On a bright, clear morning in September, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 was commandeered by terrorists and steered into the North Tower of Manhattan’s World Trade Center. The initial impact occurred at 8:46 a.m. Within minutes, photographers were making their way toward Manhattan’s financial district. With only a dim notion of what was going on, they pushed past throngs of escaping workers and into the annals of history.
Suzanne Plunkett: I was covering Fashion Week in New York for the Associated Press. I had shot the Marc Jacobs show the night before. On the morning of September 11th I was scheduled to cover the Donna Karan maternity wear fashion show. I awoke to my pager beeping “911” which was the code from the photo desk to call in immediately. I couldn’t get through, so I turned on the television to check if there was a big local news story to cover. The first plane had hit. I scrambled to get downtown without speaking to anyone in the office.
Todd Maisel: I was on the [New York City mayoral] primary, shooting Fernando Ferrer in the Bronx. My next job was to shoot Governor Pataki at Columbia Presbyterian. I was going to grab coffee and send the pictures I had already shot, but I was monitoring the radio and it said a plane had hit one of the towers. Then an ESU [Emergency Service Unit] came racing by me, so I got in behind them and followed them down.
Allen Tannenbaum: I live six blocks north of the towers. My wife and I were in our bedroom, which has a view of the Twin Towers, or did. We heard the roar of a jet, as loud as if you were standing on the tarmac of an airport. We were holding each other and I said, “He’s too low. He’s too low.” We looked out the window and we saw the explosion on the World Trade Center north tower. My wife started to cry right away, “It’s terrorism, it’s terrorism.” I got dressed so fast I even forgot to put on socks. I ran out with my sneakers and started taking pictures around the corner from here, where you could see the gash in the building, and the smoke and the flames of the Trade Center, the tower. It was unreal.
Spencer Platt: I had been at Getty about six months and had just moved into the slot that Chris Hondros had just vacated. I woke up slightly hung over in DUMBO [a Brooklyn neighborhood directly across from lower Manhattan]. I flipped on WNYC and they were reporting that a small plane had gone into the towers. I don’t recall her exact words, but my then-girlfriend, now-wife said something along the lines of “Get your ass out of bed and check it out.”
Yoni Brook: It was the beginning of my sophomore year at NYU. I had done my first photo internship that summer in Memphis at The Commercial Appeal. I had my radio scanner and my car, and I would just drive into the Mississippi Delta and cover whatever came up: flipped over trucks, going into the sewer system. I did photo essays on beauty parlors and teenage marriage and all sorts of things. That was really great. I had taken a leave from Gallatin to stay on the internship for six months, but they cut the budget and so I had to come back and start school again. I was on my way to class when I passed some dudes listening to the radio saying that a plane hit a building downtown. I was like, “Whatever,” and kept walking. Then I got to the corner of Mercer and Waverly, where you can see all the way down, and I could see the tower on fire. I figured the firefighters would put it out, so I kept going about my day.
Carmen Taylor: I worked in a photography store in Arkansas. I was in New York on vacation. That morning I took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. The first plane hit on the other side from us. So we didn’t see much at first, just a little bit of flame in the tower. The few people around me got to talking, and we decided maybe an office copy machine had blown up or something. It looked that insignificant for a few moments. Within a few more moments the clouds had started and the smoke started billowing up.
Thomas Dallal: I covered Gaza, and the first Palestinian Intifada. But I’d decided I was no longer the fearless, twentysomething, run-toward-the-gunfire type of reporter. I didn’t want to do the bang bang stuff any more. I was sitting at my desk checking my email when I felt the concussion. The first thing that I flashed to was getting rocked out of bed at 6am in Gaza in the mid-’90s by a suicide bomber. My phone rings and it’s my agency, SIPA: “Tom, a plane flew into the Trade Center. We don’t have anybody down there. You think you can go down?”
Gulnara Samoilova: I was at home sleeping. I was woken up by the first plane crashing.
Mario Tama: I’d wanted to move to New York for years. I would come up to Getty every six months and show my book and bug them. Two months before 9/11 someone fell for it. I started on July 2nd, 2001. Jim Lowney, one of our editors at Getty, called me: “Yo, a plane hit the World Trade Center.” I’m just thinking it’s a Cessna. I’m getting my gear together and getting ready to go down there, when another of our editors, Mish Whalen, calls. She was getting out of her cab by the office and saw the plane go into the building. She was frantic, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!” I’m still thinking Cessna. Then it rang one more time. Jim again. This is a hard-edged, hard-nosed, seen-it-all kind of guy and he’s freaking out. “It was a 767. Get down here.”
David Handschuh: I was working for the Daily News. I was sitting in traffic on the West Side Highway when my police and fire radio started yelling about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I looked up and could see the smoke. A fire department company came down behind me, driving the wrong way, southbound in the northbound lane. I drove over the center divider and followed them down. I’d been covering the fire service for more than twenty years in New York City, so I knew some of the guys in the truck. They were waving out the back door to me. They didn’t know they were going to their own funeral.
Spencer Platt: It was the early days of cell phones. My editor tried to call me, but the lines were all getting crossed because so many people were calling. I was trying to talk to him and I could hear other people on my phone saying, “The towers are burning.” Then it just went dead. I forgot one camera body. I ran out with just my one; usually I have two. I didn’t even have my wallet. I ran down Front Street up to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. And God, I wasn’t there ten minutes, you know. I looked up and it was just–my God–I didn’t expect all that smoke coming out.
