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News & Insight

The Photojournalists who got the call on 9/11/01

By Joseph Cha on September 11th 2013

On the morning of 9/11/01, Photojournalists got a call that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Unsure of what was going on, photographers made their way downtown, pushing their way through escaping workers, on their way to photograph history.

IMG_8187 has a compilation of photojournalists sharing their experience on 9/11.

Suzanne Plunkett: I was covering Fashion Week in New York for the Associated Press. I had shot the Marc Jacobs show the night before. On the morning of September 11th I was scheduled to cover the Donna Karan maternity wear fashion show. I awoke to my pager beeping “911” which was the code from the photo desk to call in immediately. I couldn’t get through, so I turned on the television to check if there was a big local news story to cover. The first plane had hit. I scrambled to get downtown without speaking to anyone in the office.

Allen Tannenbaum: I live six blocks north of the towers. My wife and I were in our bedroom, which has a view of the Twin Towers, or did. We heard the roar of a jet, as loud as if you were standing on the tarmac of an airport. We were holding each other and I said, “He’s too low. He’s too low.” We looked out the window and we saw the explosion on the World Trade Center north tower. My wife started to cry right away, “It’s terrorism, it’s terrorism.” I got dressed so fast I even forgot to put on socks. I ran out with my sneakers and started taking pictures around the corner from here, where you could see the gash in the building, and the smoke and the flames of the Trade Center, the tower. It was unreal.


Mario Tama: I’d wanted to move to New York for years. I would come up to Getty every six months and show my book and bug them. Two months before 9/11 someone fell for it. I started on July 2nd, 2001. Jim Lowney, one of our editors at Getty, called me: “Yo, a plane hit the World Trade Center.” I’m just thinking it’s a Cessna. I’m getting my gear together and getting ready to go down there, when another of our editors, Mish Whalen, calls. She was getting out of her cab by the office and saw the plane go into the building. She was frantic, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!” I’m still thinking Cessna. Then it rang one more time. Jim again. This is a hard-edged, hard-nosed, seen-it-all kind of guy and he’s freaking out. “It was a 767. Get down here.”

David Handschuh: I was working for the Daily News. I was sitting in traffic on the West Side Highway when my police and fire radio started yelling about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I looked up and could see the smoke. A fire department company came down behind me, driving the wrong way, southbound in the northbound lane. I drove over the center divider and followed them down. I’d been covering the fire service for more than twenty years in New York City, so I knew some of the guys in the truck. They were waving out the back door to me. They didn’t know they were going to their own funeral.


Mario Tama: I grabbed what Getty had issued to us, which I think back then were D30s or something, one of the original Canon D bodies. So it was two bodies and one was a 70-200mm and the wide was a Sigma 14mm, I think. That was my kit. I threw my laptop in my backpack and I remember trying to grab extra batteries and all the disks that I had. Back then we were shooting 256MB disks or something, which would just be absurd now. It would hold like five pictures today. I got my gear and ran out of my apartment, around to the corner, right at Chrystie and Delancey, and I remember at that point I could finally see the Twin Towers. I just saw this huge gaping hole in the north tower, really jagged and massive. I remember thinking—I’ll never forget this—I just remember thinking, This is war. I had never seen war, but you know it when you see it.

David Handschuh: When only one plane had hit the World Trade Center, I was going to the site of an airplane crash and this horrible fire burning sixty, seventy floors up. There was no doubt in my mind that the firefighters, paramedics and police officers would put out the fire, rescue people, and everything would be okay. I was standing in front of the south tower when it got hit by the second plane and realized that what happened was very intentional, not accidental.

IMG_8227 has a 4 part series on the 9/11 photographer stories.


I’m a photographer and cinematographer based in Southern California. When I don’t have a camera in my face I enjoy going to the movies and dissecting the story telling and visual aesthetics.

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  1. Joseph Prusa

    Good article.

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