power of Ludlum's image, says John Loengard, former director of photography of Life, derives from the fact that it "put the event in a context--human habitation, the size of the city--whereas many of the others were focused directly on the towers. It speaks well of the picture that millions of people weren't affected directly by the attack. The picture gets across the city as vast, putting it in perspective. This engineering marvel, the Brooklyn Bridge, from another century, is standing perfectly well, untouched, next to the Trade Center."
Bond analyst Will Nuñez had gone to his corner newsstand and bought a $14.99 disposable Kodak, hoping to record the smoking tower out his office window "for history's sake," he says. "I remembered an incident back in the thirties when a plane had hit the Empire State Building, and I was always impressed by photos in encyclopedias." Instead, from his perch on the thirty-second floor of One State Street Plaza, he captured the plane's breathtaking blur out his office window, quite unintentionally. In his shot, a colleague, standing before a vast picture window, looks on in silhouette, next to an innocuous baseball trophy, its tiny batter poised on a two-handled loving cup. The plane had streaked by with such speed, Nuñez had not even realized he had caught it on film until he finally got around to developing the roll a week or two later. (Many people put off having their film processed, some not wanting to face the terror of the day head-on, others not wanting to break the overpowering spell of that week, as horrible as it was.)
Rob Howard was at the window of his apartment on Rector Street and Broadway. A photographer accustomed to shooting travel, lifestyle, and portraiture, with medium and large-format cameras, Howard leaned out over the sill. He shot up at the bold, vaulting lines of the structure with a Pentax 6x7--just as the plane "flew over our building and slammed into the south tower," he says. "It seemed to take forever. Time stood still." He rendered the moment right before impact in finely detailed black-and-white, as if he were on an architecture shoot (Image 5).
Kristen Brochmann, a New York Times freelancer, expressed ambivalence about having been on hand to document the same moment. The next day her image of the impact ran above the fold on front pages across the land. "The only way I could sort of reconcile my [journalistic] good fortune," she said in the book Running Toward Danger, "is that I was able to take a record of this for everybody else to see. Lots of other horrible things happen [such as] ethnic cleansing, and there's no record. This is what it looked like, and this is what it was."
By the time the south tower collapsed (fifty-six minutes after the second collision) and its twin followed suit (twenty-nine minutes after that), hundreds of photographers were poised and shooting, many unable mentally or emotionally to accept what they were witnessing. Photographer Steve McCurry stood on his rooftop, just north of Washington Square Park, and shot south. "To have them crumble," he said, was "like ripping your heart out ... You kind of felt like the world was coming unglued." Photo researcher Adam Woodward, who had grabbed his Mamiya and headed toward SoHo, began to feel a "weird tinge of guilt that I was taking pictures," he recalls. In fact, he waited many months before agreeing to publish his arresting photo of the morning, uneasy with the idea of publicly exploiting the picture for what might appear to be commercial gain. In his pin-sharp frame a hundred pedestrians, like extras on a movie soundstage, stand frozen in the crosswalk at the intersection of Prince and Broadway bathed in sidelight by the morning sun. The photo's hyperclarity, due to its oversized six-by-seven-inch negative, helps conduct the horror and absurdity of a day when cascading buildings and mass murder were set against a model-railroad-set foreground of neat, tree-lined streets and traffic lights blinking red and green.
Astoundingly, dozens of photographers continued to shoot even as they sensed that their own lives were at risk--when clouds of debris, from the falling towers, mushroomed up and down the streets. Suzanne Plunkett was immovable on the sidewalk, composing pictures. In one frame a half-dozen men stampede toward her, away from the swarm; a man in a tie seems to be screaming (Image 6). Doug Kanter photographed pedestrians running from smothering dust balls, as did Tony Fioranelli, Robert Mecca, Allan Tannenbaum, and Magnum's Susan Meiselas, who planted herself in the center of Church Street to confront the rushing wall of white, like some latter-day Mount St. Helens.
Kelly Price, a freelance photo editor, was downtown on a consulting job that morning. After the first plane hit, she ducked into a bodega and bought several disposable cameras. When the first tower fell, she fled for her life down Broadway, but couldn't help looking over her shoulder after a block or two. The sight of the advancing thunderheads was too irresistible an image, so she stopped in her tracks at Pine Street, fired off four or five frames, then resumed her flight. Her sequence--a remarkable achievement given the primitive, throwaway lens she used--shows a lone man with a camera in his right hand, running for his life. The wall of debris is erupting just behind his back and gaining on him (Jacket Photo). Both photographer and subject made it out of the cloud alive, though shaken.
Price's imperiled photographer commands the nexus of the frame, her picture bisected by khaki billows above the horizon line and the littered pavement below. Death seems certain, just steps behind the curtain. The scene incorporates much of the horror evident in images of men dwarfed by nature (Frank Hurley's haunting shots, from 1915, of Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition) or of soldiers enveloped in the fog of war (W. Eugene Smith's 1945 image of a Marine demo squad recoiling from a bomb blast on Iwo Jima). But this figure isn't equipped with a dogsled or a detonator. Like the woman who consigned him forever to a roll of film, he is armed only with a camera.
That man, it turns out, was George Mannes, then a senior writer for TheStreet.com, a financial Web site. It might seem odd that Mannes would undergo a spontaneous metamorphosis as a war reporter. But sohe did that day, even bringing a camera along. His was an immediate medium, and his audience, focused on the concerns of Wall Street, urgently needed any information he and his colleagues could provide.
The attacks had come to Mannes's doorstep, quite literally. At 8:47, a minute after the first plane hit, one of the Web site's message boards posted a bulletin about an event at the Trade Center. The fall of the towers would take out the company's offices and take the life of one of its columnists, William J. Meehan, chief market analyst for Cantor Fitzgerald. Mannes, instead of writing about his usual beat--tech stocks--would file an online dispatch that day about fleeing workers and the cloud he saw on Cedar Street: "I tried to outrun it as it chased me south down Broadway, but I lost."
As the sprinting figure in Price's picture, however, George Mannes, at that moment, is Everyman with a Camera. He is alone, vulnerable, a vital witness to an enveloping world. He exemplifies the edict of Robert Capa, who is considered by many to have been history's finest combat photographer: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."
Don Halasy and Bolivar Arellano (both shooting for the New York Post) and David Handschuh (a New York Daily News staffer) positioned themselves directly underneath the Trade Center during the collapse. Shaken, Halasy would file a story Tuesday night describing how "the world caved in" on him. Moments before, he noted, he had lent a roll of film to another photographer, unknown to him, who then suddenly "vanished ... in a hailstorm of debris." Handschuh, like Halasy, was swept off his feet, likening the experience to "getting hit in the back by a wave ... of hot, black gravel," as he would recount a month later on The Digital Journalist, a photojournalism Web site (to which I contribute occasionally) that featured images from thirty-five photographers who had covered the attacks. Hurled under a parked van, Handschuh came away with a fractured leg.
"Before September 11, all I did was go out to murder scenes and fires," Handschuh would tell New York magazine on the second anniversaryof the attacks, explaining how he had to take a year off work and undergo extensive rehabilitation before he could walk again. "That was my beat. I photographed things blowing up and falling down." Thereafter he found himself "never, ever wanting to either see or photograph anybody dead or dying again ... Now, I'm photographing chocolate mousse and doll refurbishing. It's still photojournalism, it's still going out and making great pictures, it's still meeting people I've never met before. Just without the blood, without the gore.
"It continues to be a long haul," he says. And memories of his experience under the towers remain seared in his psyche. So, too, do his mental images of his fellow photographers. Just prior to the collapse, Handschuh had encountered Glen Pettit, a video cameraman for the New York Police Department. Pettit told Handschuh that he had "unbelievable footage." Handschuh responded, "Be careful." They embraced. Then Pettit took off to shoot some more. He was last seen by a fellow officer who remembers him running toward the Trade Center.
Bill Biggart was an intense, impetuous, and driven photographer. "He was Type A-plus-plus," says his wife, Wendy Doremus. "You either loved him or you hated him. He got arrested at Wounded Knee [the Native American protest site, in 1973], got tear-gassed [and] arrested in the first Intifada [Palestinian uprising] in 1987. He had his press pass taken away covering squatters in New York. He was beaten up by the British police for being a little too close covering the twentieth anniversary of the reoccupation of Northern Ireland. He's Catholic, Irish, the second oldest of twelve."
