The 9/11 Photos We Will Never Forget

The 9/11 Photos We Will Never Forget

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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.

Suzanne Plunkett/AP

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.”

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Richard Drew/AP

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.”

Ángel Franco/The New York Times/Redux

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.”

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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.”

Sara K. Schwittek/Reuters

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.”

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

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?’”

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