5 years ago, our lives changed. Forever. I remember lying in bed with my soon to be husband in our apartment on University Place and 10th Street in downtown Manhattan and hearing and feeling the roar of a huge plane. It rocked our apartment. I vividly remember saying to him “Oh my G-d, did you hear that plane?” Philip is a pilot/photographer and he quickly replied “sweetheart, that plane is flying way too low and that’s not the normal flight pattern.” Seconds later, he said “it crashed. I heard a boom.” Right then, our phone rang and it was a friend telling us a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Moments later, the phone rang again-some friends calling to see if it was Philip’s plane. We turned on the tv, got dressed, and then went onto the street. A block from our apartment, along 5th Avenue, we had a clear view of the Towers. We went back to our roof where we had a clear view also and started shooting. All of a sudden, I remember pointing and saying “oh my G-d, look at that plane” when the second plane vanished from my sight and we saw a ball of flames into the second tower. It never registered with me what happened. People were huddled together crying. We called our families to let them know we were ok, got off an email to our friend, Greg, in Wisconsin who wanted to know if we were ok, and then the phone and internet went dead. A woman from my floor was in the corner on our roof hysterical, crying to her mother who was in Paris saying “mommy I am so scared, mommy mommy.” Just typing this makes me cry for the fear she had, the pain she was in being all alone. She was probably in her mid 30’s and crying for her mother. Shortley after, my brother, Craig, knocked on my door. He was downtown on business and came by to make sure I was ok before heading back to his family in NJ. At the time, one of my big clients and friends, Mel Nudelman, had the contract with the Port Authority and weeks before we were on a shoot on the 68th floor of the North Tower. Thankfully, Mel was not there that day. I know if this happened on a day I was up there on a shoot, I just don’t think I would have gotten out.
I don’t remember much else about the day.
I think I was on overdrive. It took me a long time to cry because I still was in some kind of daze. I remember we walked down there after the towers collapsed and as soon as we got to Church Street, I couldn’t breath anymore. We turned around and walked home. We tried to help along the way but so many people were out that there was not much we could do. Later that day, we went back and we were right at Ground Zero, staring at the metal piece that was stuck in the ground for so long. I do remember the New York Daily News, where I was a contract photographer, calling me to see where I was and I told them I was at Ground Zero. They asked me to shoot some firemen, and get up to the paper FAST. I asked how fast and they said NOW. A policeman took me in his car and we sped up 6th Avenue to 33rd Street doing over 100 mph. There was not a single person anywhere. If anyone has ever seen Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man” this is what NYC felt like.
4 weeks later was our wedding. The following Saturday I was supposed to shoot a wedding and I got the call that it was cancelled because 4 family members had died that day. My friends were planning a surprise wedding shower for me in NJ on September 16 but they decided to tell me because they knew I wasn’t going to leave NYC otherwise. They were right.
We went to Greece on our honeymoon and were pretty much glued to CNN 90% of the time.
There’s not much else I can do but cry. I cry a lot remembering this day. And let us ALWAYS remember all those innocent people we lost on that day.I am thankful that many friends and colleagues, especially Richard Drew, David Handschuh and Todd Maisel were not forever physically harmed that day
September 1 ,2001
Is a date and time I don’t talk about with many people. It has affected me and it has changed me forever and how I see the world in which we live.
It’s been 20 years since the horrible attacks on The World Trade Center in New York City, The Pentagon and Shanksville in Ohio.
That fateful day, like most others, I called my mom in the morning. I was in Mississippi, and grabbing breakfast at a bagel store. She worked for a brokerage firm on Long Island, and on a clear day she could see the Twin Towers from her office. I grew up on Long Island and my first apartment in New York City was at the South Street Seaport, Peck Slip, and I could see the Twin Towers from my bed.
As we spoke, that morning my mom was relaying the news of the first Tower being hit, and she watched the second one get hit while on the phone with me.
Before I could go to NYC, I had to pack, gather supplies and plan- where was I going to stay and what would I need and how long was I going to be gone..??
I ran to the nearest Walmart and bought all the Film I could find there and then went to another and did the same! Then I drove to my local camera store and bought a brand new digital camera- the first of many. I had no idea how to use it and figured I could study up on the train. I went home and packed-, I had to be able to carry everything including my photo gear and cloths and a film scanner. I packed real light and called my friend Bruce Cotler and asked if I could crash on his couch in Brooklyn.
Airplanes were grounded, driving was not an option- rather I wanted to and my wife said no- I would be too tired once I got there to be of any help. So trains were the only option, and I got lucky real lucky. I got the last seat on the last train from New Orleans to Chicago and then on to New York City. It was a long ass ride and the train was packed, no food no alcohol and no water by the time we got to Chicago and no seats. All planes in The United States were still grounded.
The first person I met on the train was an ATT&T first responder with the same Nikon cool pix I had just bought- he helped me set mine up, and gave me my first assignment regarding 911. He asked if I could post a photo of the AT& T satellite truck at Ground Zero for him- if I could get down there and find it!
The next guy I met was Hans, an air traffic controller from Boston Logan Airport! He was travelling back from New Orleans to Boston. He was at the NTSB (National Transportation and Safety Board annual meeting) conference in New Orleans when the Towers were hit! The rest of his team was air lifted back to Boston, and he had to take the train! The AT&T man had a satellite phone, and Hans my other new friend had the inside info on the planes.