Mario Tama: I grabbed what Getty had issued to us, which I think back then were D30s or something, one of the original Canon D bodies. So it was two bodies and one was a 70-200mm and the wide was a Sigma 14mm, I think. That was my kit. I threw my laptop in my backpack and I remember trying to grab extra batteries and all the disks that I had. Back then we were shooting 256MB disks or something, which would just be absurd now. It would hold like five pictures today.
I got my gear and ran out of my apartment, around to the corner, right at Chrystie and Delancey, and I remember at that point I could finally see the Twin Towers. I just saw this huge gaping hole in the north tower, really jagged and massive. I remember thinking—I’ll never forget this—I just remember thinking, This is war.
I had never seen war, but you know it when you see it.
David Handschuh: I had a Nikon D1. It was my third digital camera. I was the first full-time, all-digital photographer in New York. I think I had two bodies and I usually carried a 17–35, a 24–70, an 80–200. I think I had my 300 also. For some reason I took it out of the car and put that on my belt.
Todd Maisel: I had two Nikon D1s.
Yoni Brook: All my film was expired, old Fuji 800 that Bob Deutsch from USA Today gave me. Because I was assisting him and helping him shoot sports, so he’d be like, “You want a brick of film?” I was like, “Yeah I want a brick of film.” “It’s from ’92, but it’s been in my fridge. It seems fine.” That’s all I had.
Gulnara Samoilova: At the time, I had a bunch of black and white film in my refrigerator because I was supposed to go to Russia a few days before, on September 8th. But for a health reason, my doctor canceled my trip. I didn’t go. So I had a bunch of black and white film that I was going to go and shoot in Russia, this personal project that I’d been doing for many years.
I was using a film camera and I was shooting black and white but I did have one roll of color film, which I didn’t know I had in the bag. So when I switched the film [at Ground Zero], I didn’t even notice that. I was not a staff photographer at the time. I just grabbed my personal camera.
Carmen Taylor: I had a Sony Mavica. It wasn’t brand new. I had learned digital photography where I worked, and they have a Sony Mavica, that’s what I learned on, so I bought one for myself. In ’01 this was not a new camera, this was about a year-old model.
Thomas Dallal: I opened my safe and packed my bag like I’m going to a news job. It’s funny the things you remember. I put my 2x doubler in the bag. You go through the motions when you go to do different jobs. I was an equipment whore. I used to shoot with three systems: I was a Contax, Leica, and Canon shooter. So I’ve got my Leica. I’ve got my Canon with an 80-200mm with a 2x doubler. And I think I probably didn’t bring my Contax, just two Canon bodies and a Leica. I throw this stuff in a bag, throw my clothes on. Walk down the stairs.
I open the door to Eldridge Street and it was bizarre. The Chinese were out in force on the street. And they’re all talking a blue streak in Fujianese and Cantonese and Mandarin and who knows what else. But everybody’s out on the street.
Spencer Platt: I was totally green to digital. I mean, we all were. I was using a Nikon D1. It was one of their first professional digital cameras. But it’s amazing how the files held up from those days. I’d probably been shooting digital for a couple months at that time, if that. I’m still shocked that I had everything, like the right aperture, because it was still very foreign to me, that camera.
Allen Tannenbaum: I was using a Canon EOS-D30, which was I think the first digital SLR that Canon came out with. And I was using an EOS-1, which was a film camera. So I was shooting both ‘chrome and digital.
Mario Tama: I tried to hail a taxi, but that was not possible. It was total mayhem. So I just ran down toward the buildings. I didn’t know really where I was going. There’s not really a direct path from Chrystie and Delancey down there, so I was winding through Chinatown.
I remember going through one of those streets in Chinatown when I heard the second explosion. I couldn’t see it because of those narrow streets. Down at the end of the block where people had a view, I saw them all kind of jump back as a group. I didn’t know what it was.
Carmen Taylor: I took a few pictures when [the north tower] started smoking. Then I ended up at the very front of the ferry, braced on some sort of a metal box with my feet up on the rail, just taking pictures. There’s a helicopter to the right, the smoke, and the clear blue sky. I looked to my left. I heard this droning sound, and I saw a little speck of an airplane. In my pre-9/11 mind, I figured it was a TV or police airplane that would circle the towers and maybe take some pictures, or somebody would be able to get a radio report from that airplane.
I thought, “This plane is going to come right in front of the south tower, both towers. It’s going to circle. The helicopter will be there. And I’m going to set this shot up to get it when it gets right in front of the south tower.” With my little Sony Mavica, on choppy water, sitting there on a metal box with my feet braced up so my hands can be free, I sort of aimed at the tower and watched the plane approach. I really didn’t hear the plane so much as felt the vibrations of it. When I think back, it probably wasn’t the fact that I wasn’t hearing it. I imagine every single human being that was anywhere near there afterwards was in some level or state of shock and did or did not think they heard something. But I did not hear the airplane. Since I’m not someone who knows a great deal about airplanes and I wasn’t thinking about it, I didn’t think about what size it was. I was just trying to watch it out of the corner of my eye as it passed the towers—you know, as it got into position for me to click. Because as you know, on those cameras you get one try.
This is part one of American Photo’s expanded four-part oral history of September 11, 2001, by the photographers who documented it. Click here for part two, part three, 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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