I lived in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the World Trade Center (WTC). I was watching morning news, when an image of the burning (north) tower came on the screen and a voice saying, “I think a Cessna, or something hit the building.” It was a maintenance man being interviewed.
My instinct said, that is not a Cessna, and that is also not an accident! My second instinct said, you have to go! Grab your cameras and go! I grabbed my camera bag and ran. As I did, my building shook, as if in an earthquake – I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the second plane hitting the South Tower of the WTC.
Making my way up Broad, then Broadway, then over to Liberty St. it seemed as if a ticker tape parade had happened, with debris raining down, and papers littering the streets. As I got closer to the towers, the debris turned heavier and more confusing. What was this I was looking at? A…a body part? Yes. A shoe? A notebook? And closer still pieces of steel and concrete twisted, broken, shoved through the hood of a car – the detritus of, and former lives of people who moments before were passengers on a plane, or workers enjoying morning coffee.
These photos are my journey through something confusing – I didn’t remember shooting much of it until I later saw the film. I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing. I had no reference. Untethered from my (now former) reality I explored through my lens, and picked my way through a nightmare.
The nightmare turned to the worst, when standing on the corner of Liberty and West Ave., directly in front of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, I heard a rumble and my third instinct said: Building! Falling! Run! In less than 10 seconds (that’s what it took for the South Tower to fall), I remembered psychology 101 – Fight or Flight; I chose a doorway and remembered as a 3-year-old in Eastern New Mexico (where there are tornadoes) my mom saying, “go for a corner of a room.” I did. I dove, superman-style for a corner and the lobby blew up, slamming me against the wall. I prayed for it to be quick. It instead seemed like a lifetime before the mass and shockwave of a 1000-foot-tall steel tower stopped its fall. I was alive – I think. But now what? Can I get out? I can’t breath. Panic! A voice! A woman’s voice, it was the cop. Some dim light. I stood up and yelled, “Reach out your hands!” We did. I felt someone. We moved towards the voice. I broke my embrace and unscrewed the filter on my lens and shot, at what I couldn’t tell. Surprise! We were now outside, on the street. I made my way south to Battery Park before the second WTC tower then collapsed.
I’ve placed these pictures in somewhat of a chronological order: before and after the South Tower fell. I’ve selected 16 images, though I have three rolls of film (36 exp.) worth. I’m grateful I am alive, and grateful I can share these photos, and a little bit of this story with you.
Thank you for coming and looking at these photos.
Eric O’Connell, 2016