Everyone old enough to remember seems to have their own 9/11 story.
As we approach the 20th anniversary, those who lived through it will never forget where they were or 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 tremendous loss of life. While it is important we never forget, it’s painful to remember.
My 9/11 story began in the offices of the Bergen Record newspaper in Hackensack where I was a staff photographer. An editor came up to me with news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I ran over to the window on the fourth floor and looked toward the New York City skyline in the distance. I could see a huge, gaping hole in the North Tower. Instinctively, I knew that was no accident. I grabbed my gear and started driving.
Over the next several hours as I photographed one, then two, World Trade Center towers collapse, my life would change in ways I never could have predicted, as it would for all Americans, especially for those here in the New Jersey and New York area. Even now 20 years later, it all seems so impossible to believe.
Just a brief moment
For me, much of 9/11 is a blur. But my photographs help sharpen the memory of my day in the midst of the deadliest terror attack in our country’s history, documenting the cataclysmic event first from Exchange Place in Jersey City, then at Ground Zero.
Late that afternoon, I made the photograph of three firefighters raising a flag amid the rubble of the World Trade Center that became famous, appearing in newspapers and magazines around the world.
Around 4:45 p.m., the firefighters and rescue workers began evacuating the Ground Zero area, as 7 World Trade Center was about to collapse. I followed them a block west to a first-aid area. There were hundreds of firefighters and rescue personnel there. It looked like a wake.
Everyone was quiet, with their heads down. That’s when I saw the firefighter with the flag, and a flagpole wedged at an odd angle atop a pile of rubble about 15 feet high.
I moved closer to get a better vantage point, and I waited. Just then the firefighter in the center, Dan McWilliams, hoisted the flag up the pole. His colleagues, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein, looked on. I was about 30 yards away. I pointed my zoom lens and shot a burst of frames as the flag went up. I ran over to where they were, but by then the firefighters had climbed down and walked past me. It was over that quickly.
I do recall recognizing the obvious similarity to Joe Rosenthal’s image of Marines raising the flag during the World War II battle for Iwo Jima, and I certainly was aware of the symbolism happening before my eyes. But there was no way to predict the photo’s broader impact considering the magnitude of everything I photographed that day. I made a few last photographs of the flag flying, with the Trade Center wreckage in the background. Then I hitched a boat ride back to New Jersey.
An enduring symbol
For many, the image is a symbol of strength and courage, reminding them that we as Americans were united and strong. Over the years, I have received countless letters, emails, and phone calls from strangers wanting to tell me how much this image meant to them, or how it lifted them and gave them hope at a time of despair. I still receive these messages, even now 20 years later, although they are much less frequent.
From the moment it was first published in The Record, the flag-raising photo has made its way into the public consciousness. It has been used in ways I never thought possible: murals, bumper stickers, candy bars, Christmas tree ornaments, pumpkin carvings, tattoos, cornfield mazes, plaques, on and on. It went viral before anyone knew what viral meant.
The picture also helped spark a sense of national unity and compassion for the victims and their families that was later shown in many ways: A giant American flag hung from the stone pillars of the New York Stock exchange for years; the blue lights from Tribute in Light have become a New York tradition, something I have photographed several times on the anniversary.
The photograph was chosen by then President George W. Bush for a U.S. postage stamp, which was used to raise over $10 million for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help victims of 9/11 and eventually victims of Hurricane Katrina.
It was also a great honor that President Bush invited the three firefighters and me to the Oval Office for this announcement. He was both gracious and warm. I was so happy I could share that memory with my wife Annemarie who was with me, and supported me throughout. A photo of us with the president hangs in our home. He even signed a note for my son, Sean.
Meeting the president was one of my fondest memories related to 9/11.
Hugs and tears
For years, not a day would go by without meeting someone affected by 9/11, or meeting someone who recognized me and wanted to tell me their 9/11 story. These often ended in hugs and tears. I cried a lot, as I did when I returned to Ground Zero on the first anniversary. That day, I made my way down into the pit where a wicked wind greeted thousands of weeping loved ones. The emotion was so raw and vast.
I made some photos of an extended family wearing the same shirt. “We love you Jim,” was printed on the back. I didn’t talk to them. I just quietly observed 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 struck. I also learned something else: It turns out he was the only victim of the 9/11 attacks who graduated from my high school, Walt Whitman HS in Huntington, New York.
The fact that the flag-raising photo has helped so many others in the wake of this tragedy is something that makes me really proud. As a photojournalist, what could be greater than to know that something you did while doing your job has actually helped others? As journalists, we always hope this notion to be true, but how often do we actually see it happen?
One of the other truly beautiful things that happened in the wake of 9/11 was the feeling of kindness and unity that pervaded in country. Many set aside political differences and it really felt like we stood united as a country, as Americans spontaneously displayed the U.S. flag in a surge of patriotism. But our brief period of national unity eroded and now has given way to deep division driven by politics and party loyalty. One can’t help but wonder, what happened?