The crowd was roaring last night at Ground Zero, just three blocks from our apartment. The news was good and a long time coming. I will never forget that day, nor this one.
Tereza and I were visiting New York on September 11, 2001. We flew in from California for a romantic weekend and I was taking her out to the house on Long Island where we first met in 1976 when her sister finally got her a visa out of Brazil. I rented a limo and was trying to show her a good time. I’d been on the road a while and was trying to make it up to her. We stopped to get coffee before driving out of town and were about 10 blocks North of the World Trade Center off of West Broadway when the first plane hit. We were in the middle of the block perpendicular and getting out of the car when it wailed past overhead, followed instantly by a loud flat bang, like sheets of steel being dropped from a great height flat onto the pavement.
Tereza ran to the corner to see and began screaming. I ran up and we could see smoke and flames billowing out of the large black hole, along with desks, chairs, papers and several bodies. I knew I was no longer a news photographer as my instinct was to get my wife out of there.
She was crying and terrified and so we jumped in the car and I asked the driver, Kenny, to get us the hell over the bridge. I wanted her to be safe, and I was determined not to do what I’d done for so many years as a photojournalist and disappear for days on a story. I was going to take her out to the Island, have our day, and stay married.
But I did have a camera with me, loaded with Tri-X, as I usually do, ever since my days on newspapers where you were trained to be ready for anything. It started to occur to me this was historic, even though we had no idea if this was anything other than an accident. We heard on the radio that they thought it was a small plane, although we were sure it had to be bigger from the sound of the engines we heard. After a few blocks, I couldn’t help myself. I apologized to Tereza, saying I just needed to get one shot, and asked Kenny to pull over and let me try to get something. Which he did, on Delancey Street by a park not far from the bridge. I lifted my camera and pressed the shutter just as the second plane hit from the South. Tereza shouted “terrorists” as she quickly triangulated the obvious impossibility of two planes hitting both towers within minutes of each other. This was truly chilling. Yet I was now in news mode, in denial of emotion, just acting on the mission–except I was acting in complete reverse of my training. Now my mission was to go the opposite direction of every other photographer in New York at that moment which I knew was crazy. Still, I felt nothing, no emotion either way, yet.
We continued over the Williamsburg Bridge and I looked back and could see both towers burning. I asked Kenny to pull off and go down to the water so I could get one last overview shot before we continued out to the Island. As I was getting out of the car I realized I was out of film and ran into a bodega and found a dusty old roll of color neg. As I came out a group of Hassidem jumped out of a minivan in front of me and I made a picture. Tereza joined me and we went to the water where I shot the towers burning. I tried to calm her by saying although it looked bad, and certainly the towers would burn until gutted, I said I was sure we would repair them and life would go on. And then the first tower collapsed, as if in slow motion. It was shocking. Inexplicable. For the first time in a long time I felt a surge of emotion. I lost it then, completely. We had been attacked at the core or our nation, and the symbolic victory the terrorists had sought was now theirs, with likely thousands of dead. A large number of people had just died before our eyes. I then also realized we had probably lost friends, which turned out to be true.
While trapped in New York, unable to get a plane, train, bus, or rental car back to the West Coast for five days we walked and walked through the city. We watched the frantic efforts at the recovery beginning. The city was changing fast with strangers talking to each other, helping each other. You could see both fear and a resolve to survive, fight and rebuild in the faces on the streets. We decided then that we would return soon, and in fact by the following summer we had moved back to Manhattan after decades away. We wanted to be part of it, the resurgence of a great city. We were New Yorkers again.