Born in Berlin, the son of a U.S. Army officer, Biggart, according to Doremus, had anticipated the fall of the Berlin Wall by several months, then headed over to cover the celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate that marked the end of the division of Germany in 1989. But no matter the story, he liked to push the limits. "He always ended up too close," she says. "He'd always get behind the blockades to get inside ... He was a pacifist and his family was very much in the Army, so this was his way of compensating ... He always took the contrary position. He took thePalestinian side. He was a sailor too. If Palestine ever became a state, he wanted to be one of the first to sail into Gaza harbor, which is mined."
Biggart, fifty-four, was an old-school freelancer who shot self-assigned stories, concentrating on socially relevant subjects that he considered politically or personally significant. The Impact Visuals photo agency would then sell his images and photo essays to publications such as The Village Voice and The New York Times. Before rushing off to cover the disaster downtown on September 11, he didn't wait to get a "guarantee" from an editor; he just went. Here was a story that encompassed many of his abiding themes--the Middle East conflict, post-cold war issues, New York City, and fire (two of his siblings had perished in a house fire).
True to form, Biggart got as close as, if not closer than, any other journalist that day. New York Post photographer Bolivar Arellano remembers seeing Biggart directly beneath Tower Two. Though he had been repeatedly kicked out of the area by police, Arellano had slipped past the security cordon and hunkered down, hiding behind a fence so that he could continue shooting, but from a more protected position. He spotted Biggart thirty yards in front of him, and thought, "He's going to get killed. This guy is too close. He has a telephoto lens ... What's he doing there? I was in the same spot a few minutes before. I was insulting him [in my mind], but I was insulting myself too. A few minutes after that, that tower collapsed."
Biggart survived that first downfall, however, moving to safer ground, then pressing on through the dust. He had assumed that by sticking with the authorities in charge--the firefighters--he would be assured some measure of protection.
Doremus learned as much when she finally reached him by cell phone. She had walked downtown, hoping to find him somehow. "Everything had stopped," she says, "all the taxis had their doors opened, [like a scene from] The Day the Earth Stood Still. I got through to him after the first tower went down. I said, 'This is an attack. Bill, this is dangerous.' But he was just dismissing me." He was composed enough to arrange to meet her twenty minutes later, telling her, "I'm safe. I'm with the firemen."
And that was how they found him. On Saturday, Doremus says, shewas informed that her husband's body had been recovered near the remains of several firefighters. On a follow-up trip to the morgue, she says she was ushered in and told, "'Come this way.' There were all his cameras, the film, his keys, his ring, twenty-six dollars, and some cents. In a wet police bag."
Doremus and a friend, photographer Chip East, pored over the equipment (Image 14). Biggart's three cameras were thoroughly battered. One roll of color-negative film, showing the first collapse, was intact. One hundred and fifty other shots, on six rolls of 24-exposure Fuji transparency film, survived, though some were streaked with light leaks. Next, they opened his digital camera, a Canon EOS D30, and removed a 256 MB CompactFlash memory card. They dumped the card's contents onto a computer and could see that Biggart had taken 154 digital photographs--from 9:09.51 a.m. until 10:28.24, according to the time code on the frames--all perfectly intact.
Biggart's pictures present a step-by-step chronicle of the disaster, literally in the shadows of the towers. A lone bird flies away as Two World Trade Center (the south tower, Tower Two) spews fire. Clots of smoke and cloud stream out as the tower crashes to earth. Debris-cobbled streets suddenly seem desolate as snowdrifts. Storefronts have the gray pallor of corpses. Men in hard hats and helmets, like Arctic explorers caked by hoarfrost, appear imperiled by the elements conspiring around them.
Biggart's last image, of the splintered stalk of Tower Two, obscured by smoke, was framed just six seconds before the other tower crumbled above him at 10:28 and 31 seconds.
Wendy Doremus feels that her husband, on his last day of shooting, symbolized nothing less than the photo community at a crossroads. "He was at the cusp of photography," she says. "He took three hundred pictures. Half the film Bill carried that day was digital, half color-negatives and slides. September 11 became the watershed day. After that, [almost all] photographers went digital."
Doremus claims that she doesn't linger too often over his September 11 take. "It's painful for me," she says, "like looking through his brain, looking through his eyes the last hour and a half of his life." Andyet without any prompting from a visitor, she gravitates to the computer to rummage anyway, four years after that day. She opens the file she keeps on the Mac's desktop and proceeds to scroll through every last frame. Clicking the mouse, she runs through the sequence, stopping to explain certain moments, to point out certain faces. "He loved crowds," she observes. "He loved the crossfire. The only thing you can say is: If you gotta go, you might as well go doing what you love the most."
One of her husband's last exposures shows a nameless police officer, daubed in dust, with a vexed expression. He is looking up at the lone, remaining tower. "One thing he always taught me," Biggart's photographer friend Tom McKitterick would tell Newsweek's Jerry Adler, "was that sometimes the picture is behind you, in the faces of the people watching." Shooting the firemen, the exiting workers, the figures cloaked in mysterious gray powder, Biggart was an eyewitness to other eyewitnesses. "In his own way," Adler would write, "Biggart was a hero as well. He rescued faces."
The Smithsonian Institution would contact Doremus soon after the attacks. She would agree to loan her husband's pulverized digital camera.
"I think it was the most photographed event of our time, if not in history," says curator and writer Michael Shulan.
"It was a photogenic event to an almost unparalleled degree. It had beauty--terrible beauty. It was violent and visually heightened, with an emotional intensity [evident] in every face in the street. If it wasn't in the frame, the humanity of it hovered around the edges of every picture, just out of view. It [also] coincided with the revolution of digital photography, which was beginning at that moment. This event really ushered in or propelled that revolution. Since then, everything that [has] happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, [along with] the development of the equipment, has made it easier [to photograph]. Digital cameras are used now as visual note-taking devices. Storage is easy now. A still image is a memory bank, if not a memory."
But on September 11 there was another force at work as well. "It felt so surreal," insists Shulan, that people "had to photograph it and thenlook at it in order to validate that it actually happened. You had to record it in order to register that you were there. The photograph as 'the mediator' fell away, and you felt you were seeing the event itself when, instead, you were seeing and [then] remembering the photograph."
Some of the most agonizing images taken that day captured knots of incredulous pedestrians peering up at the towers. There were the two bereaved African American women, shot in extreme close-up, one with her hand to her mouth, the other shielding her eyes, photographed by Angel Franco of The New York Times (Image 7). Their body language spoke volumes: the view outside the frame was too horrifying for words, for sight itself. Then there was the woman with a Canon around her neck, who leaned against a car as she tearfully described the scene to someone on her mobile phone, photographed by Cynthia Colwell, a retired administrator for the Museum of Modern Art, who reluctantly brought her Olympus Stylus with her when she saw neighbors and strangers taking pictures out on Fifth Avenue (Image 8).
Patrick Witty, standing at Park Row and Beekman Street, was five blocks from the site when he turned his lens on a wedge of bystanders, ten of whom stood with mouths agape, several with their heads tilted back or their eyes bulging (Image 9). Shooting in stark black-and-white, the freelance photographer chose to show heads and shoulders only, by stepping up on a curb to get a slightly higher angle on the sweep of the crowd. "The thought process took microseconds," says Witty, now a picture editor at The New York Times. "How do I not shoot the obvious--the buildings--and shoot my own shock? I saw this cross section of races [and types]: this guy with a suit, this dude, a bike messenger, all together, these faces--this one guy looking disdainful and kind of irritated, this other guy looks kind of euphoric. And the timing of it was serendipity. As I took the picture, Tower Two [the south tower] came down behind me, literally right then." Witty's image gives the impression that he has happened upon an utterly spellbound audience, one he might have encountered had he been perched in front of the first row at a horror movie.
Witty, like many photojournalists, would become covered in crust from the fallen rubble, having outrun the domes of debris. He wouldtake pictures of similarly bedecked men and women trudging through the otherworldly swirl. "After emerging from the cloud," he would write in Double Take magazine, "I photographed one woman who had a huge smile, happy as Christmas morning, covered in dust. She stared right into my lens [and asked], 'Can I get an eight-by-ten glossy?'" Witty's reaction today: "She actually asked me it, that way. I thought, That's so inappropriate and crazy and insane of her to ask me that. But she was in shock." He believes that her odd delight came from the endorphin rush of having survived a near-death experience and from seeing a photographer magically appear who might allow her to bring home an honest-to-God trophy: Jane Doe--To Hell and Back. "What would she say?" he asks. "She'd survived the worst day in the history of New York."
