The south tower burned for 56 minutes after the Boeing 767 ripped a hole between the 78th and 84th floors. The fires, fed by jet fuel, reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At 9:59 a.m., the tower’s steel support spine, unable to support the weight of the building, collapsed. Twenty-nine minutes later, the north tower did the same.
Spencer Platt: I took a picture of people looking at the burning towers and then I remember looking up and seeing the south tower come down. I took one or two frames of it coming down and then I was just running with everyone else. And I thought that was it, lights out.
Mario Tama: I was trying to go around Trinity Church and back up Greenwich Street to the south tower. As we rounded the corner about two and a half blocks from the south tower, I heard this sound. People have described it as trains colliding, but the one thing that always reminds me of it is when someone pulls down a grate on a storefront. That staccato rhythm, that was the first thing you heard. I looked up and the top third just went. Then the tower started to pancake.
In a moment, you go from observer and witness to just another New Yorker running for his life. I got jostled around, one of my cameras got knocked off of me. Everyone was just sprinting down Greenwich Street south and the thing was coming down. It was just pancaking. I’ll never forget that sound for my whole life.
Spencer Platt: I assumed that Tama was killed. I couldn’t imagine how people could have survived that. We lost touch and cellphones weren’t working. I remember coming back to the office. A lot of people had left, people were just freaking out. I said, “I think Tama’s dead. I can’t reach him; he was down there.”
Mario Tama: It was incredibly terrifying. As I was running down I looked back over my shoulder. It was like a scene out of something from Hollywood. This huge cloud of debris tornadoing down Greenwich toward us. I suppose if I had stood there and really tried to shoot it, I would have gotten something. But I’m glad that I didn’t. We ran down Greenwich as fast as we could and I dove around this corner where Greenwich ends at a parking garage. I dove and got down on my knees. Two other guys ran over and were next to me. Then the cloud just went whoomp over us.
It was pitch black and silent. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me. Those two guys and I were down on our knees kind of holding on to each other. They’re praying. One guy’s praying in Spanish; the other guy’s praying in English. I don’t normally pray, but it just felt like the end of the world.
Honestly, at that point I didn’t have any clue what had happened. Initially it seemed like just the south tower was falling. But then, when Manhattan has disappeared and you can’t even see an inch in front of your face—we weren’t sure if the whole island had blown up. It was terrifying.
But at the same time, it was extremely calm. Before there were all these sirens and yelling and a cacophony. Then all of a sudden it was just silent. Maybe there were some sirens way off in the distance. Then after a minute or two you could start to hear voices and shuffling sounds of feet. It was like ghosts were walking past. We just kind of sat there in this kind of vacuum.
I don’t know how long it lasted—five minutes or twenty minutes or whatever.It felt like an eternity. All of a sudden you could vaguely start to make out the picture of what you were seeing around you. Slowly it became apparent that everything was still there. It had just been the dust from that tower. Almost immediately, I got up and took a picture of those two guys I had been kneeling with. I’m sure they were like, ‘What’s with this guy?’ But it’s just your reaction as a photographer, how you process what you’ve just been through. When you put that camera up to your eye, you’re kind of shielding yourself from what you’re in, and at the same time you’re examining it. You’re kind of trying to process it.
The two men Mario Tama took cover with (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Todd Maisel: I remember walking around in a daze before the building collapsed. I probably didn’t shoot as much as I normally would have. I took a couple of pictures of the cross of this Greek church with the Trade Center in the background. When I put my camera down I looked up, and the building was coming toward me.
All of a sudden the sky opens up black. You look up and for a moment all you see is something very evil. You say, “Run. You’re too close.” I ran to 90 West Street. I ran under the scaffolding and dove into the lobby. As I was midair, the building hit the ground. I dove onto the ground and covered my head, broke the flash right off the top of the camera. Concrete and steel were raining down all over the place. The whole room filled with dust so you couldn’t even see. It was completely black.
