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Faces of 9/11: Photographing the Terror

Immediately after the towers were hit, a Woodmere photographer began chronicling people's responses to the devastation overhead.

This vignette was written by Seymour Levy of Woodmere.

It was approximately 8:50 a.m., on a spectacular picture perfect New York City September morning, as I ascended the steps of the Canal Street subway station in lower Manhattan. It was then that I noticed a crowd of spectators all pointing skyward...southward towards Manhattan's tip. Then I saw it. Thick black smoke and flames emanating from the top floors of one of the Twin Towers. 

"I think a plane hit the building," commented of one of the bystanders. I thought to myself, could this be possible on such a crystal clear day? My next thoughts were, how are the firemen ever going to get to reach those trapped in this inferno? As I gaped in awe, I saw it happen. Another plane smashed into the second tower, emitting a gigantic fire ball and explosion. Is this really happening? Is this some sort of special effect Hollywood production I'm seeing? A frenzy of police sirens, and fire truck horns erupted, coming from all directions racing downtown at a maddening pace.

Next I ran to my office at 100 Sixth Ave., four blocks north of the Canal Street station, where being an advertising agency art director, and photography being my avocation, I keep a camera at my desk. I grabbed the camera, raced outside my building and started documenting the devastation on film. With my telephoto lens I was able to zoom in on the flaming towers. Then the screaming directly behind me began. "They're jumping, my God, they're jumping from windows!" I turned around and began focusing my camera on the horrified expressions of the onlookers witnessing the calamity.

I was transfixed to the spot when I next saw one of the towers begin to buckle. It was as if some enormous invisible hand was pressing downward, crumbling the building with its sheer power. In mere seconds, in an awesome cloud of pulverizing smoke, suddenly there was no more World Trade Center. I was witnessing the impossible!

I was able to capture these terrible few moments on film with quick succession photos. And in the midst of this chaos, the police sirens and fire truck horns shrieked, madly heading downtown into the inferno.

A few days later, after being prompted by my daughter, I submitted my photos to the "Here is New York" and "The September 11th Photo Project" exhibits in lower Manhattan's Soho district. There, a producer from a cable network, The Learning Channel, noted some of my images and thought they would be appropriate for a TV special they were planning entitled "110 Stories."

I was contacted by an associate director of the project and was asked if I would be willing to contribute my photographs to this production and go on camera for an interview to relate the story behind the pictures I took. I complied, and was asked if I personally knew the subjects in some of the photos. I did not.

The network came up with the idea of posting the pictures on lamp posts in the vicinity of where I took them, with the message, "Is this you, or someone you know? If so, please contact The Learning Channel." The posters contained tear-off strips with a phone number to call. Several people responded and were interviewed.

A woman in one of the photos had a brother who worked in the World Trade Center and was personally terrorized by the sight of the jumpers, thinking that one might be her brother. This was one of the highly emotional moments I captured on film. It was learned later that her brother was not in the building at the time. One saving grace in a day I or no one will ever forget.

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