Scores of photographers chose to focus on the wounded or on the emergency personnel who rushed to their aid. Susan Watts, of the New York Daily News, was taken with the sight of a businessman cradling a prostrate woman--a total stranger--who appeared to be stroking or grabbing at his chest. Shannon Stapleton, of Reuters, caught the dust-caked figures of five men, materializing as if from a mist (Image 10). Using a metal chair as a makeshift stretcher, they comprise a sort of urban Pietà, carrying the body of Father Mychal Judge, the revered New York Fire Department chaplain, on their way to St. Peter's Church to set him in the sanctuary there. (A victim of the collapse of the south tower--whose body was listed at the morgue as Victim No. 00001--Father Judge had been blessing the deceased only minutes before.) There were other photographs too layered with misery and meaning to explore just yet. Among them: the images of those who fell from the towers' windows, many leaping to their deaths to escape the inferno inside. And at day's end: the picture of three firefighters unfurling the Stars and Stripes above the ruins that would come to be called Ground Zero--among the few truly hopeful images shot on September 11, 2001.
"Hopeful" is a relative term. Dozens of people that day had the impulse to photograph their loved ones or their neighbors or the unknown companions who happened to be watching the trauma with them. Unconsciously,they were making a choice. They thought it important to treat other witnesses--not the catastrophe--as the subject of their photos. They were not merely standing back and observing the events passively, but were rendering, unconsciously, why the calamity mattered.
With the towers belching white smoke behind her, Isabel Daser, a German-born, New York--based architect (and amateur pilot) requested that a coworker photograph her--eight months pregnant with her daughter, Amelia (born three weeks later and named after Amelia Earhart). Daser, in rotund profile, stares at the camera with an inscrutable Mona Lisa expression, standing near Twenty-third Street on Sixth Avenue (Image 11). "At this moment we didn't realize that it was a terror act," she explains in an e-mail from her new home in Zurich. "I flew around 'the twins' myself in a Cessna several times before. So I asked my colleague to take this picture. You can tell by my face that I didn't want to smile, as you normally do in pictures. I know that many hobby pilots take pictures while being on the commands at the same time. So I could imagine one 'tourist pilot' having an accident. We didn't know the truth yet."
Artist Michelle Chojecki stood on her roof with a camera and keyed her lens on the confusion in the face of her neighbor's sixteen-month-old son, Zion, letting the towers behind him go out of focus. "I was wondering what the baby might be thinking about all the commotion," Chojecki now says. Instead of shooting the event, which she calls "too huge to conceive," she grounded herself by peering into the eyes of a child being embraced by its mother.
In the moments after both towers had fallen, photographer Alex Webb noticed Jenna Piccirillo and her three-month-old son, Vaughan, on a roof in Brooklyn Heights, the baby wincing in sunlight in his portable infant seat. Behind him loomed a skyline bathed in gray (Image 12).
Each face had been set against a monstrous backdrop, as if the photographers had felt compelled to shoot the terror in context--in relation to the innocents it had been intended to terrify. They were studies of mothers and children, not urban grotesqueries. And many, in their way, projected the innocent act of getting on with one's existence. The portraits were implying not fragility or defeat, but an affirmation of the cycle ofhuman life, a hint of reassurance. Webb says that his image of Jenna and Vaughan--"a tender moment between mother and child, and Manhattan in the distance, wreathed in smoke--[captures] a kind of incongruity which I often feel exists in situations of strife and which is often ignored: life continues in the face of disaster ... despite the horrors we inflict on one another. [The picture] also provide[s] some questions: What kind of world is this child being born into? What does the future hold?"
And then there was Jerry Spagnoli. For months, he had been engaged in a photo documentation project, recording modern New York landmarks by using a photographic tool introduced in 1839: the daguerreotype. That Tuesday, upon seeing the disaster from his window, Spagnoli, an expert in nineteenth-century photographic processes, decided to lug a giant wooden view camera to his Chelsea rooftop. He also brought along a daguerreotype plate. On that morning, he left the camera's shutter open for three full seconds, and on a bulky sheet of silver-plated copper he etched a vista in black-and-white (actually in silver crystals on a mirror-finished sheet of polished silver). The image had a haunting, almost tactile sharpness: quiet streets, two old water towers, One World Trade Center raked with smoke on the horizon as the south tower disappeared in a squall of white (Image 13). Spagnoli had recorded the September attacks by employing the same medium that men seven generations before him had used to capture the battlefield dead during the Civil War.
Viewers can behold Spagnoli's faux-vintage image and unconsciously process the destruction as part of a continuum of conflict. "Seen in isolation," he says, "the event is too awful. But it's inherently empowering to know that, given human history, incredibly awful things do occur, and then we go on." Spagnoli himself finds a certain solace in having rendered the horror through an antiquated technology. "I used a material which visually alludes to previous events," he explains. "You see it and you think, 'Civil War, the San Francisco earthquake.' The manner in which the photograph is made, and then experienced, provides the viewer with a context for the scene. The daguerreotype compresses the precedents."
While photographers rushed toward the towers, the rest of us rushed to our television sets. "The events of September 11 were shaped largely through their visual representation," University of Pennsylvania communication professor Barbie Zelizer has noted. "As the planes hit the World Trade Center, people ran to their television sets and stayed there for hours on end, watching an endless loop of reruns of the actual attack [which, after a while,] began to look more like still photographs than moving images."
"We couldn't take our eyes off the buildings coming down," says digital-media expert George Kindel, of the University of Richmond, Virginia. "If one station didn't show them, we'd switch to a channel that did. Or we'd log on to the Internet to see the Quick Time movie. Because we had to see it and visualize the details--what happened first and when did which tower fall and what did it look like?--until we understood it. That first week we didn't get it yet. Usually we watch television as moving pictures. We're on the run or switching channels. The story's changing. That day, [we stopped]. We were in the eye of the hurricane."
The sequences of the towers collapsing (and many of the still photos that we now consider the key images of the event) did not enter the public consciousness like other historical moments caught on film or tape. These were not pictorial watersheds that accrued acceptance with the years--the three-year-old son of an assassinated president saluting his father's casket in 1963; a lone protester staring down a tank in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Instead, these were news clips that gained traction in the public skull through hourly repetition in an accelerated and emotionally supercharged time span--a single week. The life cycle from news clip to video icon was compressed to days, not decades.
The initial televised footage of the attacks of September 11, 2001, came from WNYW-TV--the local FOX 5 station--during its morning program Good Day New York. Correspondent Dick Oliver had just completed an on-air segment about the primary elections, and was standing near a polling center in lower Manhattan, using the towers as a backdrop for his shot. "He went off the air," recalls that morning's FOX 5 assignmenteditor, Joe Farrington, who, back at the station, was still watching the view through the crew's camera, even during the commercial. "In between the break, we heard a boom. Dick yelled, 'Studio, studio, come to me, come to me. Something's going on.' You saw the smoke on a television monitor in the newsroom--not live on the air [yet]. At that point, we yelled at the control room, and they prepared to come out of the commercial break into Dick Oliver with the smoke behind him. So we broke this to New York City."
Cable News Network, in turn, would be the first to inform the country--and the world. At exactly 8:49:36, the network was up and running with its own view of the towers, from an unmanned, stationary camera on the West Side. CNN's shot showed smoke emanating from Tower One and displayed an "8:49a ET" time code in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, under a CNN LIVE logo (Image 16).
"You are looking at obviously a very disturbing live shot there," came anchor Carol Lin's commentary. "We have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers ..."
That footage was seen "broadly, nationally, first on CNN," according to Karen Curry, the network's vice president and northeast regional bureau chief at the time. (Her account is corroborated by sources at the Newseum, the nonpartisan museum that places news coverage in historical context.) In short order, CNN executives, realizing the global significance of the attack, decided to blanket the planet with identical coverage, running its domestic feed, says CNN's Carolyn Disbrow, across "CNN International and our other CNN networks, wall to wall."
According to Steve Pair, then WNBC's director of engineering, each of the city's stations went "almost instantaneously to their weathercams or beautycams or citycams." NBC had about a dozen fixed cameras around town (on bridges, buildings, Times Square, at the airports), used for covering traffic, storms, crowds, parades, marathons. These were quickly trained on the towers and put up on air. "The minute it happened, we could see it," says Pair. "Then helicopters became airborne," and other camera teams were scrambled. Within minutes, according to Jeffrey Schneider, vice president of ABC News, his network cut into Good Morning America's local and national news break, switching to a stationaryweather camera from Brooklyn, shooting across the river, and cutting over to a helicopter team that had just finished its last traffic report of the morning.
CBS had a fixed camera on the top of the Empire State Building, with a clear shot south. The station also kept its backup transmitter there, not on Tower One, which proved a boon. "For the first five minutes, as I recall," Pair says, "everybody [with antennae] at the World Trade Center was still on the air." Then One World Trade Center underwent a massive power outage. Since its roof bore a 300-plus-foot boom--with the primary transmitters for most New York stations--those channels, says Pair, "went dark." Though televisions with dish and cable service continued to receive signals, antenna-dependent TVs did not. CBS, unlike other stations, was able to soldier on, switching from its downtown to its midtown transmitter and continuing its regional broadcast unimpeded.
