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9/11 photographers reveal behind-the-scenes horror of iconic images


Photographers who shot some of the most unforgettable images on Sept. 11, 2001, and the days after remember the stories behind the pictures.

Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger

Aristide Economopoulos

“I had too much sake the night before. I lived in Jersey City and wasn’t supposed to start my day until 3 p.m. to shoot a local 13-year-old web designer, but my mom called at 8:22 a.m. to tell me what had happened. I took a ferry into lower Manhattan. I was 30 then and had only moved to New York less than a year earlier — I’d never even been to lower Manhattan. That day we saw the best in humanity but also the worst in humanity. I was on Broadway, looking west to the engulfed towers. The people in the photo are in shock and awe, trying to comprehend what happened. The guy’s watch reads 9:45, about 15 minutes before the fall of the first tower. His hand is up to his mouth, so shocked. Nobody expected the towers to fall. They don’t realize they’re still in play in the story, that in a few minutes this dust cloud is going to engulf them, too.”


9/11-Two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center destroying both towers. Views from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Patrick Andrade/Polaris Images

Patrick Andrade

“I was living in Brooklyn and my first instinct was to grab my camera and go. I was crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and I was the only one going into Manhattan; everyone else was coming out. I was amazed at the number of people trying to get out of the city. The South Tower collapsed and some people didn’t realize what had happened behind them. The woman in the foreground — it was just horror in her reaction. That’s what I was looking to portray. There were other people crying with their heads buried, but she was more openly emotional. I cried at night the first few nights [after 9/11]. You could smell death in the air.”


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A fireman screams in pain during his rescue shortly after both towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed following a terrorist attack, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
Robert Mecea/Newsday/AP

Robert Mecea

“I was at Ground Zero, hours after the attacks. An ESU cop yelled out to me and another photographer, ‘Hey you! Media! If you’re gonna be here, you have to work! You can take all the pictures you want, but you have to work.’ So we started working — unloading saws, axes and that sort of stuff from a fire truck. Suddenly, someone called out, ‘Bring the Stokes basket!’ I grabbed that and headed over to the overhead walkway. We made a human chain and were pulling debris away as the firefighters were digging one of their guys out. I said to myself, ‘I am taking this guy’s picture if it is the last thing I do.’ I later learned his name was Armando Reno and he was the driver of his rig. As they carried him out, he screamed incredibly loud. A week later I went to Armando’s home in Whitestone and took a portrait of him with his wife and daughter. Turns out, he had been outside the WTC hooking up the hose to the rig when the tower fell. That’s why he survived. All his guys died in the building. I have not seen Armando since that day at his house.”


Marcy Borders stands covered in dust as she takes refuge in an office building following the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Stan Honda

(Honda shot the now-famous photo that became known as “Dust Lady” — but, as he pointed out, that lady had a name: Marcy Borders.)

“After the first tower collapsed, there was so much smoke and dust in the air it was like night. I was near an office building and a police officer was pulling people into the lobby to get out of the cloud of dust. I was in the lobby about a minute and a woman came in completely covered in dust. She paused by some elevators for a second and I took one frame. There wasn’t any time for any interaction, although in the photo she is looking straight into the camera. I didn’t think I would see the woman after that. But in 2002, Marcy’s family contacted the [photo agency] to identify the woman in the photo. A reporter and I met Marcy at her Bayonne, NJ, apartment to hear her story and photograph her. It is amazing, [when you] see the photo, that Marcy survived the attack and collapse of the towers. The photo humanizes the story.”


FDNY firefighter Matthew Long stands with pike in hand looking over the total devastation that remains of the New York City Twin Towers, which only hours earlier were stuck by two passenger airliners.
Matthew McDermott

Matthew McDermott

“I borrowed a friend’s motorcycle to get around lower Manhattan. I was standing behind Matthew Long of the FDNY in the smoke, and the wind suddenly shifted and the sun came pouring in. He was standing very erect, confident, with this pose, like, ‘Here we go, let’s get to work.’ You’re looking at this indescribable mound of destruction, the size of it. And he’s got a pike, he’s going in, trying to do something. Days like that you learn a lot about yourself. It was a day I did what I was supposed to do. If I wasn’t there, I most likely would have enlisted. I probably had about 500 emails from young men all over the country who enlisted because they saw my photos. That kept me in photography.”