Allen Tannenbaum: I heard the sound of the building coming down and took a picture of some people running away from that storm of debris. Again I had the thought that this might be my last picture. I turned to run but got caught in the debris. Everything went black. It was a suffocating sensation, because the debris immediately dried out all of the mucous membranes and breathing passages. It was pretty scary. I thought it was the end of the world.
Allen Tannenbaum's single frame of the debris storm barreling through the streets (Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris Images/sohoblues.com)
Gulnara Samoilova: When the south tower collapsed I was standing at the triage on Fulton and Church streets. I kind of instantly lifted my camera and saw the building coming down through the viewfinder. I snapped just one photo, then somebody screamed, “Run!” And we all began to run.
When the building hit the ground, I fell. That was the first time I thought that I would die. I thought people would just run over me. But nobody did, so I looked back and I saw this huge cloud coming toward me. I hid behind a car and went through this tunnel of dust. It was quite powerful. Then I thought that I had died again. It was very dark. I couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t see anything, couldn’t breathe. When I was able to breathe and see, I started shooting again.
Suzanne Plunkett's shot of people fleeing the debris cloud as it engulfed lower Manhattan (Suzanne Plunkett/AP)
Suzanne Plunkett: When I got out of the subway at Fulton Street I had about five minutes before the first tower came down. When people started running past me, I just froze and started taking pictures for a few minutes before I turned and ran as well. I remember, as I ran, wondering how on earth I was going to outrun a hundred-plus-story building toppling in my direction.
I ran into an office lobby full of panicked and crying people. I remember one Wall Street type clutching his dry-cleaning and shouting “We are all going to die! There is poisonous gas out there!”
I wanted to take more photographs, so I tied my cardigan around my mouth and nose and ran outside. The dust cloud was still thick in the air. I remember it being very quiet. After 30 minutes I ran into an electronics shop. As I entered someone inside said, “She is the last one, we can’t have the whole world in here,” and they locked the door behind me. I opened up my laptop and had enough power to send three pictures using my mobile phone.
My initial caption for the photographs was “People run from an explosion inside the World Trade Center.” No one knew what had really happened. As I was editing my photographs, a man inside the electronics shop looking over my shoulder even identified himself as one of the people in my photographs. He joked about how I should send him a print for his living room wall.
My colleagues didn’t know if I was safe until they started receiving my photographs. I hadn’t been able to make calls on my phone, even though, inexplicably, I was able to send photographs with it.
After I left the immediate scene, a firefighter who was going in asked me to use my phone because he wanted to call his wife. He couldn’t get through. I was never brave enough to call the number in my phone later to see if he survived.
Dazed and dust-covered survivors (Gulnara Samoilova/AP)
Todd Maisel: I didn’t panic. I just stayed down for a second. I decided, “Think of what you’ve got to do to get out of there.” I backed myself out—because that’s what firefighters would do: go out the way you came in. You couldn’t see anything in the street. It was very dark and very full of dust. I pulled out a bottle of water that I had with me and cleared my throat. Then I put a bandana around my face and I was ready to go again.
I went back into the debris and took a couple of pictures. The first few were really dark and out of focus. There was nothing to focus on. It was just pure black. You could taste the chalk. I heard somebody screaming for help, but I didn’t know where. I just started going into the debris field. I’m not the kind of person who runs away from danger.
I wanted to find out who was still alive. I had a lot of friends who went into that building—firefighter friends, my neighbors in Marine Park, Stuy Town people, the cops, the people I had photographed before the building fell down. I started searching around until I found a firefighter, Kevin Shea, in the debris. He’d lost his entire company. He was the only survivor. His captain had sent him out from the lobby to take pictures of the building. He was actually not even supposed to be working. He went out with his little camera to take a picture and he got blasted. He broke his neck and he lost a thumb, but he lived. All because he went out to take a picture.