Due to the location of the transmitters and the need to man those antennae around the clock, six TV engineers (stationed in offices on the 104th and 110th floors of Tower One) did not survive that day: Gerard Coppola, Donald J. DiFranco, Steven Jacobson, Robert Edward Pattison, Isaias Rivera, and William Steckman. 'Almost all of us lost employees and friends down there," says Pair. "I happened to be on the phone with Bill [Steckman], our transmitter supervisor ... when the plane hit. I remember Bill saying, 'Something just happened.' Then he came back and he said, 'There's some smoke in the room.' And pretty soon the phone just went dead."
"I have never been in a control room where everyone who was working was crying," FOX News executive producer Bill Shine would remark. "I will never forget that."
Still, the event demanded firsthand reporting, so producers pressed on. "For the first forty-five minutes to an hour," says CBS news-service executive John Frazee, only a handful of nonstationary cameras televised real-time imagery. Soon, he notes, "there were crews with cameras and people running around with small consumer cameras. Then there were ENG [electronic newsgathering] trucks that had been sent down there, told to set up microwave signals. As time went on, people were able to get trucks out of their Jersey bureaus and park them along the Palisadesand do live shots. There was a lot of tape-ferrying and hand-carrying back to broadcast headquarters."
On-screen, the coverage was lightning-paced, the hard facts coming in scattershot fashion. Harrowing reports from field correspondents sometimes seemed at odds with the composure of the anchors, who tried to remain reassuring amid the chaos. Ashleigh Banfield, of MSNBC, seemed visibly distraught, having survived salvos of debris swarms. NY1's Kristin Shaughnessy, on air as the south tower fell, followed the advice of a nearby FBI agent who told her to sprint for her life. "I took off my high heels and ran," she recalled, "like I was outrunning a tornado." Carol Marin, of CBS News, was pinned against a wall by an anonymous fireman intent on saving her life. "I felt him cover me, and I could feel the pounding of his heart against my backbone," she would recount. "There were things in the air--it was ash, it was granules, it was the atomized parts of desks and sinks and people, I realized later."
While some stations found it difficult to separate rumor from reality ("It looked like a propeller plane ..."), ABC seemed especially sagacious. The network provided a stream of consistently credible eyewitnesses ("It looked like a normal plane going over the city, and then, all of a sudden, a turn to the left, and it slammed right into the World Trade Center"), even fielding a phone call from a man trapped in the north tower. "I'm stuck on the eighty-sixth floor," he said, about forty-five minutes into the ordeal. "Tower Number One, on the east side. I heard a noise, felt the whole building shake, and the glass on my floor was blown from the inside out, and the interior core of part of the building collapsed." Early on, ABC went to correspondent John Miller, who had interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1998. While the towers were streaming with dark gray smoke, Miller reminded viewers: "[T]he suspects [in the 1993 bombing] later told federal authorities [the attacks] were intended to take the building down ... And U.S. intelligence, FBI people, for years have heard that they've always wanted to try and finish that job off, to take the buildings out."1
Behind the scenes, news teams improvised. Because of the dangers on the ground and the difficulty of transmitting signals from downtown, most footage had to be somehow shuttled back to broadcast centers before being shown on air. The dawn of multiple live-video feeds from a war's front lines had not yet broken.
But despite these limitations, cameramen and producers by the score tried to get as close as they could. Joseph McCarthy, a freelance videographer and director of photography working for ARD, the German television network, was scheduled for a morning shoot at the United Nations. His assignment, of all things: the ringing of a peace bell at a ceremony for the establishment of an international cease-fire day. But when he saw TV coverage of the north tower's precarious state, he shot down the FDR Drive instead, flashed his press credentials, and settled in with emergency workers under the pedestrian bridge at Liberty Street. Soon, he watched as people trapped in the towers began falling from the sky. Onlookers clutched hands to mouths in horror.
McCarthy videotaped it all, shooting directly up at the south tower just as he heard the building churning above him. He turned, bolted, and slammed into the wall of One World Financial Center. Then the morning went black around him. Trapped with others in an alcove, McCarthy heard three gunshots. "It took a cop, Tim McGinn," McCarthy says, "to shoot out this huge, thick, plate-glass window with his pistol, and the whole thing opened up, and we got out." To rush his footage to the East Side offices of ARD-TV, McCarthy decided to walk over to Eleventh Avenue, he says, "and for the first time in my life, I successfully hitchhiked in New York City." He stuck out his thumb and marveled as the first car stopped to pick him up--"a beautiful, white Lexus, with a leather interior," he says. "I got in with glass all over me."
Joe Scurto often responds to fires by listening to FDNY frequencies on a radio scanner, videotapes the blazes, then licenses his footage to television producers, corporations, and public-service outlets. That morning, he took his Sony Hi-8 video camera to the scene. Standing on West Street, he shot the collapse of the south tower (tripping his camera's "on" button the moment he heard what he calls "this chattering-type scream-roar") and its twin to the north.
"I photographed somebody jumping," he recalls, "but then as I was ready to hit 'stop,' it was almost like divine intervention, like somebody held my thumb, and the north tower fell as I was rolling video. On one or two floors, every window belched fire and you could see the initiation of the implosion." For two hours Scurto felt himself "shooting through this sensory overload by running on automatic. It was the only way: keep focused and go from one scene to the next. I saw at least a hundred people jumping. They were coming down like rain." He left only when he couldn't shoot anymore, not because he had run out of film but because a silvery black particle of molten metal had become lodged in his left eyelid--the one that was not affixed to his camera's eyepiece.
Tom Flynn and his wife, Nan Reardon, were sitting on the back deck of their West Village duplex that morning. Flynn, a CBS News producer at the time, recalls that as he read his morning paper, "a plane went over the trees in my garden. It was low, it was loud, and it was determined. It was not right. It seemed to be revving up. Then there was a pop, like the sound of a softball hitting a glove." Almost immediately, his neighbor in the garden next door relayed the radio's traffic-copter report: a small plane had just collided with the World Trade Center. Flynn, a veteran of numerous conflicts in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, would have none of it. He turned to his wife and said, "We're under attack."
Flynn hopped on his bicycle and sped south. But instead of bringing along his own video gear, Flynn, a natural-born producer, decided he would improvise. The city would undoubtedly be overrun with camcorders, he reasoned; he'd merely hunt around for a few amateurs and "assign" them on the spot. Sure enough, at the foot of the Trade Center, he ran into a man shooting tape--proof positive that the age of the universal lensman had arrived.
"His name was Eddie Remy," Flynn says, "and he told me he worked for Merrill Lynch. He was the audiovisual guy. I said, 'I'm Tom Flynn, CBS, and you're now working for us.'" They exchanged business cards so as to reconnect if they became separated. Remy shot rare footage of evacuees inside the complex, documenting some of the thousands who were saved by the coordinated and disciplined efforts of a tide of first responders. Remy "mainly stayed rolling on the north tower, then swish-pannedover" to what Flynn was watching: the collapse of the upper floors of the south tower, which, from Flynn's perspective, seemed to "belly out, almost like jello, after an internal mini-explosion around the ninetieth floor. It was liquidy. A concrete building seemed to be melting with this deep-throated, rumbling roar." (Flynn survived by running into an underground garage to escape what he calls "the crash, which came like a hot sirocco of deep, reddish dust and ash.")
Remy also exposed tape of scenes that, according to Flynn, CBS decided not to air. "There were people leaning out of the windows, waving at us below, waving for help," Flynn says. "Smoke poured out from their backs. When they jumped, they were small. One woman jumped from the north side of the north tower. The wind that morning was brisk and out of the north. It blew her into the side of the building about halfway up. It haunts me to this day."
Scores of news teams such as McCarthy's, Scurto's, and Flynn's scrambled into the fray, escaped with their lives, then made their way to their stations. Others stood their ground and covered the story as it played out around them. The first international station credited with having broadcast its own live pictures of the attack was Russia's RTR. Its New York correspondent, Evgeny Piskunov, happened to be on the West Side roof of the CBS Broadcast Center at Fifty-seventh Street, with the Manhattan skyline behind him, shooting a live segment on that week's United Nations children's poverty summit. Nearby, a satellite was set to accept his transmission at 8:45 (one minute and forty seconds, it so happened, before the first plane's impact). Shortly into his broadcast, Amy Wall, a CBS colleague transmitting his shot to Russia via London, got a call on a rooftop phone urging her to look south. She saw billows on the horizon (her view of the towers eclipsed by other buildings) and was told that a commuter plane had hit the north tower. "This is your story," Wall told Piskunov. "You're not doing the children's poverty summit anymore." Wall stood off camera, listening to sketchy news briefs over her phone line, then gave cues to Piskunov who, in turn, informed his viewers in Russia.
