Icons: The 9/11 Series, Part 4

Posted on September 9, 2011


The oral history of photographers at Ground Zero concludes with the story of New York Times photographer Angel Franco, who raced downtown from an assignment in the Bronx after learning of the World Trade Center attacks. The image he made that day—a nation’s anguish and shock etched on two faces—has become an icon of 9/11.


Angel Franco

“I heard people yelling on the police radios.”

Watching as the first town fell, photo by Angel Franco

I was following [New York City mayoral candidate] Freddie Ferrer, and I had a 7:30 am assignment. I was in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. We were coming to Manhattan on the East Side on 109th Street. We got on the highway, and we saw these emergency units rushing to Manhattan. And I saw this huge cloud of brown smoke.

I heard on the radio that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. [When I got to the scene], it looked like paper was flying out of the building, but I realized what it was—that people were jumping. I put my camera down and continued walking.

I remember people running and running and running. And people coming up, and all these burned papers. And then I began to shoot these police officers arriving. The next thing I know, this plume of smoke—like if you were to strike a match, and how it goes poof—and the building started to come down. I kept shooting. We hauled ass and started running north, and this store was open, and as this stuff was coming we all rushed in there. We pulled this lady inside the store, told her to get behind the counter. I didn’t know if the glass there was just going to explode. Thank God it didn’t. Then we all left the store. I went down to the West Side Highway and arrived at West Street, I think. There were all the fire trucks [covered in dust], and part of the—what was left of the World Trade Center. I’m taking this picture and I’m thinking, “My God, this looks like I’m standing in [the desert].” It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. Papers had melted onto trees. It was like a desert with all this paper and cement.

I started photographing at Ground Zero. On cop told me to watch out because they had caught a terrorist who had planted devices. [There were] these four firefighters, [and] they were in shock. They looked like zombies because of the experience they just had 10 or 15 minutes prior.

When the buildings collapsed, I did a sign of the cross, and I’m not a religious guy. My mind cleared, and as my friend who is a psychologist says, I went into a combat mode: My head got clear, my body was tight.

I walked around taking pictures. Then I proceeded uptown because of the deadline—I figured I’d better get into the home base.

I [saw some] photographers dressed like construction workers or rescue workers, so they could sneak into the place. I am ashamed of the fact [they were] playing these games, I’m not going to dress up as a construction worker or a rescue worker. I’m not going to misrepresent myself. [Some photographers] are already talking about how much money they made or are going to make, and Pulitzers. I am ashamed of how people talk about that.

Hopefully we won’t have to experience anything like this in the world again. Unfortunately it looks like the mindset is that we have to prepare for battle, and as a guy that has a 23-year-old son, I’m concerned about that. He worries about me when I go off to do things, and now it’s my turn to worry about our sons and daughters.

How has it affected me? I can’t remember things. I’m busy thinking about a lot of other things. I keep thinking about [my friend] Louis, who thinks his wife is still alive, and I hope that she is. Last Friday he called me up to say he had to tell his eight-year-old daughter that her mom is missing.

My wife is trying to get [me to] think of other things. I went to Jewish services with her. That sort of helped. I’ve been to church, and that’s helped. I went to a police officer’s funeral, and that didn’t help.

I heard the people yelling on the police radios. That’s how I saw it—visually, in my head. It wasn’t until I saw some of the pictures—the people jumping, [the people] I saw when I first came into the scene. It looked like it would be a good campaign day, and then madness. Madness.

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