Icons: The 9/11 Series, Part 1

Posted on September 4, 2011


This is the first in a series of interviews with the photographers who covered the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon ten years ago and shot what are now considered iconic images. Produced in partnership by American Photo magazine and The Digital Journalist website, the interviews were done in the two weeks after the attack, while memories were fresh, as part of an oral history. As we noted in the magazine, many of these photographers had witnessed destruction and death before, but none had ever seen anything like the terror of 9/11. You could see it in their eyes when they came to be interviewed: The thousand-yard stares, the welling of tears, the quiet of the voices. And the certainty, mostly unspoken, that the years to come would bring war and further sacrifice. The series begins with the story told by Richard Drew, a veteran Associated Press photographer and winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. On that day 10 years ago, Drew shot what would become one of the most controversial images of the event, a picture now known simply as “The Falling Man.”



Richard Drew

“It wasn’t just a building falling down.”

Photograph by Richard Drew: "This is now it affected peoples' lives at the time."

“I was covering a maternity fashion show [that day). It was a 9 AM show at Bryant Park [in Midtown Manhattan], and I went early to do some backstage work. Then I was going to stake out my real estate in the front of the runway. I was chatting with a CNN cameraman, who was talking with his office, and he broke into our conversation and said there had been an explosion at the World Trade Center. I said, “We’ve heard lots of that.” There have been lots of reports of those things over the years since the bomb attack [on the World Trade Center] in 1993. A few seconds later he said, “No, a plane has hit the World Trade Center.”

My cell phone went off at the same time, and the office said we were going to can this fashion show.

I put my stuff back in my bag and walked to Seventh Avenue, just a block away, and caught the number 2 or number 3 express subway train and got out at the Chambers Street stop, which is just before the World Trade Center. By that time, the second airplane had hit.

The first thing I saw when I came up the stairs was the top of the World Trade Center on fire. I had no idea if it was a small plane or an accident. People were crying, holding each other, walking around stunned. Many of them were looking up at the wreckage. I came around a corner, and there was a policeman taking [out] some of that fancy yellow tape they always use. There was a big hunk of metal on the street, and he was trying to preserve this as part of the scene, in the middle of all this chaos. The street was covered with glass and debris, and I photographed as I went along, photographing people bleeding, pieces of rubble, crashed-out windows.”

I worked my way west, because I wanted to be away from the smoke, upwind from the smoke and fire, avoiding whatever blockades the police put up. I didn’t even pull out my press card; I just wandered with the rest of the crowd. There were policemen with the hard hats on, and they were trying to get me out of the street. They said, “You have to go to the other side of West Street,” and I said that’s fine—it gave me a better vantage point. I was standing next to the ambulances, the triage unit, where all the rescue people were. I figured if there were people hurt, they were going to come there, and usually I find that the ambulance people and the rescue people don’t care if you’re there. So I hung with them, and I was standing next to a very nice policeman from the 13th precinct, and all of a sudden he said, “Oh my gosh, look at that!” I looked up, and there were people coming out of the building.

I was photographing them as they were coming down. We were watching one guy who was actually clinging to the outside of the building. He had a white shirt on. We were watching him for the longest time while all these other people were falling. Then there was the huge rumbling sound. I had my 80-200mm lens on, and this rubble just starts to fall down. I had no idea it was the building falling. I though maybe it was part of the roof or the façade.

I was at the northwest corner of the North Tower. It was the South Tower that was coming down. I made six or eight frames of that before I was yanked by some rescue person yelling, “We’ve got to get out of here!” And I was being pulled up Vesey Street. We’ve all seen the clouds; we were all caught up in that. It was really tough to see [and] tough to work, because you couldn’t breathe. I managed to get to an ambulance and to get a surgical mask.

I went over to the spot where they were moving all the ambulances, about a block and a half from [my] original location, and I was photographing people walking out, covered with ash. Then a police officer in a white shirt came running up the street, yelling, “We all have to get out of here!” I was thinking, “They are just trying to clear the area.” I changed lenses, to a medium telephoto lens, and thought, “If they are going to kick me out, I am going to make some more pictures of this building on fire, then leave.” As I picked my camera up to do this, the top of the second tower poofed out. I held my finger on the trigger and made nine frames of this building—the North Tower—cascading down. I said, “I’ve got to get out of here,” and I ran a block and a half north to Stuyvesant High School.

The students were being evacuated. They were all in the lobby; I was in with them. They went out of the north end of the school, as I did—north on West Street. I went back around to where all the people were, covered with dust and debris.

I went home about nine o’clock that night, and then turned around the next morning and got up early to be down at Ground Zero.

The third day is when it got to me emotionally. You know, you build up adrenaline. The camera is a real filter. The camera separates you from reality, but this time it really got to me. I decided I wanted to go someplace else to try another part of the story, and I went to where the families were trying to find the lost. There were not a lot of people there. I went around the corner to get a cup of coffee, and my phone rang. It was my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. She says, “Daddy, I just want to tell you that I love you,” and I guess that really got to me, because I realized there are lots of people out there who are not going to hear their three-and-a-half-year-olds say, “Daddy, I love you” any more. I had to take two days off after that.

The one image that’s been causing a lot of discussion is one I shot of a man falling headfirst from the building, before the buildings fell down.  There are two newspapers that have had their ombudsmen write stories about the picture, explaining why they used the photograph: the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. They received a lot of complaints [from readers]. Our readers emailed and phoned and complained that they didn’t want to see this over their morning cornflakes. I think [the picture] disturbed readers the way that Nick Ut’s picture of the little girl burned by napalm in Vietnam did, or Eddie Adams’s shot of the police chief executing the guy in Saigon did, or John Filo’s picture of the girl bending over the student killed at Kent State. These were all images that had disturbed people along the way.

[The picture represents] a very important part of this story. It wasn’t just a building falling down; there were people involved in this—this is how it affected people’s lives at that time, and I think that is why that is an important picture.