The impact of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center this morning. News.
Tamara Beckwith/NY Post

Tamara Beckwith

“I got an early call from the The Post’s photo editor, who thought a small plane had crashed into the WTC. I lived near the Williamsburg waterfront, which was an empty lot at the time. I ran out of the car and right as I looked up, I saw an explosion. I couldn’t believe it, it happened so quickly. It was the most beautiful blue sky — sailboats on the river, such a jarring thing to watch. More people came down, and someone finally said, ‘A plane went into the Pentagon.’ We were all just horrified. Everyone’s head turned to the Empire State Building, like it could be next.”


People walk away from the World Trade Center tower in New York City early September 11, 2001.
Shannon Stapleton

Shannon Stapleton

“The thought of us being under attack was the farthest thing from my mind. I thought it was a prop plane [at first]. This picture was at the base of the North Tower. They have actually preserved those stairs at the [9/11] Museum. Amongst all that chaos of the rubble and destruction, you can still see shafts of light coming through the clouds and the smoke. It really felt surreal. I made it out 15 minutes before the tower came down. For me, [the picture] sums up the variety of the people affected by the tragedy. They weren’t all rescue workers, firemen and policemen. These were New Yorkers. People who went to the city and went to the Towers to work every day.”


People run from the collapse of one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York. Stephen Cooper, far left, fleeing smoke and debris as the south tower crumbled just a block away on Sept. 11, has died from coronavirus, his family said, according to The Palm Beach Post.
Suzanne Plunkett

Suzanne Plunkett

“I was supposed to be photographing Fashion Week for the Associated Press and got a message to call the office. When I couldn’t connect, I turned on the TV and saw that the first plane had gone through the tower. I took the subway to Broadway and Church. Up on the street there, someone said, ‘It’s coming down.’ And the first tower was collapsing. I began running with everyone else until my journalistic instincts kicked in. I turned around and took maybe a dozen frames of people racing from the cloud. They were surprisingly calm and quiet. Then I went into a vitamin/beeper shop — remember those? — and asked to use their power so I could send out pictures. Doing my job normalized things.”


Steven Kerstein looks at the devastation to his neighborhood from his bedroom window after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Helayne Seidman

Helayne Seidman

“Exactly a month after Sept. 11, 2001, I was assigned by the Washington Post to shoot Gateway Plaza tenant Steven Kerstein, 55, in his 30th floor Battery Park City apartment overlooking the World Trade Center devastation. To see how many people were grieving post-9/11 was numbing. Steven lost friends working in the Twin Towers. He said his neighborhood was vaporized and he was moving out. The night before was his last night in his apartment. I wanted to get an image of Steven and the entire crater. With him sticking his head and shoulders out his bedroom window, I made this photograph while sticking my body out the living room window and shooting. You could see everything. Steven finds it all hard to talk about to this day. Before the pandemic, he worked near the site as a market data analyst for Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. Sometimes, he walked over to the 9/11 Memorial and thought about what happened. He lost his home, his neighborhood, colleagues, friends. He had a bout with colon cancer and a brain tumor. But he and his wife got through it, and he feels fortunate.”


U.S. President George W. Bush addresses a crowd as he stands with retired firefighter Bob Beckwith from Ladder 117 at the scene of the World Trade Center disaster in New York, September 14, 2001.
Win McNamee/Reuters

Win McNamee

“Moments where the president of the United States is unscripted and completely engrossed in the situation are very rare. At one point, on this day soon after 9/11, President Bush was very close to crying, as were many of the people traveling with him — including me. It was one of the more genuine moments you will see between a sitting president and ordinary Joe citizens. This was not a president surrounded by firemen; it was a group of Americans feeling the same somber moment.”


Vigil for the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks .
Clark Jones

Clark Jones

“Photographing this vigil held at Washington Square Park, I remember a feeling of both overwhelming sadness and national unity. Like any life-altering event, it took a few days for the enormity of what happened to sink into the mind and psyche of New Yorkers. This was a moment that people had an outlet to grieve with friends and, most importantly, with the community at large. Photographing at night, lit by the glow of candles and dark surroundings, emphasized these three women’s deep grieving — a clear symbol of the national grieving that was taking place. Twenty years later, I still enjoy an occasional walk through Washington Square, although heading down to Ground Zero is very difficult for me.”


