Becoming the story: my 9/11 memories #Remember911
Note: I’ve taken a few months hiatus from writing for a number of reasons, but for today it’s always going to be reason enough for me to come out of hiding.
This was published five years ago, and it will probably be the only content I write about my experience being on the ground during 9/11.
Despite what I wrote at the time, I will not be publishing the pictures I mention below. It’s far too easy for them to get misappropriated, bastardized and inadvertently sold for profit and I can’t live with that. Those pictures, as well as the time I spent shooting them are not about heralding my work as a photographer or turning a buck. They document one of the most significant events in our nation’s history as well as my being smack in the middle of it.
Please note: I still get requests to do interviews every year, and every year I decline them. 2016 has been no different and I’ve declined six of them. Any writers or publications are always welcome to talk to me, but I will give you no comments on the record for publication.
Next month, I will have been involved in journalism on and off for 24 years. Some days I really love what I do; it’s a complete adrenaline rush to get my pictures, write my article, run for the finish line to get on the web and make the print deadline.
Some days I have an editor who’s breathing down my neck, wants my piece above the fold and could really care less about the ethics of responsible journalism. Check your facts later, we’ll get the picture authorized later, get it to print set already Daniel – quit dragging your ass.
On 9/11, I was in a “fuck, I hate journalism” mode. On 8/25, I had a debilitating stroke that left me with legs that would work properly, a right hand that I had no feeling in and paralyzed vocal chords that left me sounding like a combination of Barry White and Darth Vader. I fought like hell, went to therapy and worked my ass off and by 9/5 the only remnants of the stroke that remained was the sensory deprivation in my hand and the funky voice – some of which remains to this day. I’ve made a nice sideline income doing the occasional voice-over track but that’s a story for another time.
Richard and I had gotten to New York on 9/5 for a much needed holiday. My work schedule was hell up until the stroke, and the recovery from it was a full time job to replace the photos I wasn’t shooting so we were both mentally and physically exhausted. Time to get away, act like tourists, spend a buttload of money and just relax. We logged five fun-filled days of being complete goofs and hitting every shop that caught our eye on our walking tour of the city.
On 9/11, we were going to do our NYC wrap up. We were leaving the next day and had a few things we wanted to see before we’d left. Breakfast at Windows on the world inside the Towers was one stop we wanted to make. Great breakfast, perfect photo opportunity and a great way to start our day. We never made it inside.
Thanks to Richard’s fleeting acquaintance with punctuality we were running too late, or our timing was perfect – take your pick. About a block away we both heard the noise of a jet engine that was just in the wrong place. We shouldn’t be hearing it here, it’s too low, something’s just not right. No sooner did we say that to each other then we saw the first collision. In one side and remnants went right out the other with a massive explosion. Richard put his arms around me while I snapped away at a major news story unfolding in front of me. I could feel him digging in my pocket for my press credentials; he never tried to run, never begged me to put the lens cap on. Five minutes after the first plane hit, I was emailing pictures to my editor and grateful I had sprung for the wifi module on the camera instead of being a cheap bastard and not buying it.
Richard knew we were under attack. Commercial jet liners just don’t fly into a building with no visible signs of a problem; somebody had to put it there. Eighteen minutes later it happened again, and we knew there was just no way this was going to have a good ending.
We didn’t leave the scene, not for a minute. The only time Richard left me was for a minute and I promised I wouldn’t move. He came back with more memory cards because at the rate I was snapping pictures I was going to run out of space quick. I’d get 20 or 30 shots that were ready for the job and I’d wifi them out for as long as I had a connection. Richard kept the cards on him and occasionally pulled me out of the way of moving people and emergency personnel. We both occasionally stopped to help someone who needed it and kept an eye out for a place to run for cover in case the plane stikes weren’t over.
You could see from the streets that people were hanging out of holes from the buildings and thru my lens I saw the unimaginable. They weren’t trying to get further into the open air and people around me were screaming for them to stay put, don’t do it, someone will help you. Obviously nobody’s voice made it that high up and they’d made their decision.
I had nightmares about this for years. Some days, I still do.
The rest of the events are obviously well chronicled, and I don’t see a need to tell anyone a blow by blow account of my actions or Richard’s. We were dead center of the most tragic event in recent memory. I never knew where my pictures were being printed, and to this day I couldn’t begin to tell you other than looking back at the things I see online, I know which ones came out of my viewfinder.
One thing that always stuck with me was television crews and reporters trying to interview me on my reactions. I needed to keep a press pass out so that emergency personnel wouldn’t try and hustle me out of the area, and it was like a beacon to any other reporter trying to get their story filed.
I gave exactly one interview on the 9/11, and none since despite repeated requests to this day. The most evil editor I had in my career taught me a very important lesson: the minute you become the story, it’s over. You can’t file objectively, you don’t stick to the facts, and your outside-looking-in perspective is shattered for good. Stay in the fucking background, Daniel. Do you job, file the goods and stay out of the spotlight.
I had to have some mental and chronological distance from this before I’m going to sit down and tell someone, or write it all out. I have 13 full memory cards of photos from the three weeks I spent on site, as well as Richards audio recordings that have never seen the light of day.
But they will. Soon.
For me, there has to be a balanced perspective to an event and it’s telling. Too often, it’s being romanticized, politicized, or made into a movie context and that to me is a crime. When you watch 3000+ people die in the same amount of time it would take you to have a sit down lunch, that’s not a story you reshape for ratings. You tell it like it is – period.
My place in life is behind the lens. That’s my home, where I was meant to be and if given a choice, I’d return to photography first, and writing second. I like the anonymity of the shadows and hiding my face behind the body of a camera. Even though I’ve also made a healthy career out of speaking publicly in front of scores of people, I’ve never talked about this or any other event that I’ve been at of this magnitude. Other than giving some pictures I have to first responders that I know would appreciate the content, I’ve stay out of the way. My only request of them is that they never sent media in my direction if they were asked where the picture came from.
But it’s time.
Ten years will be enough time and distance to keep me out of the spotlight and still tell my story. Nobody remembers my interview, and you’d be hard-pressed to find it. And while I have a copy, I’ll never publish it. I have never even played the CD it’s on.
It’s not about me – or Richard for that matter. It’s about sticking to the facts as they occurred and keeping this from becoming an event twisted to sell movie tickets, win an election or illicit fear.
It’s about telling the truth.
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]Becoming the story: my 9/11 memories #Remember911,