By Kyle Almond, CNN
Published September 10, 2021
After the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Kelly Guenther grabbed her camera gear and ran to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade that overlooks the New York Harbor and the skyline of Lower Manhattan.
Then she saw the second plane coming.
It was on her left, flying over the Statue of Liberty and heading right for Manhattan. A sense of dread washed over her.
“I knew what was going to happen: I was going to witness hundreds of people die,” she recalled nearly 20 years later. “I remember thinking, ‘No, no, no!’ Then I took a breath and told myself, ‘Do your job.’ I put the camera to my face, framed the skyline wide in my viewfinder, and I waited for the plane to come into my frame on the left.”
Her photo, seen above, ran on the front pages of newspapers all over the world the next day. Some cropped the photo or used a sequence of two or three images, showing the plane exploding into the South Tower.
“But to me,” she said, “it is the full frame image that tells the story: the perfect blue sky, the classic NYC skyline and a black plane, frozen in time, a second before the world changed.”
These are some of the photos that have come to define that tragic day in 2001, when nearly 3,000 people were killed in terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Editor’s note: This gallery contains graphic images. Viewer discretion is advised.
People run as one of the towers of the World Trade Center collapses in New York City. Suzanne Plunkett was on the scene taking photos for the Associated Press.
“I was only out of the subway a few minutes, trying to negotiate police barriers, when someone shouted ‘The towers are coming down!’ ” she recalled. “Initially I ran, but my photojournalism training kicked in and I turned around to capture this photo.”
Plunkett felt like she was on autopilot as chaos unfolded all around her.
“I remember feeling completely bewildered by what was happening and desperately trying to make sense of it so that I could continue working. … Even though I was in shock, I kept going, knowing that what had just happened needed to be documented.”
Weeks after 9/11, she was sent to Afghanistan to document what the country was like after the fall of the Taliban.
“Those were hopeful days,” she said. “Girls were going to school for the first time. Women were learning to drive. I’m devastated at what has happened in Afghanistan now, and can’t help but feel that people there have been abandoned by the US and its allies.”
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispers into the ear of US President George W. Bush as Bush was visiting an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida, on the morning of September 11.
“America is under attack,” he said.
Bush had already known about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, Card wrote in 2002. In this photo, taken by Paul J. Richards, he was learning about the second.
“I tried to be succinct in what I told him so that he understood the enormity of the problem,” Card wrote. “He looked up — it was only a matter of seconds, but it seemed like minutes — and I thought that he was outstanding in his ability not to scare either the American people that were paying attention to the cameras or, more importantly, the students that were in the classroom.”
The President excused himself a few minutes later and left the classroom.
A man falls from one of the towers of the World Trade Center. The publication of this photo, taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, was not received well by everyone.
“People have a reaction to this,” Drew said. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, I don’t want to look at that.’ ”
He believes some people react negatively “because they can see themselves in that similar predicament.” It’s thought that upwards of 200 people either fell or jumped to their deaths after the planes hit the towers.
We will never know whether this man jumped or fell. His identity has never been officially confirmed.
Drew saw other bodies land, too.
“I was photographing the building, and an EMT said ‘Oh my gosh, look at that,’ and then we started seeing people coming down,” he said. “And I just instinctively started photographing them as they were falling.”
Women react as they witness the collapse of the World Trade Center’s South Tower, about a half-mile away on Canal Street.
Ángel Franco was covering a politician for The New York Times when the attacks started that morning. He rushed to the scene and parked a few blocks away from the site, where people were watching from afar.
During his career, Franco said, he always looked to photograph history through the eyes of people of color.
“These two ladies were frozen in time, and you could see stuff in the reflection of their glasses,” he said. After the moment had passed, Franco went back to get their names. But they were gone.
He remembers how beautiful the morning was just before tragedy struck.
“It was all about the light that day,” he said. “There was a certain amount of warmth to the light. There was this golden feeling. It was really peaceful. And then it got shattered.”
People carry the Rev. Mychal F. Judge, the chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, after he was fatally struck by falling debris at the World Trade Center. Judge had just administered last rites to a firefighter at the site.