Three NYC firemen, George Johnson and Dan McWilliams and Bill Eisengrein raise an American flag near the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Thomas E. Franklin/The Record/USA Today Network

Thomas Franklin

“I was working for the Bergen Record in New Jersey. All the river crossings were closed, so I went to Exchange Place in Jersey City and talked my way onto a tugboat that took me across the Hudson River. I saw firemen working with a flag that had been taken off of a nearby yacht. They transferred it to a flagpole that they found in the rubble. I did not think the photo would stand out the way it does. But, looking at it now, it depicts three firemen doing something that they thought would provide a sense of solidarity, unity and strength in the midst of this terrible tragedy.”


At the first of what would turn out to be hundreds of funerals for slain firefighters after the 9/11 attacks, onlookers mourn the life of one of thousands of slain New Yorkers.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images

Andrew Lichtenstein

“Those two women were crying at the first funeral for a New York firefighter, I believe a chaplain, that was held outside a station house in Midtown. Like so many other New Yorkers, I’d watched people jump out of the Towers, and ran when the giant dust cloud rushed down the avenues after the Towers fell, so I was feeling pretty raw myself, but there are times when the camera helps. As a journalist, I witnessed all this with a job to do. I remember feeling the amazingness of New York that week. We all seemed to be experiencing the same horror as all those missing posters went up. So while I was covering the funeral, these two women just standing on the street expressed that for me more than the traditional image of rows of firefighters saluting as the coffin was placed on the back of a firetruck. While we were standing outside waiting for the funeral to begin, someone told me that a mutual friend, another photographer, was missing. I remember, somehow, finding solace in these women’s tears, as if it was all right for all of us to cry.”


Girl holding sign at Port Authority Police Officer Dominick Pezzulo's funeral.
Beth Keiser

Beth Keiser

“Port Authority Police Officer Dominick Pezzulo was killed in the World Trade Center attacks and I was assigned to cover his funeral on Oct. 19, 2001, as a staff photographer for the Associated Press. This was actually one of the first funerals to be held. So few remains had been recovered a month after the Trade Center attacks that funerals were still very emotional and raw. I was positioned outside the church where hundreds of law enforcement officers from all over the country came to pay their respects and grieve together as a community. In the sea of navy uniforms lining the Pelham Bay street, one little girl stood out in her pink shirt. Tiffany Massagli, 8 years old, stood up on a stoop, solemnly holding up her homemade sign — ‘You will always be my Hero’ — as the officers lined her street. I have always loved this photo, as it shows how connected everyone was to each other in their shared grief by the attack on 9/11. She didn’t know the officer killed, or any of the hundreds standing outside her building, but yet she wanted to be there and let them know she shared their pain.”


Aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attack
Timothy Fadek/Polaris Images

Timothy Fadek

“It was the night of Sept. 12. I sat down on a ledge, looking out from inside Brookfield Place across the street. I was wearing a construction hard hat I found discarded in the rubble to blend in. The sound was most memorable. Nobody was talking, but you heard all this mechanical equipment, like a construction site. There was that 9/11 acrid smell — a metallic smell that you could taste. It felt like I was on the set of an apocalyptic movie: It didn’t seem real. As photographers, we try to get as close to the action as possible, but every so often you have to pull back and show the viewer an image with a sense of scale.”


Brooklyn promenade and view in Manhattan without the World Trade center after the terrorist attack.
Michel Setboun/Corbis/Getty Images

Michel Setboun

“At noon on Sept. 11, the south of Manhattan became a kind of war zone. I couldn’t get access anywhere; I had no press card. The city was like a wounded animal. I started to walk around the places I knew with an impressive background of Manhattan. Of course I went to Brooklyn and on the shore of New Jersey. Everywhere, people were gathering in a kind of mass — they wanted to be together, they were going back to the roots of human beings. That was also a way to survive. I had never felt that humanity in New York before. It was surreal. Two years before, I was in Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban. After 20 years I feel very [sad], all these people killed for nothing.”



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