Photographers reflect on shooting the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath.
In 2002, The New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for its coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath. Two decades later, we asked our photographers to return to their work from that time and reflect on the images they created, and what it took to capture them. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.
I was watching NY1 when I saw that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I grabbed my gear and ran to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. My partner pointed to a plane flying over the Statue of Liberty, and I knew what was going to happen: I was going to witness hundreds of people die. I remember thinking, “No, no, no!” But I took a breath and told myself: “This is history. Do your job.” I put the camera to my face, framed the skyline wide, and I waited for the plane to come into my frame.
I try not to think of that day. I witnessed the horror of New Yorkers’ loss — working moms, dads, sons and daughters, friends. I have nightmares; not sleeping well since Sept. 11 has become the norm. The image of the woman frozen in time and reacting to the fall of the first World Trade Center tower.
If I hadn’t swapped for the long lens that I had on my camera two days before; if I hadn’t gone to the west side because the road was blocked; if I hadn’t stopped at that moment, out of breath after running toward the World Trade Center; if I hadn’t looked at the burning tower thinking, “Wow, it looks like it could collapse any second,” if I hadn’t … I still don’t know why I was destined to capture that moment.
Chang W. Lee
I heard glass breaking and a voice calling out through the darkness of the cloud of the fallen first tower. I crawled out from under the emergency vehicle where I had sheltered and made my way to the voice, inside the Stage Door Deli on Vesey Street. It was a surreal scene: Firefighters, police and a few civilians stumbled around, catching their breath, spitting out mouthfuls of mud, lit only by the eerily glowing lights of the display case holding cold cuts and cheeses for that day’s sandwiches. Officer Richard Adamiak bent over, coughing. In the background of the photo is the entrance to the deli. One should have seen brilliant sunshine streaming in on that beautiful September morning. Instead, the neighborhood was engulfed in darkness.
Time contracts when I remember, and I am back under an emergency vehicle, in complete blackness, with what felt like sandpaper being dragged through my throat. Then I am catapulted through Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Second Intifada and the war in Iraq, and then back to the United States. Watching events unfold around the pullout of troops with increasing dismay has triggered memories — of friends lost, of seemingly futile efforts — and I wonder: Has it all been in vain?
It took me a long time that morning to find a covert way past the police barricade perimeter to where the towers fell. As I climbed over precarious piles of rubble, two firefighters caught my eye. They were walking quickly and I could hear their conversation. I learned they were searching for a firefighter from Ladder 21, whom they had just found. They rushed past me, and I raised my camera as they told him that his brother, also a firefighter, was known to be inside one of the towers when it collapsed and was believed to have died. His shoulders fell, and he was embraced in a moment of shared grief. Initially, I wished the firefighters’ faces were more visible in the image. However, over the years I have come to appreciate their anonymity. For me, they have come to symbolize the deep loss so many people experienced that day.
This is on the Brooklyn Bridge just after the second tower collapsed as an exodus of survivors slowly made its way out of the smoke and into the sunlight. I ran into Joseph Sylvester, who said he worked at the World Financial Center. He was covered in ash, and his head was bleeding from a piece of debris that had fallen on him. He said he was looking for his father, who worked in the area. I’ll never forget how calm and quiet they were. I think everyone must have been in shock — just silently, slowly making their way to safety.
This photograph of Michele Defazio remains, for me, a reminder of the kindness of strangers. I think of her every Sept. 11. I watched Michele walk alone toward the Bowery, where a missing persons reporting station had been set up. Carrying her homemade fliers with her husband’s photograph, her grief and worry overwhelmed her, and she paused for the briefest of moments. Strangers on the street also paused to comfort her. The moment was fleeting. Soon after this photograph was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, I called Michele. It was important to me that she knew her story was significant to history. We had a short, somewhat awkward conversation given the strange connection we now shared. She told me she was still working on accepting the loss of her husband and had set up a scholarship fund in his name. In the days following the attack, we would learn that 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees — including Michele’s husband, Jason — died in the attack. I later covered their memorial service, crying myself while making photographs of the vast sea of people who had come together in their grief.
My assignment was a funeral in Yonkers, for an E.M.S. worker killed in the attack. The world press was there, too, but after the burial they packed up their gear and left. I stayed for a tribute by the E.M.T.s that included a salute and music from a boom box. I shot three frames in the rain, at the end of a roll, when Jay Robbins teared up. I’ll never forget how it happened right when the music started playing. For me, it’s been difficult to look at this photograph. It still breaks my heart.
What sticks with me is not the fire, not the crushed gray concrete of the Pentagon, but the sensation of the cool fall air and the unrelenting blue sky. Pieces of green jet structure were underfoot. I had only moments to shoot before rescue teams and others dominated the scene. I knew that space well. It was on my way home from the bureau every day. I had met two of the people on that plane. By the time fighter jets passed overhead — as if in silent, angered tribute — I knew American life would never be the same.
In the weeks following Sept. 11, I was assigned to photograph the aftermath — a landscape in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn that was irrevocably altered. There remained a bitter, burned smell in the air, and fragments of paper had been carried by the wind all the way into Brooklyn. As I was driving, I saw a fire truck with blown-out windows, no longer red but covered in white ash and debris, which had been towed back to the firehouse, Engine 226. When I glanced to my right, I saw an emotional moment unfolding, and I quietly took two pictures. Lt. Matt Nelson, left, reacts, as Tom Casatelli, the truck’s sole survivor of that day, embraces the son of his fallen comrade Lt. Bob Wallace. It is a moment that still haunts me.
After the terror attacks, people put aside their differences for a time. American flags flew from windows on Park Avenue. Memorials, like this one in Union Square, sprouted up around the city. Prayer and candlelight vigils were held regularly. People reached out and supported each other: The country grieved collectively. Twenty years ago we were torn apart, but we came together, trying to be the best versions of ourselves. As we tear ourselves apart two decades later, I can’t help but ask: Who won?
Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001, outside St. Francis Assisi Church for the burial service of Mychal Judge — a Franciscan friar, priest and chaplain to the New York City Fire Department — who died on Sept. 11 while administering last rites at the World Trade Center. I was not allowed to move inside to photograph dignitaries and speakers: That turned out to be a blessing. The church was full, but a crowd gathered in front of the Engine 1/Ladder 24 firehouse opposite the church, a crew of mostly firefighters, some in old uniforms. At the end of the homily, Judge’s friend and fellow friar Michael A. Duffy asked everyone to stand, raise their right hands and give Mychal, who had blessed so many people in life and death, a blessing. The crowd in front of the fire house raised their hands and repeated the benediction that he had given to so many others. And I too was blessed.