Allan Tannenbaum

by Peter Howe

Alan Tannenbaum’s 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. It’s 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 Alan’s 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.

His 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 plane’s 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 hadn’t 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 I’m getting out of here. She came running out and she was hysterical. She’d 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 can’t 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 didn’t 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.

“It was a scene that I’d never seen in my life. It was unimaginable. I’ve been to a lot of places where there’s 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 what’s next? What’s going to happen now? At that point I was ready for anything and it just didn’t seem like it was going to stop.”

There 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 hadn’t 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. It’s a terrible shame that he lost his life in this attack. It’s a bit ironic because I’m 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.

“I also had this kind feeling of strangeness just the kind of attitude in New York, people’s 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 what’s happened to our skyline, besides what’s 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 what’s important now. I found that the day after the neighbors were really friendly, embracing one another. Of course it can’t be said enough how the fire department and the police department, the EMTs and Paramedics worked. They’re the real heroes, that can’t 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 Debora’s apartment there now is a smoldering mass grave, and the anger and pain is present in Tannenbaum’s voice as he sums up his feelings about the missing landmarks:

“I wouldn’t 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. They’re gone. There’s 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 Howe

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