When I found him, there was debris on top of him. I brushed it off and started screaming for help. A lot of guys came over. A couple guys from a private ambulance, Richie Nogan from Ladder 113 and a police officer I still haven’t identified. He had a broken neck. I found an ambulance, but couldn’t open it. I saw a second ambulance overturned, though, and was able to get the door open. I pulled the backboard out and dragged it back over to where Kevin was lying. The other guys loaded him onto it and we all carried it.
David Handschuh: I was standing in front of the south tower when it came down. I turned, started to run and got caught up in the debris, trapped under the collapsing building. I couldn’t breathe because my mouth was filled with powdered concrete. Every breath I took I thought I was going to die. I was rescued by firefighters from Engine Company 217. They saved my life. I covered the firemen rescuing people on a daily basis for more than twenty years. That day, they rescued me.
After pulling me out from under the debris, they went on to help other people who needed it. They wound up losing two of their guys in the second collapse. So two of the guys who saved my life wound up dying trying to help others.
After they dug me out I actually took several frames—lying on the floor, lying in the gutter. I lost my glasses when I got trapped—and if I’m not wearing glasses I can’t see the steering wheel in front of me when I’m driving. But I still managed to see some movement in front of me and take some pictures. My coworker Todd Maisel saw me getting carried to safety by a couple of firemen and he got pictures of me.
Todd Maisel: David was in bad shape. He wasn’t going anywhere. So they carried him and I carried his gear, and we went to the deli inside Battery Park City. I’m probably alive today because I ran into him. If I hadn’t found him I probably would have gone farther into the debris field and I’d probably be dead. I never found out what happened to those guys who went walking into that debris field that day, but it was the wrong way to go.
David Handschuh on the floor of a New York deli, shot by colleague Todd Maisel (Todd Maisel/NY Daily News)
David Handschuh: I was down there shooting for about an hour and fifteen minutes. That’s it. I’m like a starting pitcher who got knocked out in the first inning. I gave Todd my cameras and my disks because I knew that I wasn’t going to make it to the office that day. If it hadn’t been for him taking my disks up to the Daily News, the 180-something pictures I took that morning would never have seen the light of day.
Todd Maisel: His work was phenomenal, that he was able to get together what he did. He just got unlucky, ran the wrong way and got hurt. It’s a damn shame. God knows I could have been killed or injured, too.
David Handschuh: I was lying on the floor of a delicatessen with my right leg shattered. It was pretty fortunate I didn’t have my glasses, so I couldn’t see what had happened to my leg. Then the second tower came down. I didn’t see it, but I remember the noise and the rumbling. There was a cop named Jim Kelleher. He jumped on top of me in case the plate-glass windows got blown in. He would have been cut to death. The windows held, but we were unable to open the door because of all the new debris in front.
Todd Maisel: David was carried into a boat by the waterfront. He was in good hands with an EMS chief and a cop and a firefighter. I watched him go and went back into the field. I felt like I needed to go back in and look for whoever else was alive. And I started shooting. At some point I was looking around and there was this big cop there who said, “Why don’t you put your gear down and help?” I said, “You’re right.” I went into Rescue 2’s truck, put my gear down and put on a helmet on and gloves and started searching.
Lt. William Roberts of Ladder 113, shot by Todd Maisel (Todd Maisel/NY Daily News)
Allen Tannenbaum: After the cloud settled, I dusted myself off and went back down to Church Street. It was this incredible scene of devastation. I could see the top floor of the World Trade Center right in the street.
Mario Tama: I had no idea where I was. Even if I had lived in New York a long time I don’t think I would have. Everything was just covered in ash, like Pompeii. You couldn’t really make out which direction was which. I remember this firefighter running around saying, “Has anybody seen any babies? We heard there was a baby in a tree.” I just wandered until I eventually found the Hudson. Then I knew that it was just north to Getty.
This is part three of American Photo's expanded four-part oral history of September 11, 2001, by the photographers who documented it. Click here for part one, part two, and part four. A condensed version appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of American Photo magazine.
This story is also available as a free download for the iPad, with even more photos, photographer interviews and portfolios.
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