When the train pulled into Chicago- I was a bit un prepared for what I saw. I was earlier instructed by the conductor in Jackson MS -that when I arrived in Chicago I should go right up to the ticket window and get my ticket to NYC. – it would be waiting for me…– The conductor was right- I had to fight my way through thousands of stranded, angry, panicked travelers to get my ticket that was being held at the ticket office for me!!! It was a long process- and I had a 12 hour delay to my next train to NYC- . Another nice stranger heard my story on the train and my intentions to get to Ground Zero and photograph the destruction, and offered her apartment for a nap and a shower to me and Hans. We accepted, she turned out to have beautiful million dollar loft right by the train station in Chicago and was an asbestos attorney!! She told me how to keep myself safe and then told me to shower and rest before my next train and she left the apartment for a meeting and Hans and I were now alone in a strangers home, yet felt like old friends and very welcomed. I showered and fell asleep.
I knew the next few days I was going to need all my strength I could muster and rest would be a luxury.
I had not heard from friends and photographers I knew who immediately after the Towers were hit- were documenting the story, the scene and the people and the destruction non stop. I was compelled to try and do the same and help in some way. This was after all my former home, my backyard, my friends, my City.
The entire train ride was surreal. The first photo I made on my new digital camera was of a foreign looking man with a freshly shaved head, who spoke no English, who was reading the newspaper with the headline “terrorists sought in 911 attacks”
The man was not happy I made his photo- he yelled at me in perfect English, and then jumped off the train in the middle of the night in some random location just outside of Chicago…and the a retired police officer asked to see his photo and sent it to the FBI. My journey had just begun.
I arrived in NYC late at night and underground 3 levels, after the “photo incident” the conductor became my friend and called ahead for a porter to help get me off the train and into a cab. I was grateful for his help. By the time I could focus my eyes- I could see how the city had changed. There were armed guards , FBI agents, Army personnel and police, everywhere- in Penn station, on the streets – in trucks, and walking towards downtown. It looked and felt like an occupied city.
Bruce was kind enough to let me crash on his couch, and to give me a ride into NYC the next day. The pit was still smoking and there was a scent in the air of death and asbestos.
Bruce was going to meet the coast guard, and I was going to try and get to the Pit.
As we approached NYC I could see the smoke coming from lower Manhattan and in the foreground were tennis courts- with people playing tennis!! I was stunned. And jumped out a little while later to start making photos and to start my journey to Wall Street and the Pit.
I walked for what seemed like hours and came upon One Police Plaza, journalists were being detained and asked to register for credentials. I kept going and didn’t stop.
I kept seeing this red pick-up truck go around wall street area full of supplies and then empty over and over, it was filled with first responders and sometimes even a police escort. The saw me walking around with my cameras and asked me to get in. They were volunteers with the Seamans Church Institute at the south street seaport and Father Michael had organized supplies and help for first responders from there, it was a staging area for Ground Zero and St Paul’s Cathedral ( right by were the Towers once stood)
I was shocked to get a lift- they took me to meet Father Michael- he asked me how he could help- I asked him the same-
I told him I needed a bathroom, a can of coke and a snickers,
He had all if it for me when I got out of the bathroom plus a respirator/face mask and hard hat- and asked for my press credentials-he said the press was being kept out today– this was day 3 and they were trying to tighten the scene. In addition the top tier photographers who had been covering the scene since the initial attack were exhausted. I got lucky – Father Michael wanted me to see what was going on, the FBI recovery, the destruction and record history. He grabbed my cameras, hid them under a pile of supplies in the back of the truck- I jumped in- and we speed to the Church-/ St Paul’s Chapel – inside the zone- about 2 blocks from the remains of the towers.
I helped unload the truck, someone handed me my cameras and took me inside the church. I was shocked to see it was not damaged by the collapse of the Towers and was being used as a staging area for food and supplies for first responders and a place to rest. I was lucky again and on my first day there got the FBI Forensic team picking through the cemetery looking for clues. I was there when they found one of the hijackers passports, and other evidence- and I made photos of it all.
After being around Ground Zero for what seemed like forever, I headed back to the Seamans Institute to thank Father Michael. On my way out of Ground Zero, I was walking with a fireman who had been up for 36 hrs and working in the pit, people were gathered on the street clapping and someone recognized me- I don’t know how. His name was Jeff Christensen , a photographer for Reuters News Agency and knew me from years ago when I worked for The Associated Press and lived in NYC, I was stunned. He asked if I made any photos, said there wasn’t a lot of folks in there today for whatever reasons, and he started looking at my digital camera! I made film. He drove me up to Reuters new offices in Time Square. By this time its late, I have been up for at least 30 hrs. and I am starved. We got off the elevators and all I can see and smell is a NYC pizza-The photo editor asked who the hell I was. I asked for some pizza, a bathroom and a can of coke-and explained who I was, where I came from and what I had seen. I had photos of FBI forensic agents on their hands an knees with chop sticks sifting through the cemetery looking for evidence, pieces of the planes and victims and much more.
After enjoying a few slices and selling a few images to Reuters I headed back to Brooklyn to the safety of Bruce’s. Once I got there and we talked about what we each saw that day, I started to shake all over, uncontrollably. My body and mind could not process what I saw, smelled and experienced, it still has trouble.
I went back, over and over again. I stayed in NYC for the first month after September 11th.2001. I returned for the 3 month, 6 month and one year anniversary. As well as the last Sunday mass on the site under the miracle cross.
I came back at least twice a year for the next 10 years, and I continue to visit the Memorial to this day.
I will Never Forget – September 11th 2001.
There is more to this story-parts I can’t write about still.
By Suzi Altman
click on the photos…