As the day went on, the CBS roof became a video turnstile, with Wall the gatekeeper, feeding images across the world over four fiber-optic lines. "By five p.m.," says Wall, a coordinating producer for internationalnews, "I had arranged for sixty different special reports among representatives from Belgian, French, German, Russian, British, Spanish, Canadian, Ukrainian, Greek, and Italian stations. Everyone was given ten minutes apiece. Some were bringing up people who had escaped from the World Trade Center [to interview them] from a perspective that allowed a view of the smoke. I didn't leave the building for forty-eight hours."
In America alone, as tabulated by Nielsen Media Research, 80 million prime-time households tuned in to the main national TV news outlets that Tuesday.2 Much of that coverage was visually comparable because of a unique arrangement among television executives. "Petty competition vanished," media analysts Cathy Trost and Alicia C. Shepard have noted in their book Running Toward Danger. "In an unprecedented move, cable and broadcast presidents quickly hammered out an agreement that morning to share footage for one day." Meanwhile, ABC piped the same live national feed through Disney-owned cable channels: for hours, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNews covered not sports, but terrorism. The music networks VH1 and MTV (both part of parent company Viacom, which owns CBS) ran live coverage from CBS News. NBC's cable outlets, CNBC and MSNBC, aired original news programming.
CNN's domestic coverage was beamed throughout the world that day, available in 170 million households in more than two hundred countries. And many homes and businesses that didn't get the network directly were watching content supplied by CNN (through its hundreds of broadcast-TV affiliate stations). Or they were watching CNN's competitors, such as Sky TV or BBC World TV or the Middle East's al-Jazeera (each of these networks able to pull the same footage off a satellite). Or they were watching similar content on their local or government stations.
In all, more than two billion people on September 11 watched the attacks in real time or watched that day's news reports about the attacks, according to David Hazinski, head of the broadcast news initiative in theUniversity of Georgia's telecommunications department.3 "The 1998 World Cup [final, between France and Brazil]," says Hazinski, "was the marker when we crossed the line--over one billion [viewers watching one event]." The increase in global audience since that benchmark has been enormous, as national governments have given up their monopoly of the screen.
"Up until very recently," says Hazinski, who advises many overseas TV launches, "the predominant television [offering] in many countries was governmental TV But as technological breakthroughs offered new revenue streams to governments and businesses, new channels surged, including news and information programming. There has been this huge bloom in new channels in Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East. This penetration happened around 2000 and it continues, year in and year out."
A number as unwieldy as two billion, of course, is impossible to verify. In a world peopled by more than six billion, there are an estimated one and a half billion television sets in operation. But there is no methodology for quantifying viewership. (Even in the United States, the ratings system merely offers estimates, based on audience samples.) As a result, hyperbole eclipses accuracy. Carl Bialik, a respected statistical gadfly who analyzes such numbers for The Wall Street Journal Online, refutes past claims that 2.5 billion watched the funeral of Britain's Princess Diana or that a billion more tuned into the 2004 Olympic Games. It is certainly safe to assert, however, that "hundreds of millions" were watching television news throughout the day on September 11, says Nigel Pritchard, CNN International's vice president of public relations. This unprecedented breaking story, told in pictures more than words, blazed and crackled across a common, planetwide hearth.
"With 9/11, we were all able to watch the same thing at the same time," says Pritchard. "People turned the TV on and saw the pictures of the smoking Trade Center. Through television sets, one image connected the world. Those pictures, taken from our camera on top of thebureau on Penn Plaza in New York, were shown everywhere, from gyms to street corners to bars. It was nine in the morning in Manhattan, but nine at night in Hong Kong."
"It's probably the only period in a day when the whole world could actually watch the same event at the same time," says Robert Pledge, head of the photo agency Contact Press Images. "Between nine and ten in the morning [Eastern Daylight Time], it's still not yet nighttime in Europe, Africa, and Asia. It never happens with the Olympics or the World Cup. It never happens when wars start because they usually start under cover of night. During all major events in the recent past--Tiananmen Square, the Gulf War, the Iraq invasion--there's always a part of the world that's in the dark. But this could be seen at once, anywhere, in both hemispheres, any latitude, any culture, throughout the world, live--something that we've never had happen before."
What distinguished most of the video coverage from its still-photo counterpart was its uniformity. While photojournalists moved from point to point as they covered the story, much of the TV footage (due to the perils of on-the-spot coverage and the hurdles of transmission) was stationary, caught from afar, often from fixed positions. Television felt pulled back, panoramic, offering the big picture. And a big picture it was. A vast array of electronic scaffolding, interlinked by unseen satellites, was channeling virtually identical sequences to virtually every TV set. The result was that humanity was observing the same catastrophe at the same time in basically the same format--a wide-angle cityscape. And that one wide picture served to unify, or at least align, the passions and fears of the world's wide viewership. Through the common visual denominator of television, the globe, as never before, shared a tangle of complex, concurrent emotions: outrage and awe and empathy.
The synchronicity of the TV imagery was complemented, in a curious way, by its immobility. In the hour and a half after the first plane's assault, the television audience, by and large, watched a static scene: two buildings consumed in fire and smoke, their stasis an unsettling counterpoint to the riot of death raging inside those structures. As far as TV was concerned, the stricken towers were recorded almost exclusively by remote cameras set up blocks or even miles from the Trade Center. As aresult, the televised image acquired many of the characteristics of a still photograph. The video, like a photo, took a dynamic, shifting scene (people were battling raging fires, people were fleeing, people were rushing in to save the trapped and the wounded) and froze it in time and space into objects observed--two immobile towers suddenly made vulnerable. The video became a canvas for absorbing a viewer's private fear, confusion, disbelief. (What was this sight that the TV anchors were struggling to place in a meaningful context?) The perpetual motion of reality had assumed the eerie stillness of the surreal; the heat of the instant had been chilled in what the communications-and-culture critic Marshall McLuhan called the "cool medium" of television. The event, like the viewer, had been petrified by the format--the detached stare of fixed cameras having superimposed an appropriately unnerving overlay.
As the event progressed, however, and the enormity of the death toll became clear, and the fulminating towers were no longer there to observe, television, as it always does, sought a way to mediate the moment passed, to reduce the infinite complexity to a single sight-and-sound bite. TV resorted to the instant replay and the neatly spliced videoclip. On air, the second plane struck the south tower again and again, in flashback. The buildings disappeared in a blossom of gray, repeatedly, as a recurrent nightmare might haunt a trauma victim. In the ensuing days the clip would become the signature of the event: the streaking plane, the smoking towers, the death clouds attending the towers' collapse.
Photographs, in contrast, would provide not a single iconic representation of the day (since no individual shot could encapsulate it), but visual diversity--innumerable perspectives. Still pictures would offer the multiplicity of points of view that are typically required for journalistic objectivity. Still pictures would convey thousands of instants, each horrific in its own way.
The video image would show mass murder; the still image would hint at split seconds when a man or a woman had been taken from this earth.
Analog tape, digital video, live feed. Daguerreotype, digital, disposable. Thousands of cameras provided optical confirmation of the unbelievable.September 11, simply put, was the most widely observed and photographed breaking news event in human history. And it occurred, aptly enough, at a time when image reigned supreme in world culture due to a number of factors: the primacy of marketing in a global economy; the modern era's fascination with around-the-clock news and anything rendered real-time; the culture's addiction to speed and immediate gratification; and the rise of various digital technologies, including digital photography, cable and satellite television, and the Internet. The CBS anchor Dan Rather, covering the story that morning, described it in these terms: "If you didn't know better," he remarked, "you'd say it must be from a horror movie. It's horrible. It isn't a movie."
For many people the world over, however, on 9/11 the image, the footage, the movie was the event. For most of us, the picture was all we had, and ever will have, to signify it.
A neighbor of mine, Geraldine Davie, of New Rochelle, New York, knew her daughter Amy O'Doherty had been put at risk by the attacks. Amy, twenty-three, was working as a broker's assistant for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of Tower One. The last time Davie and her daughter had spoken was over dinner a week before. They discussed rather mundane topics, Davie says, but she recalls being pleasantly surprised by Amy's manner. "The way she ordered was very specific, worldly, with a flair," she says. "I remember thinking, She's really grown."
