Tannenbaums wife Debora knew that it was a terrorist attack
the minute that the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade
Center. From their Tribeca apartment six blocks north of the Twin
Towers they heard it come in, too low, too fast and too direct, and
got to the window in time to see the fireball produced by its impact.
Whereas most people assumed that the initial collision was an accident,
Tannenbaum and his wife had been there before. He had covered the
devastation caused by the car bombing in 1993, and had gained a Time
cover with his exclusive picture of the wreckage of the parking garage
in the basement of the building.
Ever since the original attack we expected that somebody would
try it again. Its an obvious target. The original intention
of the first bombing was to bring the towers down and we just wondered
when it would happen and if the tower would actually tip over and
fall on our building when it did.
The night before the Tannenbaums had a wonderful Manhattan evening.
One of Alans pictures was up for sale at a benefit auction at
Christies, an event that they had enjoyed, and this was followed by
the beautiful, bright clear morning of September 11th. So the first
thing that struck Alan as he ran out into the streets with his cameras
was the shock of this attack and its violent contrast to the beauty
of the day and his own high spirits.
second concern was how he would cover the situation. He was north
of the buildings, and after getting some initial shots of the burning
tower with its clear outline of the planes impact, he realized
that he had to get as close as possible. He went over to West Broadway
and made his way downtown. He was two blocks north of 1 World Trade
Center when the second plane crashed into number 2. He raised his
camera to make a some pictures when he realized that he was in danger
of being hit by falling debris, and ducked behind a building. All
around him people who hadnt taken cover were injured. He photographed
them and moved on to get to the plaza that is in the middle of the
complex. Then something extraordinary happened:
Amazingly my sister came out of one of the buildings. She worked
in the South Tower. She had called my home when she heard the first
impact, and asked what was going on and my wife said a plane crashed
into the tower, and she said Im getting out of here. She came
running out and she was hysterical. Shed come down ninety-two
floors in the second tower before the impact.
He continued to work the situation, moving further north as the police
warned of the danger, and remembering his experiences of flying glass
and falling debris from the bombing eight years before. And then:
I cant remember whether I saw it happening but I know
I heard it happening, the first tower, actually the South Tower, started
to come down. This was a terrifying noise, and I was really worried
that part of it was going to fall on me, so I put my back to the façade
of a big office building on Broadway, and then, like an end-of-the-world
movie, giant billows of black smoke came shooting out of the side
streets. I started to run but I was enveloped in this cloud of ash.
My mouth and nose filled with ash, and there was this black whirlwind.
I stopped running because I didnt want to bump into something
or fall down. I put my bandana over my nose and mouth so that I could
try to breath, and
prayed. It seemed like the end of the world.
I said to myself this is how the world ends. It was just unbelievable,
and then it became deathly quiet and pitch black.
Eventually the cloud cleared, leaving Tannenbaum alive but covered
with ash. He rinsed his mouth out with iced tea and went back to work.
He returned to the plaza area.
was a scene that Id never seen in my life. It was unimaginable.
Ive been to a lot of places where theres been conflict
and war and seen a lot of destruction, but I was not prepared for
this, especially something so familiar. As I walked down Church Street
as the smoke was lifting there I saw the segments that everybody recognizes
just jaggedly sticking out of the ground, the smaller World Trade
Center buildings kind of tilted and black with their windows blown
out, steel beams in the street, layers of ash and papers, ambulances
on fire. It was like the end of the world
Once again the police were warning of imminent danger, and once again
Tannenbaum was smart enough to pay attention to them. Sure enough
as he looked back the second tower fell. He took cover in the basement
of a Duane Reade pharmacy, which was already serving as a refuge for
police and firefighters. Here he managed to get paper towel to clean
himself and his cameras, and most importantly eyewash to counteract
the dust and ash that had affected his vision. His most important
job during this intermission was to call Debora and reassure her of
his safety. She had been watching the collapse of the buildings from
the roof of their building and was convinced that he was dead.
As the second black cloud dissipated he returned to work. Although
he covered the first bombing there were significant differences between
the events of 1993 and now.
After the initial explosion in the first attack things got calm.
I actually got my better pictures later in the day in that I was able
to get myself into the parking garage where the attack took place
get the bomb squad looking around in there. Here my better pictures
were early on. I think my best pictures were after the first tower
collapsed. On a personal level the magnitude of this event is still
shocking and something that will never go away. I relive the sequence
of events, having experienced it over and over again. The sound of
that jet coming in knowing that there was going to be a crash, seeing
the fireball, and the other thing is the way the events escalated.
With the first bombing there was the bombing and the destruction and
everything that ensued. The thing that gets me about this was the
way events snowballed. First of all one plane hitting the World Trade
Center was mind blowing in itself; a second plane hitting is just
incredible, and then the two towers coming down, really you just wondered
after that whats next? Whats going to happen now? At that
point I was ready for anything and it just didnt seem like it
was going to stop.
was one photojournalist, Bill Biggart, who also called his wife to
reassure her of his safety, but was never to see her again. He was
killed in the collapse of one of the towers. Tannenbaum had met him
first in the Middle East.
I hadnt know him in New York. I covered the original Intafada
in the eighties; I think it was in the early stages of the story,
maybe 1988 that I met Bill in the West Bank. He was a really nice
guy and he was brave. I remember one incident where at that time he
had a big beard, so the Palestinians in one town thought that he was
Jewish and he received a lot of hostility from them. He realized that
this was a mistake and the next day when I saw him in the location
he was clean-shaven. He was hard working and he was dedicated and
he was a humanist. Of course I would see him covering stories in New
York City quite often after that. Its a terrible shame that
he lost his life in this attack. Its a bit ironic because Im
sure he sympathized with the Arab cause to a large degree, and there
he is killed in an attack made by Arab terrorists.
That the attack has changed the skyline of New York is obvious, but
there have also been other changes to the spirit of the city as well.
Tannenbaum had been distressed by the materialism of the nineties
and the values that accompanied it.
also had this kind feeling of strangeness just the kind of attitude
in New York, peoples values, the materialism and the one-upmanship,
the kind of mentality that to me was epitomized by the Lizzie Grubman
Hamptons story, and it was what New York had become, and everything
has changed now. Besides whats happened to our skyline, besides
whats happened to all those thousands of people I think that
this has been a big wake-up call not only for New York but for America,
and that peoples heads are changed a hundred and eighty degrees. People
are starting to realize whats important now. I found that the
day after the neighbors were really friendly, embracing one another.
Of course it cant be said enough how the fire department and
the police department, the EMTs and Paramedics worked. Theyre
the real heroes, that cant be said enough, and the feeling of
solidarity that New Yorkers have. I have a really good feeling that
New York is a part of America again.
But if New York is a part of America again, and America is a part
of the world, it is a damaged America and a very damaged New York.
Where once the Twin Towers stood six blocks from Allan and Deboras
apartment there now is a smoldering mass grave, and the anger and
pain is present in Tannenbaums voice as he sums up his feelings
about the missing landmarks:
I wouldnt say those buildings were the most beautiful
buildings in the world, but they were magnificent buildings and added
to the magnificence and awesome power of New York City. Theyre
gone. Theres a void there now. We had this view of the towers.
They provided illumination at night. Sometimes they looked magical
when there would be clouds swirling around them, and I feel very angry
that this void has been created in our city and the amount of damage
that has been done to our wonderful city.
© 2001 Peter