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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 Web-cams, 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-second intervals, 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 pre-ternatural 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’ apartment in 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. It shows 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 York Times, 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 provide human 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 4¥5 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 felt you 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.”
Excerpted from Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 by David Friend. Copyright © 2006 by David Friend. Published in August 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.