On the evening of September 11, Amy's close friends picked out a snapshot--taken a year before, at Melissa Della Donna's engagement party--and used it as the centerpiece of a "missing" poster. Below the photo, they printed Davie's phone numbers, hoping that anyone who knew Amy's whereabouts would quickly get in touch. The friends made several hundred copies, and the next day they set out for the streets of Manhattan to affix paper to glass and stone.
As they went about their rounds, Edward Ornelas, a San Antonio Express-News photographer, took a picture of two of them: Claudia Trevor, her back to the camera, clutching Liz Gallello, in tears while grasping aflyer in each hand. At that stage, says Davie, "There was no information. We were searching hospitals." Also visible in the news photo, below Amy's beaming smile, was a list of distinguishing physical markers ("Brunette w/ Blond Highlights, 5'4", 135 lbs, Hazel/Green Eyes ... Freckles, Large Chest, Diamond Stud Earrings") and her mother's contact numbers.
Liz's face, and Amy's, would run across the newswires. Soon, strangers were phoning Davie from as far away as Brazil, Sweden, Hawaii, the Philippines, New Zealand. "We were getting condolence calls for months," she says. "Usually at night, because of the time differences. They were sharing the grief. That one photograph traveled around the world."
Four years later, Davie continues to discover new truths about Amy through pictures that her daughter's friends send her. "Without photography, the memory of how many things this child did in her life may not have been as clear," she says. "I didn't know she took golf lessons. Or went rock climbing. The photographs and the stories behind them [have] sustained me. I'm constantly searching for photos of [Amy] because I'm trying to put together a life. I'm also trying to put her back together again. I have a lot of remains. I got the first call in December 2001, another call a year later. We had buried the first group of remains. Then two weeks ago they identified her left foot. It's horribly difficult. In one sense they're trying to piece her together--the medical examiner--and I am too. Eventually, some time this year, we'll put her all together in Virginia, reinter her, so that she's not all scattered around this earth."
The pictures, Davie says, help her in "making that connection to my feelings for her. [Any] new photos [bring] new discoveries. The photos are like a lifeline. In most of the pictures I've seen, she's smiling. There's always camaraderie, always that glow. I search for the vision that I hold of the child who used to crawl in my bed, the young adult whose hair I smoothed out."
By dusk, photographs, like a soft rain, would begin pattering Manhattan. Families, friends, and colleagues, with no firm fix on the loved ones whohad gone off to the Trade Center area that morning, took the initiative and made "missing persons" posters in the form of paper flyers.
The posters were confined to a single sheet--typing paper, digital-printer stock, white signboard. They contained the lost one's name and age (or date of birth) and listed contact numbers (and occasionally an e-mail address) should a passerby happen to be in a position to contribute "any information." Many offered a plea, sometimes printed in script, bold, or colored type: HELP, CALL, PLEASE CALL, or HAVE YOU SEEN ... ? As a rule, the flyers included the missing person's height, weight, hair and eye color, company name, office floor and address (Tower One or Two, or a building nearby), and a description of the clothing that he or she was "last seen wearing" ("Docker pants--grey pullover"), along with identifying features, if any: a birthmark or scar or tattoo, a wedding band, "may be carrying an inhaler."
Each page (often designed on a home or office computer) would be graphically anchored by a photograph of the missing man, woman, or child: a downloaded snapshot or a posed portrait, or one removed from a frame, a photo album, or a refrigerator door and then run through a portable scanner. Then. through a second photographic process, the posters would be reproduced in large quantities. Those designed on a computer were often replicated via color laser or ink-jet printer; those created by hand were sometimes photocopied.
The very first poster, according to Marshall Sella in The New York Times Magazine, was dashed off by the daughter of Mark Rasweiler, a beaming, white-bearded risk consultant from New Jersey She produced it in her ad agency firm's art department and had copies out in circulation that afternoon. By nightfall, others were doing the same. Their placards were read by people searching for the lost in the streets downtown. They were videotaped and shown on television news programs and the Internet. Others, in turn, raced to make their own. The template sprang up spontaneously, then spread virally Hundreds of tech-savvy people across the city had become so adept at handling digital photographs that even when faced with the prospect of having lost a loved one, they had the electronic know-how and graphic sophistication to sit at their desks and make a visually compelling document, down to the minutiae of centeringvisual and text elements, or choosing headline styles, fonts, the type's point size.
These handbills, created in haste and with heavy heart, were then dispensed throughout the city. The local Kinko's, the office Xerox, the home scanner and printer of every make and model would become samizdat presses for the distraught. By nightfall and into the morning, photo-mosaics of the missing materialized on shuttered storefronts, plate-glass windows, cyclone fences, construction-site partitions, phone booths, bus shelters. They were lifelines, as Geraldine Davie calls them, frantically cast to the outside world: Please, please, have you seen this man, this woman? He matters, she matters.
In those first days, hope was everywhere ascendant. And what erected those walls was the imperative to find one's own, at all costs. The faces of the lost would lap at the city's surfaces as waves lap a shoreline. The posters would stick like barnacles. They would dominate kiosk-style signboards at Grand Central Station and the red-brick edifice of St. Vincent's Hospital. They would paper hundreds of other pedestrian thoroughfares or public spaces where eyes and sympathies might linger (Image 15).
The faces in the photographs were sunny, almost invariably smiling. Most were youthful, hardy, pictured in the proverbial prime of their lives. They were the sign makers' favorite shots (outside the chapel, on a motorbike, with a beer-can collection), the ones that had caught the subject's defining spark. The placards were literally attempts to put a loved one's best face forward. And, except for the occasional lead or closing sentence ("Please Find My Daddy!"), they were certificates of fact, not rhetoric, written with concise newspaper or police-blotter sobriety: "Brooke Jackman, DOB 8/28/78; ht 5'4"; wt 110 lbs.; wearing: tan pants, maroon shirt; brown, shoulder length hair, brown eyes; work: WTC 1, Cantor Fitz, 104th Fl. PLS. CONTACT ..." In some instances, other details were provided, such as a nickname (in case the missing person was, by chance, found disoriented) or the sign maker's relationship (inadvertently invoking the conventions of obituary notices): "Brenda Conway--Age 40, 1 World Trade Center, Marsh--97th Floor," followed by phone numbers for "Husband," then "Mother," then "Sister." At times there was a solemn "Thank you" meant for those concerned enough to havestopped to read, or there were words of love or encouragement, meant for the missing, or for the eyes of the Divine: "God bless you" or "We love you" or "Keep Holding On."
The majority, however, were devoid of extraneous sentiment. The words served as emergency-response captions. The pictures, in what would soon become a terror-era trope, were "biometric data." The visual and the verbal were to be swiftly processed, and an action prompted. A recollection was to be dislodged from someone's short-term memory (Isn't she the one I saw in the stairwell of Tower One?), then an authority was to be summoned to collect the data, and then a phone number was to be dialed. A voice was then to have intoned, "We've found him. He's shaken up, but he's all right. He's on the fourth floor at Bellevue ..." These were crisis calling cards.
What impulse drove so many to craft such similar signs in such abundance? The missing posters in those first days were makeshift attempts at cutting through the havoc so as to plead one's case directly, concisely, individually. Loved ones, in the absence of a coherent system for sending information or receiving answers, had to do something concrete to broadcast the vital statistics of the missing--their missing. Cell-phone networks were overloaded. New York City's 911 lines couldn't handle the call volume. Many of those affected, including agencies offering assistance, were not yet attuned to the Internet's facility for connecting multitudes. Radio and television were one-way media.
Family members just couldn't bear the limbo, the helplessness, or their loved one's silence, which roared above the media's white noise. So, watching others do the same, through news stories presented on television, they concocted their own grassroots medium, collectively: the "missing wall" becoming a hybrid of ID card, spiritual homage, and emergency graffiti. "Amidst the horror," says British television executive Stephen Claypole, four years later, "it was actually quite reassuring that people reverted to a simple, intimate means of communication. They went to their PCs or albums and found a photograph that was the seed of their misfortune, then went as close as they could get to the World Trade Center and put up this impassioned personal appeal."
Another motive behind the posters was the urge to sanctify the lost,through ritual. America, ever since the establishment of Plymouth Colony, has been among the world's most religiously inclined nations. And it has generally been a land of diverse faith and of homespun liturgy and sacrament. According to Paul Elie, an editor and writer whose office abuts Union Square (where street memorials quickly materialized), the philosopher and psychologist William James argued in the nineteenth century that "Americans understand the divine through their own idiosyncratic experiences, not through traditional creeds or institutions. And the novelist Flannery O'Connor, closer to our day, described rural fundamentalism as a 'do-it-yourself religion.'" Yet communal expressions of grief and widespread public "offerings" the week of September 11 seemed of a new and powerful order in an urban American setting. People soon began to treat the missing walls as outdoor shrines.
