People look at some news photos shot on Sept. 11, 2001, and wonder how those who took them could bear to keep working in the face of such tragedy.
Richard Drew said his lens acts as a filter: “The things are happening over there, on the other side.”
Another Associated Press photographer, the late Marty Lederhandler, put it this way: “I let the camera absorb all the disaster or the sadness of an event. It protects ME from the event.”
For AP photographers working on Sept. 11, none knew the big picture of what was going on. All knew only what was happening right before their eyes, that it was part of something huge, and that it was their job to record it.
Five whose images of that day became iconic discussed how the photos came about, how endless hours of shooting sporting events, news conferences and everything in between helped prepare them for moments no one could ever have anticipated, and how their lenses helped shield them from the fears — and tears — that would come later.
After 65 years with the AP, Marty Lederhandler had pretty much seen and done it all.
In 1937, a year after joining the wire service, he’d helped cover the Hindenburg disaster. Seven years later, Lt. Lederhandler waded ashore at Utah Beach on D-Day, two carrier pigeons stowed safely in his bag to wing his undeveloped film back across the English Channel.
On Sept. 11, Lederhandler knew the real story was downtown. But he also knew that his 84-year-old legs wouldn’t carry him that far.
He’d covered plenty of fires and explosions. When he couldn’t get to the scene, he’d talk his way into someone’s apartment and onto the fire escape — anything to get the angle. “You go behind. You go in back. You go up high,” he said in a 2006 interview.
Up high! He grabbed his camera and some long lenses, and headed across Rockefeller Plaza, where AP was then based, to the GE Building — now better known as 30 Rock.
Lederhandler took the elevator to the 65th floor: the Rainbow Room. Except for waiters setting tables, the place was empty. He marched up to the big window, which offered stunning views of the Empire State Building and the burning Twin Towers beyond, and began shooting.
After about a half hour, the order came to evacuate. “They didn’t know what building was going to be hit next,” he recalled.
The frame chosen from his many exposures was shot tight enough to show the massive heft of the towers, the city’s tallest skyscrapers, but wide enough to firmly place them in the crowded Manhattan skyline. Of course, Lederhandler had no way of knowing that, by day’s end, the Empire State Building would once more dominate that skyline.
He spent the rest of the day helping edit images brought in by freelancers and ordinary citizens.
“The only other story that compares to this is D-Day,” he said.
Lederhandler retired three months later. He died last year at 92.
For Richard Drew, the second week in September always meant just one thing: Fall Fashion Week.
After 23 years in the business, he still looked forward to the twice-yearly fashion show as part of the “diversity of my job” as a New York-based AP photographer. Drew, who shared in the 1993 Pulitzer Prize, had long since learned there was no such thing as a routine assignment.
As a 21-year-old rookie shooter for the Pasadena Independent-Star News, Drew was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, where Robert Kennedy, fresh from winning the California Democratic presidential primary, was shot. Drew was one of only four photographers to capture Kennedy’s last moments.
On Sept. 11, Drew was perched on a riser at the end of the runway, waiting for the fashion show to begin, when his cell phone rang.
“A plane’s hit the World Trade Center,” photo editor Barbara Woike said.
Drew rushed to the subway and took the No. 2 train to Chambers Street. Emerging from underground, he could see smoke now billowing from both towers. He took up a position near a line of ambulances to wait for casualties when suddenly a paramedic shouted, “Look! There’s people coming out of the World Trade Center.”
But she wasn’t pointing down the street. She was pointing up.
“I just sort of clicked into automatic pilot,” Drew recalled, “and started taking pictures of the people falling out of the building.”
There is a cruel mechanics to capturing such tragedy, and the camera became his filter. The bodies tumbling from the towers were moving very fast, and he worked to keep them in focus.
When he downloaded his images, one stood out: A man in black pants and a white jacket, one leg bent as he plummeted headfirst. It would become known simply as “The Falling Man.”
To Drew, it was not a violent image, despite the inherent horror. It was “a very quiet, peaceful moment.”
The photo would launch a quest to discover the doomed man’s identity — and a public debate about whether such intimate moments should be off-limits. Of all the images from that day, it is one of the least often republished.
Drew thinks he knows why: “I think people react to it, because they can relate to that it might be them.”
Sept. 11 started out for photographer Doug Mills like most days covering President George W. Bush on the road. Wake up before dawn, and go for a run. This day, it was at a golf course in Sarasota, Fla. Then back to the hotel for a quick shower and off to the day’s first event — a visit with kids at Emma E. Booker Elementary School.
The motorcade was en route when Mills overheard snatches of a deputy press secretary’s cell phone conversation. By the time they reached the school, they knew that a plane — no idea how big — had hit a New York building — no idea which one.
Mills and the other journalists were herded to the back of the classroom. Mills began shooting wide, to capture the president and the children arrayed in front of him.
About five minutes into the event, the classroom door opened, and White House chief of staff Andy Card stepped inside. Mills’ antennae immediately went up: Card almost never attended events like this.
Making eye contact, Mills mouthed, “What’s going on?”
Card merely held up two fingers.
“We had NO idea at the time what that meant,” says Mills. “So, like, ‘Two minutes, we’re leaving?’ … Or, ‘I’m going to talk to him in two minutes.’ …”
Mills sensed that Card was waiting for the right moment to go up to the president. He quickly switched to a longer lens, and prepared to zoom in tight on Bush.
