Everyone old enough to remember seems to have their own 9/11 story.
As the 20th anniversary approaches, those who lived it will never forget where they were and how it impacted their lives. For me, each September approaches with a sense of dread, as the raw emotions of that day resurface – the horror, the enormous loss of life. While it is important to never forget, it is painful to remember them.
My story of September 11 began in the offices of the Bergen Record newspaper in Hackensack where I was a photographer. An editor came to me to tell me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I ran to the fourth floor window and looked over to the New York skyline in the distance. I could see a huge gaping hole in the north tower. Instinctively, I knew it was no accident. I took my gear and started driving.
Over the next few hours, as I photographed one, then two, the World Trade Center towers collapsed, my life would change in ways I could never have predicted, as with all Americans, especially. for those in New Jersey and the New York area. . Even now, 20 years later, it all seems so impossible to believe.
Just a brief moment
To me, much of 9/11 is blurry. But my photographs help sharpen the memory of my day in the midst of the deadliest terrorist attack in our country’s history, documenting the cataclysmic event first from Exchange Place in Jersey City and then at Ground Zero.
In the late afternoon, I took a photograph of three firefighters waving a flag amid the rubble of the now famous World Trade Center, appearing in newspapers and magazines around the world.
At around 4:45 p.m., firefighters and rescuers began to evacuate the Ground Zero area, as 7 World Trade Center was on the verge of collapse. I followed them a block west to a first aid area. There were hundreds of firefighters and rescuers. It looked like a wake.
Everyone was silent, their heads bowed. It was then that I saw the firefighter with the flag and a flag pole stuck at an odd angle on top of a rubble pile about 15 feet high.
I moved closer to get a better point of view and waited. Just then, center firefighter Dan McWilliams hoisted the flag on the pole. His colleagues, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein, watched. I was about 30 meters away. I pointed my zoom lens and took a burst of images as the flag rose. I ran to where they were, but by then the firefighters had come down and walked past me. It was over so quickly.
I remember recognizing the obvious similarity to the image of Joe Rosenthal of the Marines raising the flag during the WWII battle for Iwo Jima, and I was certainly aware of the symbolism that was going on before my eyes. But there was no way to predict the wider impact of the photo given the scale of everything I photographed that day. I took a few last photographs of the waving flag, with the wreckage of the Trade Center in the background. Then I hitchhiked by boat to New Jersey.
A lasting symbol
For many, the image is a symbol of strength and courage, reminding them that we Americans are united and strong. Over the years, I have received countless letters, emails, and phone calls from strangers who wanted to tell me how much this image meant to them, or how it uplifted them and gave them hope to one. moment of despair. I still get these messages, even now 20 years later, although they are much less frequent.
From its first publication in The Record, the flag-raising photo has made its way into public consciousness. It has been used in ways I never thought possible: murals, bumper stickers, candy bars, Christmas tree decorations, pumpkin carvings, tattoos, cornfield mazes, plaques, and more. It went viral before anyone knew what viral meant.
The photo also helped instill a sense of national unity and compassion for the victims and their families, which was then shown in several ways: A giant American flag hung from the stone pillars of the New York Stock Exchange for hours on end. years; Tribute in Light’s blue lights have become a New York tradition, something I photographed several times on anniversary day.
The photograph was chosen by then-President George W. Bush for a US postage stamp, which raised more than $ 10 million for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help victims of September 11 and possibly the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
It was also a great honor that President Bush invited the three firefighters and myself to the Oval Office for this announcement. He was both warm and friendly. I was so happy to be able to share this memory with my wife Annemarie who was with me and supported me throughout. A picture of us with the president hangs in our house. He even signed a note for my son, Sean.
Meeting the president was one of my fondest memories of 9/11.
Hugs and tears
For years, not a day went by without meeting someone affected by 9/11, or meeting someone who recognized me and wanted to tell me their story about 9/11. These often ended with hugs and tears. I cried a lot, as I did when I returned to Ground Zero on my first birthday. That day I descended into the pit where a wicked wind greeted thousands of crying loved ones. The emotion was so raw and vast.
I took a few pictures of an extended family wearing the same shirt. “We love you Jim” was printed on the back. I haven’t spoken to them. I just observed quietly with my camera. Later that day I learned that Jim was James Brian Reilly, a young bond trader who died on the 89th floor of the South Tower when the second plane hit. I also learned something else: He turned out to be the only 9/11 victim who graduated from my high school, Walt Whitman HS in Huntington, New York.
That the flag-raising photo has helped so many others in the aftermath of this tragedy is something that makes me really proud. As a photojournalist, what better than knowing that something you have done in the course of your work has really helped others? As journalists we always hope this notion holds true, but how often do we actually see it happening?
One of the other really beautiful things that happened in the aftermath of 9/11 was the feeling of kindness and unity that swept across the country. Many put political differences aside and it was truly as if we were united as a country as Americans spontaneously unfurled the American flag in a surge of patriotism. But our brief period of national unity has eroded and has now given way to a deep divide driven by politics and party loyalty. We can’t help but wonder what happened?