As Elie recalls, they came with "flyers bearing photos; flags; peace signs; votive candles made out of plastic cups (which they lit in the open air, still smelling of burning ash from the disaster site); laser-printed maxims from the Bible and the Qu'ran, from St. Francis and Walt Whitman; placards blending pictures of the towers with saints and archangels--all of this, emerging overnight, made clear that even in an apparently secular city people still conceive of grief and loss in frankly religious terms, and in terms of their own devising.
"In the week after the catastrophe, downtown Manhattan seemed a scene of unfettered American religiosity, more like Calcutta or Dharmsala than a 'secular city.' And for once this religious home brew didn't seem mawkish or exploitative. It seemed authentic and appropriate."
On Tuesday and Wednesday, for the families of the missing, strands of hope were still entwined with despair, outrage, bewilderment. But by the end of the week (in the minds of the public) and into the following week and sometimes beyond (in the minds of many victims' relatives who still retained expectations of recovery), nerves frayed and prospects waned. Although the efforts of rescue crews were Herculean (survivors would be rescued, many believed, because of the indomitable will of the search teams), the rescuers' presumptions, alas, proved Sisyphean. The collapse had just been too devastating to allow for more than a handful of early, miraculous recoveries.
The enormous missing walls would turn into enormous memorial walls, mortared with sorrow. The impulse to create and post the signs became ever more conflicted, as forces of confidence and reliance (and the instinct for rescue) gave way to forces of denial and mourning (and the desire to honor loved ones). The leaflets became outward expressions of inner shock and loss and unbearable grief. But still the walls spread, as New York Times correspondent Amy Waldman allowed, "like desperate ivy."
"For the first week, there were still nagging doubts," says my friend Don Johnston, a financial-printing executive from New Rochelle, New York, who lost many friends and colleagues. "Families held on to the belief that the missing were lost, unidentified somewhere in some hospital. And they didn't want to be untrue to their spouses or children--or to themselves--by not holding out some hope. But there was deep despair lurking behind the brave facade. It was in people's eyes. There was a big difference between the ones who kept on believing for five days--each day was like a month--and the ones who went on for two weeks."
Photographer Steve Simon went to the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory on Lexington and Twenty-sixth Street with the intention of making a visual record of the pictures, the signs, and what he calls the "words of hope and desperation taped to the walls." He encountered a trellis of faces. He remembers that most of those depicted appeared to have been caught at their "proudest moments. Graduation parties, weddings, people with pets and one man standing next to an elephant, a reminder that in a time of pure pain and grief a weird sort of humor is still possible, maybe necessary." Photographer Ken Regan recorded the walls too, roaming the streets. And Time's Christopher Morris. And Jane Barrer, Russell Boyce, John Branch, Phillip Buehler, Betty Hamilton, David Hinder, C. Bronston Jones, Peter Lucas, Nathan Lyons, Melissa Molnar, Margaret Morton, Krista Niles, Jaime Reyes, and many more. Ambreen Qureshi took Polaroids. Nathaniel Welch and Vincent Giordano shot relatives and friends holding up their flyers. Photographers diligently photographed photographs, a tattered, citywide veil of images stitched into place with masking tape and anguish.
The predominant virtue of the walls was that they not only helpedassuage the creators of the individual posters, but also were channels of public response and redemption. The walls became a medium for soldering connections between loved ones and the lost, between employers and their missing workers, between neighbors (who felt the posters had become theirs--their missing--on their walls) and the anonymous faces, between those wandering the streets and those back home who had made the signs.
The walls became a message board, a sort of metropolitan conscience. Citizens seized the mode of expression that best simulcast their need to identify the missing to the largest audience: pictures on mass-produced posters placed on walls in public spaces. They chose simple, readily available technologies--digital photography, digital scanning and printing, and photocopying--that best addressed the urgency of the crisis. And every step of the way, from the format of the sign to the means of its reproduction to the manner in which it then furnished its message for the viewer, was intrinsically beholden to the photograph and to the photograph's versatility at imparting essential information with swiftness and accuracy (a versatility perhaps matched only by the Internet itself--minus the accuracy).
The walls, in fact, would have been impossible just four or five years earlier. In the summer of 1997, when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash, it seemed as if the city of London had descended en masse on the Buckingham Palace gates to pay their respects in an abundance of objects: bouquets, candles, trinkets, lockets, handwritten notes and poems, and images of Diana ripped from magazines and newspapers or appearing on posters and commemorative items. But few back then had access to devices that might have let them digitally tailor the offerings they would set at the shrines to Diana.
While the walls were still standing, images of the missing would appear at other rituals. Friends and family members would carry pictures at public commemorations, at rock-concert fund-raisers, at memorials or pregame ceremonies where the victims were honored (and where their photographs, it so happened, could be picked up by TV cameras to spread them among even wider audiences). Sometimes the pictures would be held aloft like religious icons, between thumb and forefinger:wallet photos, laminated school portraits, headshots in news clippings. Some would wear photos, as pendants, on chains of gold or silver, or as pins, upon their hearts. Others would brandish their "missing" posters chest-high as they went about the city. "I'd seen that stance before, that posturing with pictures," says Larry Towell, a Magnum photographer who ran into a Guatemalan woman in the street near Ground Zero and was reminded of "the Mothers of the Disappeared in Guatemala protesting in front of the National Palace on Friday afternoons."
In the otherwise crushing flow of photographs of September 11, the faces of the lost were being placed in reserve, as things apart. Loved ones were taking portraits of the lost out of the mainstream media and appropriating them, one by one, for a higher, private purpose. They were displaying the images as sacred objects, as one might display representations of the divine. Many of those in mourning were venerating the missing as children of God, and, in doing so, venerating the Almighty, with whom they believed the missing now resided.
Patty Lampert, a hospital mammographer from Yorktown, New York, knew that her cousin Robert Baierwalter was unaccounted for on Tuesday. But she was, like Bobby, an optimist by nature. She remembers going into the city with confidence undimmed. "We had no doubt," she says. "We thought, He's in a hospital somewhere. We [were] clutching these flyers. We'll find him, no problem." In her mind, as in the minds of thousands of others, it seemed logical to think there would be many more survivors; in violent events like this, there were often twice as many wounded as killed. But early on it was hard to fathom: there had never really been a violent event like this.
Bobby Baierwalter was a forty-four-year-old father of three, a Connecticut-based account underwriter, who was attending an 8:30 Trade Center meeting that morning. He was also something of a big-brother figure to Lampert and her sisters. On Tuesday Lampert had watched TV footage of victims' relatives placing photo-laden flyers on the walls of downtown buildings. On Wednesday she had a friend e-mail her an image of Bobby so she could improvise a missing poster of herown. ("I cried when I saw his big, happy, Irish face. But seeing him up on the computer, I knew: There's no way someone so vibrant could be dead.") On Thursday she and Baierwalter's sister, Maureen, decided on a strategy at Maureen's house in Long Island, and on Friday they made their way by train into New York City. On the ride in, the papers in Lampert's lap felt magical--they were tickets, redeemable for Bobby. "We had these bundles of hope," she says. "Great. Now let's get him."
Once downtown, though, the streets seemed surreal, as if the whole town were in a trance. "There was dead silence," she recalls. "This was Manhattan but there wasn't a sound from anywhere. No one spoke to each other. It was eerie, [like] Night of the Living Dead. Everything was covered in dust. You passed people, people holding flyers just like you, everyone in a daze. But you were almost afraid to look at them because looking would make it too real, and this was like a dream you were in.
"As I walked I saw one flyer taped on scaffolding. Then another, and another. You read one and then had to walk on. It was too painful to take in more than one at a time. Then we walked and saw papers everywhere ... One long, unending tunnel of papers. With pictures ... up and down every street, like Post-it notes.
"It slowly hit me," she says. "There were too many pictures like ours, like Bobby. We weren't going to find him. And we just broke down crying on the street corner--I don't know where.
"We were in a dream but the pictures were what was real. The faces in the pictures were the only thing real. I knew then. Bobby's gone and we're never going to see him again."
By Wednesday, the hospitals and trauma centers, amply staffed with medical professionals and volunteers, would be woefully underwhelmed. The injured, it turned out, had largely been treated on Tuesday. There would be few survivors to treat, if any. By late in the week the agony of waiting acquired deeper, darker shades. And the walls, in turn, became expressions not just of those seeking assistance or solace, but of those seeking some spiritual accounting. Many seemed to feel an urgent need to place these faces on a public altar, to enshrine them among others of their kind.
