“Where were you the day the World Trade Center collapsed?” Almost nine years later this is the question that haunts us the way “Where were you the day Kennedy was shot?” once haunted a generation.
I was in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2001 I was the university photographer at Northern Arizona University. In the summer Arizona is three hours behind the East coast. That means when the first plane hit the WTC at 8:46am in New York it was 5:46am in Flag. I was awake, but not watching the news. I remember getting a frantic call from my mother telling me I had to turn on the television. As I watched CNN and the video footage of the second plane impacting, footage which they played again and again for almost an hour, I was literally horror-struck and speechless. The things we were watching were incomprehensible because I couldn’t make myself believe that what I was seeing was possible. I watched that plane crash over and over until the footage was replaced with the even more impossible image of the South Tower collapsing. Followed shortly by the North Tower. Followed by images of fire. Images of smoke taking over the famous skyline. Images of people with their faces covered in dirt and ash. Images of firefighters, police, and other rescue workers striving desperately and heroically. And worst of all, images of those alive but trapped and God help them, jumping out of the windows, weighing their options and thinking maybe the fall won’t kill them, but the fire surely will. I watched all of this while most of the university slept.
A college campus is not a lively place at 6 in the morning. The only people awake are the faculty and staff who start their day at 8 while most of the students start their day considerably later; and so the news spread slowly. It was strange to witness. At first those of us who were awake gathered around the televisions all chores and jobs and obligations forgotten. As soon as I saw what was happening my first thought was that I should go to New York. Get on a train and just Go. I knew that they would need photographers there. A moment like this must be documented. It has to be recorded for history, recorded for the victims and their families (which is all of us), recorded so that it cannot be forgotten. I did not go. And there will always be a part of me that wishes I had. Instead I stayed to document how this day affected my community because the ripples of something like the 9/11 attacks encircle the globe, touching everyone.
I wandered the campus and watched. In the early morning the scene was replayed over and over, a student would be walking along to class, completely oblivious, and they would get a call on their cell phone, or a friend would come up to them and start telling them the news. Their expressions were always the same. Disbelief. Shock. Pain. Anger. And fear. Sometimes one might get all the way into the student center for a cup of coffee before going onto class. Coffee was forgotten as soon as they got within earshot of the televisions. Classes were forgotten too. By early afternoon most everyone knew. By that evening the university had planned a candle light vigil. I don’t remember when the first estimates on how many had died came out but with a tragedy on this scale you knew it would be thousands.
I did not lose anyone I loved in the attacks. And therefore I have been able to mostly put September 11th behind me. But so much of what I had buried came rushing back to me yesterday when my editor asked me to tone and prep this photo.
I was told that ABC News had obtained never before seen images from the attack. In 2009 they filed a Freedom of Information request with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to obtain images taken on September 11th. The day of the attack plane and helicopters were grounded. No unauthorized flying – that meant news crews couldn’t go up for aerial shots. The only helicopters allowed to fly were those belonging to the police. Suddenly, seeing the images of the all too familiar scene from this new perspective reopened wounds I had forgotten.
These images reminded me of more than that day nearly a decade ago, they also reminded me of the reason I am a photographer. Of the reason I am proud to be a photojournalist. There are many who distrust and despise the media. As a member of the media I have seen too many times my fellow journalists in the worst of lights. And yet, I do not lose hope for the profession because I know that at the heart of it, journalism is a noble thing. We are the witnesses. We are the ones who give a voice to those who cannot speak. We are the ones who challenge the establishment and look more closely. And as recently proven again by ABC News we are the ones who stand up for the right of the people to know. The public has a right to know, a right to demand truth from our government, and journalists work to ensure that this sacred right is not swept easily aside. When we fail, it is on a grand scale because we are failing the Truth. But when journalists do their job, people see. Like me, looking at these images and suddenly seeing something familiar and forgotten brought to new light. These images are powerful, and they are now part of the public record of the what has been called the defining moment of the 21st century. And they exist now, in the public eye, because journalists fought for them.
To see more of these images you can visit: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/slideshow?id=9798666