Part three of the oral history of the photographers who made iconic pictures at Ground Zero continues with story of legendary photojournalist James Nachtwey, who was in his own apartment near the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan, just blocks from the World Trade Center, when the attack occurred. Nachtwey, who barely survived the day, would go on to cover the consequences of the attack: In 2003, he and Time magazine correspondent Michael Weisskopf were seriously injured when a grenade was thrown into the Humvee in which they were riding. He continues to cover conflict around the world. Time Lightbox has a portfolio of Nachtwey’s images up now.
“My instinct was to do where the tower had fallen.”
I heard a sound that was out of the ordinary. I was far enough away so that the sound wasn’t alarming, but it was definitely out of the ordinary.
When I saw the towers burning, my first reaction was to take a camera, to load it with film, go up on my roof, where I had a clear view, and photograph the first tower burning. Then I wanted to go directly to the site. I went back down and loaded my gear and went over. It was a 10-minute walk.
When I got there, people were being evacuated from both towers. In the interim, the plane had hit the second tower. Medical treatment centers were being set up on the sidewalks. It wasn’t as chaotic as you might think. On the street, the people coming out initially were not seriously wounded. They were frightened, some were hurt in a minor way. I think that the real chaos was happening up inside the towers with the people who were trapped.
When the first town fell, people ran in panic. They ran from the falling debris, girders that were falling down in an avalanche in the thick smoke and dust. Documenting a crisis situation that’s clearly out of control is always very instinctual. There’s not road map. No ground rules. It’s all improvisation. My instinct initially, in this case, was to photograph the human situation. But once the tower fell, the people really all disappeared. They either ran away or were trapped. So my instinct then was to go to where the tower had fallen. It seemed to me absolutely unbelievable that the World Trade Center could be lying in the street, and I felt compelled to make an image of this. I made my way there through the smoke. The area was virtually deserted. It seemed like a movie set from a science-fiction film, very apocalyptic—sunlight filtering through the dust and the destroyed wreckage of the buildings lying in the street.
As I was photographing the destruction of the first tower, the second tower fell, and I was literally right under it. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for the people on the west side of the building, it listed to the west. But I was still underneath this avalanche of falling debris—structural steel and aluminum siding, glass, just tons of material falling directly down onto me. I realized that I had a few seconds to find cover or else I’d be killed. I dashed into the lobby of the Millenium Hilton hotel, directly across the street from the north tower, and I realized instantly that this hotel lobby was going to be taken out, that the debris would come flying through the plate glass and there would be no protection all. There was no other place to turn, certainly no more time.
I saw an open elevator and dashed inside. I put my back against the wall, and about a second later the lobby was taken out. There was a construction worker who dashed inside there with me just as the debris swept through the lobby. It instantly became pitch black, just as if you were in a closet with the light out and a blindfold on. You could not see anything. It was very difficult to breathe. My nose, my mouth, my eyes were filled with ash. I had a hat on, so I put it over my face and began to breathe through it. And together, this other man and I crawled, groping, trying to find our way out. I initially thought that the building had fallen on us and that were in a pocket, because it was so dark. We just continued to crawl, and I began to see small blinking lights, and I realized that these were the turn signals of cars that had been destroyed and the signals were still on. At that point I realized we were in the street, although it was just as black in the street as it was in the hotel lobby, and that we would be able to find our way out.
My experiences photographing combat and being in life-threatening situations played a very important part in my being able to survive this and continue to work. It was, as I said, all instinct. I was making fast decisions with very little time to spare. And I guess that I made the right decision, because I’m still here. I was lucky, too.
On my way out of the smoke and ash, I was actually photographing searchers coming in. Once I got clear, I tried to clear my eyes as best I could and catch my breath. I realized I had to make my way toward what has now become known as Ground Zero. It took a while to get there. I spent the day there, photographing the firemen searching for people who had been trapped.
If I had needed to help someone, I certainly would have done it, as I have many times in the past. I would have put my camera down to lend a hand, as I think anyone would have. The place was filled with firemen and rescue workers and police, and I was not need to play that role. I realized that very clearly and went about doing my job.
When I’m photographing, I don’t censor myself or second-guess myself. I try to be aware of my own inner voice, my own instinct, as much as I can, and I try to follow them.
The level of dust and ash in the air was so intense that it was impossible to protect myself or my camera or my film. I’ve never had negatives that were so scratched and filled with marks as these. It looks like there are railroad tracks across my negatives. Every time you opened your camera back, there was no time even to dust it off, because more ash would fall in.
I worked that day until night, at which point I felt that it was time to leave. I was exhausted; I felt rather sick from all the smoke and ash that I had inhaled—not only initially, but all day long. The scene was burning and filled with acrid smoke; my lungs had burned all day long. The next day I was quite sick, almost incapacitated—feeling dizzy, exhausted. Quite out of it.
[In the following days], there really wasn’t any more danger, as long as you watched your footing. The frontline troops in this particular battle were firemen, and they put themselves in jeopardy. A lot of them lost their lives. They were troops who didn’t kill anyone; they were there to save people. That made this story very different from the wars I’ve covered.
I didn’t see the dead. They were underneath, and it wasn’t clear how many were under there at that moment. I didn’t witness people suffering, because there were invisible. I didn’t feel it as strongly as when I witnessed people starving to death or when I’ve seen innocent people cut down by sniper fire. I haven’t completely processed this event.
For me personally, the worst moment was when I was under the second tower as it fell and this tidal wave of deadly debris was about to fall on me. When I saw Ground Zero I was in a state of disbelief. I was in Grozny when it was being pulverized by Russian artillery and aircraft. I spent a couple of years in Beirut during various stages sieges and bombardments. But now it was literally in my own backyard, and think that one thing Americans are learning is from this is that we are now a part of the world in a way we never have been before.
The first day that Time.com had my essay on their Website, at least 600,000 people had a look at it. To me as a communicator, that’s very gratifying. Many years ago, I felt that I had seen too much [violence], that I didn’t want to see any more tragedies in this world. But unfortunately history continues to produce tragedies, and it is very important that they be documented with compassion and in a compelling way. I feel a responsibility to continue. But believe me when I say that I would much rather these things never happen [so that] I could either photograph something entirely different or not be a photographer at all. But that’s not the way the world is.