After a few moments, Card walked to the front of the room, leaned in and whispered something into Bush’s right ear. The president’s face went blank.
Soon afterward, as the motorcade raced to the airport, Mills edited and sent his images. The classroom event was not televised live, so the AP photo desk grilled Mills about the president’s reaction — his words, his facial expressions. When they asked what Card was telling Bush, for the caption, Mills could only say that it was about the planes hitting the twin towers.
“Great job, kid,” he remembers AP Washington photo editor Bob Dougherty telling him.
It was only after they boarded Air Force One and began watching CNN that the full import of that morning’s event came into focus. A classroom visit that had started out as a routine “photo-op” was now a moment in history.
“If the attacks had happened while we were at the White House,” Mills says, “we would have not been there when Andy Card walked into the Oval Office and told the president.”
Later, Mills asked Card what exactly he’d whispered into Bush’s ear.
“Mr. President,” Card said, “a second aircraft has hit the World Trade Center. America’s under attack.”
“When I hear those words,” says Mills, who went to work for the New York Times in 2002, “and when I even say them myself, I get chills.”
Ohio-based AP national photographer Amy Sancetta was in New York City to cover her tenth the U.S. Open tennis tournament. She’d spent the week breaking in a pair of brand-new, super-fast Nikon D1H cameras, and was looking forward to some free time.
Sancetta was kneeling on her hotel room floor, stowing her new cameras, when her phone rang. The desk had a report that a plane might have hit one of the World Trade Center towers and asked her to head there.
Her first thought was, “Oh, great. Some guy has driven his little twin-engine plane into the Trade Center, and it’s going to take up my whole day off in the city.”
She caught a cab and rode down Broadway until a police barricade stopped her from going farther. By then, the second tower was already smoking. The buildings must be packed, she thought. She got out her 80-200 mm zoom lens and began scanning the rows of windows of the South Tower for faces.
Suddenly, she heard a thunderous rumbling. She watched through her lens as the tower’s top “kind of cracked and started to fall in on itself.”
She could squeeze off only about a half-dozen frames before the tower disappeared. With her subject gone, Sancetta’s sports shooter instincts kicked in. When covering a basketball game, it’s long lens for the far court, short lens for the near court. She whipped out her other camera with its 14 mm, wide-angle lens and began firing away.
People were rushing past, buffeting her as they ran pell-mell from the rising debris cloud. As the camera whirred and clicked, her mind raced. “I hope my straight ups and downs are straight up and down.”
The D1H had a 40-frame buffer, after which the camera would freeze so it could reacquire the images. As she waited, Sancetta suddenly realized that the debris cloud was about to overtake her, and she turned to run. Hurtling down the street, her thought was, “Jeez! If I get hit by that cloud, it’s going to ruin my beautiful new cameras.”
She ran about half a block, then turned into a parking garage — just as the cloud whooshed past.
When she finally emerged, she stepped into what looked like a “winter wonderland of debris.” She began picking her way back toward the Trade Center, shooting as she went. When she heard a second rumble, she lowered her camera and ran.
At last, she reached the office and was able to see what she had: the beginning of the South Tower’s end.
And her straight ups and downs were straight up and down.
Gulnara Samoilova’s shift in the AP photo library didn’t start until noon, and she normally slept late. But this day the wail of sirens woke her.
“It just went on and on and on,” recalls Samoilova, a native of the Russian Republic of Bashkortostan.
She turned on the TV and was watching at 9:03, when the second plane struck.
Samoilova’s apartment was just four blocks from the World Trade Center. She grabbed her camera and a handful of film, and headed into the street.
Entering the south tower, she quickly decided the scene was too chaotic to shoot, and retreated.
Back outside, she was standing right beneath the south tower, its smoking bulk filling her 85 mm lens. She saw the tower begin to crumble and got off one more shot before someone nearby screamed, “RUN!”
The force of the collapse “was like a mini-earthquake,” knocking her off her feet. People began trampling her.
“I was afraid I would die right there,” the 46-year-old photographer says. She got up just as the cloud was about to envelop her. She dove behind a car and crouched.
Like “a strong wind,” the storm of debris rocked the car, filling her eyes, mouth, nose and ears.
“It was very dark and silent,” she says. “I thought I was buried alive.”
Suddenly, she could hear the fluttering of thousands of pieces of paper. Her sight returned. She had survived.
She changed film and lenses, and as she looked down Fulton Street, other survivors began limping out of the mist. She stepped out from behind the car and began shooting.
In the most powerful image from that sequence, a line of about a dozen people fills the frame. One man holds a jacket over his mouth, while the woman next to him tries to brush debris out of her hair.
“I love that photo,” Samoilova says. “To me, it looks like a sculpture. Like, frozen.”
She was shooting in black and white. People have asked her if she wishes that photo had been in color.
“It wouldn’t matter even,” she replies. “They were all covered in dust — the gray dust.”
When it was over, Samoilova went back to work in the library. Often after Sept. 11, her job involved going through AP’s photos from that day.
“I was crying almost daily.”
Eventually, it became too much. Samoilova left the AP in 2003.
Now, she runs her own photo studio, focusing mostly on documentary-style wedding shoots.
“I love weddings,” she says. “I get to be part of the happiest days of people’s lives.”
AP’s David Martin and Samantha Gross in New York, and Meghan Barr in Cleveland contributed to this story.