An American Moment

By Peter Turnley

I arrived at "ground zero" around 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 11. I had driven from Cambridge, Mass., leaving immediately upon hearing the news of the attacks. I arrived at a bridge in the Bronx, trying to cross into Manhattan. I pulled up to a police barricade that was turning all cars away and showed my NATO press pass from work in Kosovo. The police looked at the pass, shrugged their shoulders, and said hesitantly, "go ahead." I had just gotten off my cell phone with a photo editor from a prominent newspaper who was seeing a wide selection of photographs coming in. He told me he had never seen so many strong photographs coming out of a story so quickly, as there were so many good photographers at the scene immediately.

I knew from a fairly long career of covering news the feelings of being "early" or "late" on a story. This time I wasn't very concerned with either. Hearing about the great photographs already made, I felt a sense of pride and fascination at the performance of my colleagues and their contribution in bringing this incredible moment closer to others. As I crossed into Manhattan and descended the ghostlike empty streets on the east side of the city, I had a strange sense of feeling lucky just to be near by. I stopped quickly to get a soda in a store in Spanish Harlem, and I could already feel an atmosphere of a wide community of people united by a sense of events and history transforming their lives.

I parked my car several blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center on the east side of lower Manhattan, and set off on foot with my cameras hidden underneath a dark coat. It was now just dark, and seeing police stopping people at street corners, I mixed in with groups of workers, firemen, and policemen, walking toward ground zero. As I got to the site of the destruction, I saw only a few photographers or colleagues. I decided that those working earlier must have left, or that access to the area at that time was being very tightly guarded. It occurred to me that it was going to be very important to see this scene throughout the night and to be there at first light the next morning.

I discreetly made my way through a makeshift morgue and triage center for injured victims that was established in a Brooks Brother's store at 1 Liberty Plaza, and found a dark stairway leading upstairs. I went up and found an empty floor of racks of clothes all covered by two inches of dust, and in front of me was a wall of blown out windows, looking over the destruction of ground zero. I found a small office that seemed discreet enough that I wouldn't be in anyone's way or be found there. I sat down to spend the whole night until 7:00am, mostly by myself, looking out and photographing the incredible scene in front of me. I will always remember the unique and surreal feelings of solitude and intimacy I felt with this scene that long night. Around 3:00am, I began to feel very cold and walked into the Brooks Brothers display room and borrowed a cashmere overcoat covered with two inches of dust. I carefully put it back in the morning before leaving.

I had covered several major earthquakes previously, in Armenia, Iran, and in Turkey. The scene in front of me reminded me in many ways of that kind of destruction, with one important difference; at the site of those earthquakes, there had been each time a massive presence of the human toll of the destruction, dead bodies and mourners everywhere. To my surprise as I looked out at this scene I could see almost no visible remnants of the human consequences of this tragedy - only rubble and rescue workers everywhere, but no victims.

I worked almost nonstop for the next ten days. I was preoccupied more than anything with trying to document the human dimension of these events, its effects on the incredibly courageous and generous rescue workers, the faces and grief of widows, families and friends of the dead, and the collective response of the people of New York and America toward a process that seemed to have changed the course of their lives forever.

Recently, I was standing in the United Airlines ticket line at 6:30am at Boston's Logan airport, waiting to board a plane to New York (more or less the same time and place where the hijackers of two of the planes had stood only a few weeks before.) I mentioned to a woman standing next to me that this particular scene was bringing home to me a certain dimension of the Sept. 11 attacks that I had not felt before. I told her as well that I had spent several days photographing at Ground Zero and in New York. She asked me if there was one thing that I remembered most. I thought for a second, and surprised myself as I teared up a bit embarrassingly. I told her that yes, it was the memory of looking out that first night on Sept. 11, and seeing so many, mostly working class people, who had showed up so quickly to use their human energy and skills to do the right thing. I recalled being so moved to see so many workers that had come so naturally, long before anyone was publicly referring to this heroism. I spent that first night witnessing people risking their own lives to help others in unbelievably uncomfortable, dangerous conditions. I asked myself if I would have such natural reflexes, and I hoped that I would. I was so moved by this group, again mostly working class people, showing us all a lesson in tremendous humanity. I felt grateful and fortunate to be able to try to show others, with my photographs, their majestic example and selfless courage.

Enter Peter Turnley's Photo Gallery

Seeing the Horror, Part II
Peter Turnley | Bill Biggart | David Turnley
Chip East | Aris Economopoulos

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