“I will never forget the surreal moment of sunlight that was making its way through all the destruction and chaos on that clear September day. That is when I saw the men carrying Father Judge in a chair,” Reuters photographer Shannon Stapleton said. “I could tell that he had been killed, but it profoundly struck me that all these men from various agencies were doing their best to preserve his body. I had no idea who he was.
“After making these photos, I looked down at the small display screen and knew at that point I had made a picture that needed to be seen by the rest of the world.”
After about three or four days of nonstop work, Stapleton received a letter from Judge’s sister and niece.
“It was a letter thanking me for risking my life and that with that photo the world would learn how incredible a man he was,” Stapleton recalled. “That letter was something as a photojournalist that comes as a gut punch, but makes you really value the job we do.”
The World Trade Center’s South Tower bursts into flames after being hit by United Airlines Flight 175.
Sara K. Schwittek took this photo from the window of her office, across the East River in Brooklyn.
“My staff and I were watching in bewilderment at the first tower that was engulfed in smoke,” she said. “We conjectured about the cause: Small airplane? Unfortunate accident? As soon as the second tower was hit, the clarity of the situation became enormously clear, and fear struck in a way I will never forget.”
In the year after she took this photo, she received thousands of emails from people all over the world.
“These strangers told me about their first trip to New York City, or when they took their child up to the observation deck of the Twin Towers, or, with regret, how they wished they had done it while they could,” she said. “I don’t know why these strangers shared their personal stories with me — a total stranger — other than they felt the very human need to connect and share their story, their memories, their grief, their loss.”
Marcy Borders stands covered in dust as she takes refuge in a New York City office building after one of the towers collapsed.
“I had been in Lower Manhattan for about a half hour covering the attack,” photographer Stan Honda said. “I continued to photograph, but the smoke blocked out the sun and it became like night. I was near an office building, and a police officer was pulling people in to get them out of danger. I went in, and there was a small lobby where a few people were gathered, as confused as I was about what was happening.”
A minute later, Honda saw Borders and snapped a photo. She was 28 at the time, working as a legal assistant at Bank of America in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“It’s hard to tell what color her dress or boots are. There is obviously lots of dust in the air,” he said. “The yellow color is from the digital camera being set for daylight or outside light; the indoor light comes across as yellow. In the rush to get out the photos later that day, I didn’t ‘correct’ the color. The color adds to the photo. It has an ominous feeling to it.”
Honda met Borders a year later at her Bayonne, New Jersey, apartment and was relieved she was OK. But she died of stomach cancer in 2015. She was 42 years old.
“How do you go from being healthy to waking up the next day with cancer?” she said in an interview with the Jersey Journal before her death. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Did (the towers’ collapse) ignite cancer cells in me?’”
Thousands of survivors and first responders have been diagnosed with cancers resulting from the terrorist attack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reports from the CDC found that the collapse of the towers exposed workers and the general public to a number of known chemical carcinogens.
First responders assist people in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center’s collapse.
“As I made my way downtown to the area where this picture was taken, on Church Street near the intersection with Dey Street, it was difficult to make sense of what was going on,” photographer Justin Lane said. “The city blocks were unrecognizable with dust and smoke.
“It was clear a tremendous number of people had died, and it was clear that the level of tragedy was enormous. And it was scary to see so many first responders in the midst of reconciling with the overwhelming nature of the situation. I’ve always felt that this picture captures a small moment of that feeling.”
One of the towers of the World Trade Center collapses on September 11.
This photo was taken by Chang W. Lee for The New York Times.
“The night before, I was driving home from a fishing trip in New Jersey with my wife when we approached the Holland Tunnel and saw a beautiful sunset over the World Trade Center after a thunderstorm,” he recalled. “ ‘Look how beautiful the World Trade Center is!’ I told her. ‘I am so glad we are living in the safest place in the world. There will be no earthquakes, there will be no floods, and there will be no threat of missiles here.’ ”
It was an ironic twist for Lee, who grew up in South Korea in the 1970s.
“The sense of security was a very important issue for my family,” he said. “The very next morning, al Qaeda proved me wrong. September 11 forever changed the way we live.”
A New York City firefighter calls for 10 more rescue workers to help as he works in the rubble of the World Trade Center on September 14, 2001.