An altar was an apt comparison. The murals of the missing had manyof the trappings of religious iconography: an image centered in a frame, faces and torsos confined to that frame, words of simplicity and reverence etched around the border, sometimes on all four sides. Soon, bits of Scripture would appear, typed onto missing posters or written by hand: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ..." Stickers with cartoon angels would be affixed to the walls, as would preprinted business cards with the words "Jesus Loves You" set in fleecy clouds. The walls prompted passersby to write their own personal responses in chalk or ink or Magic Marker, prompting further responses, dialogues, a chorus of communion and condolence. "For this was how the language of grief was being passed along," noted Marshall Sella in The New York Times Magazine. "Person to person, block by block--then sweeping over the continent on television--then block by block once again. Ritual is transmitted from retina to retina, satellite to satellite."
The walls of the displaced and the lost became a fresco of the World Trade Center diaspora. Textured, layered, and peeling, the walls evoked Rauschenberg panels. Demonstrative, slapdash, full of outcry, the walls evoked the walls of Paris in '68, Berlin in '89, Ramallah and Gaza City at the turn of the millennium. Crammed with tiny, personal messages of mourning, the walls evoked the Western (Wailing) Wall, that remnant of Jerusalem's Second Temple, otherwise left in ruins by the Romans in A.D. 70. The walls evoked Chagall, too, in the spirits that seemed to be hovering above them. From afar, the murals seemed most akin to lost mosaics discovered by archaeologists long after a culture's demise. They were fragmented and cryptic, with huge chunks unaccounted for. And yet, taken as a whole, they maintained a thematic coherence due to the precision and poignancy of the individual tiles.
The walls also rent the tissue between the public and the private. Strangers read about a life (she was a Scorpio ... she had a two-year-old girl) and the coincidental trivia had the power to reduce them to sobs. "Our insides are now outside," the conceptual artist Gretchen Bender has said about the aches one risks in divulging personal fears through art, typically intended to be displayed on walls, for all to see. Our insideswere indeed outside, and this helped to piece us together, right there in the street.
Five years later, what remains most distinct about the walls, in my memory, is the faces that had been streaked by rivulets of ink as the rains came. The weather on Tuesday, and for much of the week, had been unseasonably pristine. Well into the evenings, street shrines had thrived and citizens had gathered in parks and squares, many on their way home from work, lighting candles, leaving flowers, sharing poems, tears, songs of peace. But on Friday, the skies opened. After the downpour, the city enjoyed a respite of five more bone-dry days before the rains swept in again. Many digital photos disintegrated to indistinguishable smudges, just as weathered inscriptions, over years, might fade on timeworn headstones. Looking at an individual sign with its names and numbers streaked, its photograph blurred, was like squinting through one's tears. There was a rush by storeowners to cover walls in plastic. There was a movement by preservationists to save whole panels, intact. (Curator Louis Nevaer, in fact, would amass a collection of 5,200 9/11 flyers.) "In Union Square," wrote Sella, "park workers were verbally accosted as they dismantled [the walls]. At St. Vincent's, there were mass volunteer efforts not just to harvest the leaflets but also to repost them on walls around the neighborhood that would shield them from the weather."
Soon enough, the faces began to take on another cast as well.
For millennia--at least since ancient Egyptians perfected the preservation of human remains--cultures have sanctified the visage of the deceased. Death masks, painted or sculpted, rendered most often in life size, were a way of reclaiming the departed, holding on to them through artistic reanimation. Cemeteries in various corners of the world featured camera-rendered portraits of the deceased, embedded in headstones. The body was ephemeral, but its countenance--the most accessible and human reflection of the soul within--could survive, through art. Part of the urge to post these pictures was the urge to so honor.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Malcolm Daniel has observed, the daguerreotype "offered some small degree of immortality ... bequeath[ing] to later generations a record of the faces of their ancestors." The ritual of the postmortem photograph became commonplace. A photographerwould often be summoned to a deathbed, and the subject would be figuratively laid to rest once again upon the reflective surface of a daguerreotype. Sometimes the images recorded the face alone--perched upon a high collar or framed by a pillow, a bedsheet, and a bonnet's garland.
One hundred and fifty years later, the snapshot, in consort with the digital scanner and printer, would allow for a similar, if more ephemeral, recognition of the dead. The missing walls would become expressions of lives passing, and of souls persisting, the pictorial representing the corporeal, and then some. As with a living cell, the part encapsulated the whole. As with the communion wafer, symbolizing and incorporating the body of Christ, the "faithful likeness" was a sacred object, meant not just to embody but also to sanctify and immortalize. The photograph said: This being is no more; long live his image.
Night fell. Scattered clouds moved in. Then the smoke played tricks, as if the sky were thickening with white and gray. Up above the pall, the stars moved toward Wednesday and a new world.
Photographers outside the cemetery gates at St. Paul's Chapel could see the mantle of ash that had settled on the headstones. The flashes of their cameras turned the slabs a ghostly silver.
Nearby, floodlights shone down on a land called Zero, the debris field where the towers had stood. Hundreds of rescuers, laser-focused, raced against the night. In the lamplight, they dug and clawed for survivors, the beacons as bright as a photo studio's.
Throughout the evening and into morning, people took out cameras so as to get their eyes and minds around this new netherworld--television teams, photojournalists, stray citizens (who had managed to penetrate or remain in the zone, now off-limits to outsiders), even search-and-rescue workers, firemen, welders. Given definition by the harsh glare, the twisted beams of steel stood out like the masts of an armada on rocky, nighttime swells. The pools of light served to deepen the shadows. Many searchers would work the night, and nights thereafter, ina setting that suggested sleep deprivation or a waking nightmare: a hallucinogenic landscape with a lunar cast out of Magritte or Delvaux.
Hale Gurland, a sculptor known for his work in steel, bronze, and mixed media--including photography--was one of those who rushed to the scene in what he calls "the confusion of that first afternoon." He came equipped with acetylene torches, volunteering to cut steel beams. He also brought his experience in crisis situations, having been a helicopter pilot who had pitched in on relief missions in Bosnia and Lebanon. Even on September 11, Gurland recalls, he was surprised to find "firemen and cops taking pictures." So when he returned after dark, with more gear, he also toted a Minolta TC1, painted black. He had shoved rolls of black-and-white film in his top jacket pocket. "I paint all my cameras black," he says, "so you don't see me photographing. I'm like Walker Evans, who put a camera in a box and took pictures on the [New York] subway. I take pictures in war zones, [blending into] the background."
Into the early morning, and every night that first week, Gurland cut through tight nests of metal in hopes of finding living men and women within. "They needed guys at night," he says, so that the operation "could run 24 hours, to maybe find people still alive. It's easier to find survivors at night--there's less ambient noise."
He also made stunning photographs. His images, chiseled in deep blacks and grays (some later made into seven-foot blowups), capture the chalky silhouettes of rescuers made minuscule by the ruins. They have a desolate quality, like Apollo moonscapes in which astronauts roam alone on the slopes of a cold, dead world. "It's not iconography," he insists. "I shot what I saw. You're trying to give a smell, the immensity, the power of it. I saw a lot of dead people, but I didn't shoot them." Recognizing that few workers that first week were accomplished artists like Gurland, MaryAnne Golon, the picture editor of Time, believes his black-and-white photographs stand apart: "From a historical perspective, some of his pictures are the most important images taken at Ground Zero."
Ira Sapir, a sculptor who works in glass and metal, spent a week alongside Gurland. "We went as welders," says Sapir, "[and] wound up with firefighters, looking for voids, cut[ting] materials. There were a lotof sharp objects coming at you, like shrapnel. Your legs just got chewed up. You'd find a body and cut around it to extract [it]. Somebody would think they heard something [below]. The word would go out. All the equipment would shut down. There'd be a hush--dead quiet for two minutes and everybody would stand, listening. It was eerie as hell. But it was always a false call. Nobody was found alive."
Sapir, like Gurland, decided to take pictures--but didn't dare put his Olympus Stylus to his face. "It was disrespectful," he explains. "You're in this giant morgue." While Gurland's images are epic, showing mortals stunted against the deluge, Sapir's high-speed color-negative photographs, with their grain thick as dust motes, concentrate on the sweat and sacrifice of the men working in the cavernous hollows of "the mound, this pile of spaghetti," he says. "Most of [my] pictures were shot in the holes we were in. You could see the faces of the firemen and their emotion, their humanity. People were worn, spent. You're toast. But you never stopped. Everybody covered everybody's back. You fell a lot, but without fail, mysteriously, this hand would come out to get you [just before] you were going down. You feel that brotherhood in the pictures."