“The place felt like a bad dream or a movie set,” photographer Preston Keres said. “It was just a pile of dust, papers and giant steel beams all still smoldering. Hundreds of firefighters and other rescue workers were peppered across the debris with fire hoses and buckets in hand, clearing out caverns looking for survivors.”
Keres was a Navy photojournalist at the time, and he said he was able to get closer and take pictures because he was in uniform.
“This seemed to be the scene everywhere,” he said. “Wherever you looked, there were groups of first responders working different areas of the debris, looking for whoever they could find.”
New York City police officer Richard Adamiak, foreground, is among several people taking refuge in a deli near the World Trade Center after the towers collapsed.
“It was a surreal scene where firefighters, police and a few civilians stumbled around, catching their breath, spitting out mouthfuls of mud,” photographer Ruth Fremson said. “They were lit only by the eerily glowing light of the display case holding cold cuts and cheeses for that day’s sandwiches.”
The deli’s entrance is seen in the background.
“One should have seen brilliant sunshine streaming in on that beautiful September morning,” Fremson said. “Instead, the neighborhood was engulfed in darkness.”
People walk across the Brooklyn Bridge as they flee Lower Manhattan on September 11.
Daniel Shanken remembers the moment when the first tower collapsed.
“Time stood still as the crowd turned their attention back towards Lower Manhattan and witnessed (the collapse) in disbelief and horror,” the photographer said. “After the building collapsed, the crowd urgently resumed the evacuation with an escalated sense of alarm. Lower Manhattan disappeared from view in a cloud of dark smoke.”
Shanken was drawn to the scene because of its irony: a welcome sign during an evacuation. But it has become much more to him.
“To me, this image represents a moment when our country, in the aftermath of an attack on our soil, literally came through the darkness to find a renewed sense of common ground and patriotism,” he said.
People make their way through smoke, dust and debris on New York’s Fulton Street, about a block from the collapsed towers on September 11.
Gulnara Samoilova, the photographer who took this photo for the Associated Press, was covered in dust just like them, and she remembers being in a state of shock, trying to get her bearings.
When the South Tower started to collapse, she ran behind the parked car on the left side of this photo.
“The ground rumbled, and I felt the car shaking,” she said. “The perfectly blue sky went pitch black as a humongous cloud of thick dust blasted through the streets. It was full of heavy, sharp sediment. It felt like being in the middle of hurricane. Then everything went silent.
“I started choking and couldn’t breathe. I had dust in my eyes, nose and mouth. I pulled up my T-shirt to cover my face. For a moment, I thought we were buried alive. Then I saw car lights blinking and realized where I was.”
This photo of Jenna Piccirillo and her young son, Vaughan, was among the first photos taken on September 11 by Alex Webb. He and his wife, photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, were about to leave Brooklyn to head into Manhattan and document the scene of the attack.
“As we exited our car in Brooklyn Heights en route to Lower Manhattan, a woman came out of a building and asked if we wanted to see what Manhattan looked like from her roof,” he recalled.
The Webbs have stayed in touch with Piccirillo and her son over the years.
“I’m not sure I would have taken this photograph of a mother and child — with its note of hope and looming tragedy — if Rebecca hadn’t been with me that day,” Webb said.
Firefighters George Johnson, Dan McWilliams and Billy Eisengrein raise an American flag at the site of the World Trade Center on September 11. Some have compared it to the iconic flag-raising at Iwo Jima, and the photo was later used on a postage stamp.
“It represents the extraordinary courage our first responders showed that day, and that we can never forget that thousands of innocent people were murdered that day in the most horrific way imaginable,” said Thomas E. Franklin, who was a staff photographer at the Bergen Record newspaper.
It was the early days of digital photography, and Franklin remembers going to a nearby hotel lobby to use a dial-up Internet connection and send his photos back to the office. It was then that he finally saw the dramatic video footage that much of the world had already seen by this point.
“You have to remember there were no smartphones in 2001; I had no way to see this imagery up until this point,” he said. “While I had been in the midst of this massive story, walking on the very epicenter of ground zero, I had not seen much of the footage the rest of the world was seeing all day. It was shocking to me.”
Priest Stephen McGraw prays over a wounded man outside the west entrance of the Pentagon as emergency workers help the wounded just outside of Washington, DC.
American Airlines Flight 77 had crashed into the Pentagon, killing 184 people.
McGraw was heading to a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery when he saw the crash, according to the Arlington Catholic Herald. He left his car on the road, jumped over a guard rail and started praying with those affected. Navy Times photographer Mark Faram captured the scene.
“The phrase that kept coming to my mind was ‘Jesus is with you,’ ” McGraw told the Catholic Herald. “That was the phrase I kept saying to them one after another, and more than once people responded affirmatively, ‘Yes, yes.’ ”
McGraw had only been a priest for three months.
A cloud of debris envelops pedestrians on New York’s Beekman Street after the World Trade Center collapse on September 11.
“I remember how incredibly loud it was: a crushing roar of steel and cement, of people screaming and the sound of their pounding footfalls frantically racing past me,” photographer Amy Sancetta said. “I remember the smell of the pulverized debris. That smell was in my nose and the taste of it in my mouth for weeks afterwards.”
Sancetta took the photo from an open parking garage.
“The garage started to fill up, so I ran to the back of the building and then down a metal staircase to the lower level to find some breathable air,” she said. “There was another woman there, crying and trying to reach out to her son. She worked in the building and had gotten out safely. I didn’t realize how frightened I had been until I pulled my phone from my waist pack to try to call her son for her and my hand was shaking nearly uncontrollably.”
Days after the attacks, Michele DeFazio holds up a poster of her missing husband, Jason, who worked at the World Trade Center. She had gone to the Park Avenue Armory to file a missing person’s report in the hopes of finding any information about her husband. They had been married for only two and a half months.
“Everyone else arriving at the armory appeared to have come with someone else for support, but Michele was alone, carrying her homemade flyers with her missing husband’s photograph and name,” photographer Krista Niles said. “I remember thinking how horrible it was that she was moving through this moment all by herself.”
Niles said she felt so much grief for DeFazio that she didn’t take her photo at first. She hustled down the block after her.
“Suddenly (DeFazio) paused on the sidewalk, overcome by grief and worry. … In that moment, total strangers near her on the sidewalk reached out to comfort her. The moment was fleeting. I’m not sure she was even aware of their presence.”
Niles connected with DeFazio the year after her husband’s death.
“Michele told me she was still working on accepting the loss of her husband and had set up a scholarship fund in his name. I have not spoken to her since, yet I think of her often, especially each September.”
When the World Trade Center was attacked, Marty Lederhandler crossed the street from the Associated Press’ office at Rockefeller Center, took an elevator to the 65th floor of the General Electric building and photographed the blazing towers in the distance. In the foreground is the Empire State Building.
The iconic picture made the cover of New York Magazine and the cover of “Sept. 11, 2001,” a best-selling book published by the magazine.
Lederhandler said the terrorist strikes helped him decide to retire a few months later.
“Twice is more than enough,” he said, referring to 9/11 and the 1993 bombing of the Twin Towers.
Lederhandler, a renowned photographer who also photographed D-Day in 1944, died in 2010 at the age of 92.
President Bush speaks to rescue workers, firefighters and police officers at the rubble of New York’s ground zero, three days after the attacks.
“What I remember most were the sounds and smells of the scene, the massive level of security, and the way that President Bush connected with the first responders still working at the site,” photographer Win McNamee said.
Bush climbed atop a pile of rubble as he used a megaphone to address a large gathering of people.
“Bush, like almost everyone at the site, was very emotional, and he seemed to forge a true bond with the first responders,” McNamee said. “It was, without a doubt, one of the most moving presidential moments I’ve ever witnessed.”
The Statue of Liberty can be seen from Jersey City, New Jersey, as the Lower Manhattan skyline remains shrouded in smoke on September 15, 2001.
“At sunrise, I made my way to the Hudson River coastal areas of Jersey City and Bayonne, New Jersey,” said Dan Loh, who was working for the Associated Press. “When I looked at New York City across the river, I noticed that among the wreckage, debris and smoke, the Statue of Liberty stood out on the skyline, holding her lighted torch high.”
After dark, Loh could see two columns of smoke rising from the wreckage, exactly where the Twin Towers had stood earlier.
“It would be days before airline flights would resume, and when they finally did, the sight of planes taking off was eerily juxtaposed against the smoldering smoke that still rose from Lower Manhattan,” he said.