Twenty years have passed since terrorists hijacked four airliners, crashing two planes into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and one into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including 343 police officers and firefighters.
When the news of the attacks broke, journalists sprang into action. In New York, many rushed downtown, some to the scene where the buildings were falling, while others reported from the streets, at the bridges, at the ferry, the multiple transit hub and hospitals.
Photographer David Handschuh was heading to NYU to teach a photojournalism class. He was on the West Side Highway on West Street in Lower Manhattan when he heard on one of his police and fire radios that “a plane’s just hit the World Trade Center and it’s on fire.”
Without hesitation, Handschuh followed a fire truck belonging to Rescue Company 1 from Manhattan as it raced southbound down the West Side Highway with its lights flashing and sirens roaring.
“They were firefighters putting on their air tanks. They were pulling tools. They were getting ready to save lives and fight the fire,” he told Inside Edition Digital.
A staff photographer for the New York Daily News at the time, Handschuh was right there with them, unaware of the terror he would encounter. “We were riding at breakneck speed going head-on into traffic,” he said. “They were waving out the back door to me. There were 12 firefighters on the rescue that morning.”
He paused before saying, “They were in their hearse going to their own funeral they just didn’t realize it at the time.”
Handschuh parked his car behind the fire truck. His plan was to get as many photos as he could before moving his car. “It was a beautiful end of a summer day, blue skies, low humidity, moderate temperatures. It was a lovely day, until 8:48 a.m. that morning. It was just an unbelievable sight,” he recalled.
“There’s a column of flames belching out of the middle of the South Tower and pieces of glass and brick and mortar hurdling to the ground as that beautiful blue sky is framed by acrid, ugly black smoke,” he said. “I know my eyes were seeing things, my camera was recording moments, but my brain wasn’t processing people who were making the life and death choice of jumping to their death as the better alternative to being burned alive 100 floors in the air.”
As airplane parts, car parts, debris, newspapers and office papers blew around in the streets, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, court officers and civilians worked to help each other.
“When the first people started jumping, there was a rookie cop who was standing next to me in almost a brand new uniform. Somebody has just jumped 80 floors to their death, he was ready to run forward and help, I grabbed him by his shoulder, and said, ‘There is nothing you can do for anybody who just jumped. Don’t get hurt,'” he recalled.
Handschuh was standing at the corner of West and Liberty Streets when an American Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower.
“I brought my camera up to my eye as the South Tower started to crumble,” he said. “I remember the rumbling of the pancaking 110 floors, the glass, concrete and steel raining down with the sound of a freight train running right by me.”
Hanschuh was tossed almost a city block and was partially lodged underneath a fire chief’s car. He had been buried under a pile of rubble.
“I had lost my glasses. I lost my cell phone. I lost my pager. I managed to hold onto my two cameras that were on my shoulder,” he said. “My mouth was filled with all kinds of debris. I was gasping for air.”
Hanschuh was unable to move. His right leg was shattered and his left was too damaged to stand on. So he started calling out for help. Firefighters from Engine 217 in Brooklyn heard his cries and came to his rescue. “I’ll never forget their words, ‘Don’t worry, brother. We’ll get you out,'” he said.
“Lt. Tom McGoff and his crew were the first crew that found me that morning,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today.”
After learning two of their men were missing, the firefighters from Engine 217 needed to move on from Handschuh. Firefighters Phil McArdle and Jeff Bukowski from Hazmat 1 saw him and carried him back towards Battery Park City. A police officer named Jimmy Kelleher, EMS Chief Charlie Wells, and a firefighter whose name, Handschuh has never learned carried him to a deli.
“He was part of a fleet of guardian angels that helped me out that morning,” Handschuh said. “I still don’t know his name. I’ve been trying to find him for 20 years and still haven’t found him.”
Handschuh took 180 pictures the morning of 9/11.
“There are several images that I took that morning that will never be on my website, never appear in the newspaper. They’re just too gratuitous to share with people. They were horrible, horrible moments that don’t deserve to be shared,” he said.
But one of his most memorable photos he shared with the world was of New York City Fire Chief Jerry Barbara, who lost his life at the World Trade Center.
“He’s in the foreground looking up, and there’s no fear. There’s just decades of experience and the knowledge that his firefighters were going to go in there and save people’s lives,” he said.
It would take Handschuh nearly nine months for his leg to recover from the injuries he suffered. He needed to relearn how to walk and he developed breathing difficulties he still experiences but calls what he experienced inconsequential in the global scheme of things.
His colleague, freelance photojournalist Bill Biggart, was the only professional photographer who lost his life that day during the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. A father of four, Biggart’s body was uncovered four days later under the collapsed pedestrian skyway.
Police Officer Glen Pettit, who was assigned to the NYPD’s Police Academy Video Production Unit, was also among those killed. Pettit, 30, a military veteran and journalist, was attempting to rescue victims trapped when he was last seen. His body was recovered near the rubble of the South Tower on Dec. 15.
“There’s no reason other than luck, karma, kismet, fate,” Handscuh said of his survival. “I was in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I have no way of expressing adequate gratitude to the people who saved not only my life that day, but the lives of thousands and thousands of people,” he continued. “We will never forget the people who were lost, but always remember the acts of kindness that transpired. Not only on Sept. 11 but for the weeks and weeks afterwards.”
“There are times that it feels as fresh as yesterday, and there are times that it seems a million lifetimes ago.”
Nancie Katz had just gotten to the gym with her 22-month-old daughter when she learned that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. Her husband and 10-year-old daughter had just left their Cobble Hill apartment and were taking the subway into Manhattan.
“My husband was dropping my daughter off at school before going to his office in Midtown. They were on the train literally going under the World Trade Center. We had no idea if they were okay,” she said.
Unable to locate her babysitter, she scrambled to find someone who could take care of her youngest daughter so she could get to work.
As a seasoned investigative journalist who has covered national and foreign affairs, including the Middle East, Katz said she knew this was not normal.
“It was pretty clear that this was a terror attack and I wasn’t sure what was next,” Katz said.
Still trying to track down her own family, she called into the New York Daily News office to find out what she could do and where she should go.
“It was a mess,” she recalled. “There was no communication.”
“Everyone was looking for somebody,” she remembered. “I was asked to stay on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge. People were stumbling over the bridge covered in ash looking dazed. It was devastating.”
Then she was sent to Brooklyn Hospital, where she spent hours.
“They expected survivors to go to the hospital, but it became more and more apparent to us that there were no survivors,” she said. “There were no ambulances everyone was standing by,” she said. “The medical personnel was waiting to greet the injured, but no one was coming in.”
By the end of what was a grueling and emotional day, Katz learned that her husband and daughter were safe, but many of her neighbors in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, were not.
“I lived in the neighborhood that was hit very hard. They were in the towers,” she said. “It impacted a lot of people I knew.”
Katz later learned the grim news that 21 firefighters had died, who was from her neighborhood.
Over the next decade, Katz follow three FDNY firehouses that lost 20 men between them. She also investigated what hazardous materials were released into the air that day and that rescue workers were exposed to. Those toxins would later be linked to a number of different cancers that killed many first responders.
“There were a lot of people who worked really hard and saw a lot of bad stuff like me. We were all out there,” she said.
Despite all the reporting she has done all over the world, she said the events on Sept. 11, 2001, were different. It was personal.
“You were always chasing the story, following the story, but you were never there when a bomb fell,” she said. “This wasn’t Jerusalem. This wasn’t Asia. This was literally across the river from my house.”
Wendell Jamieson, an assistant metro editor at The New York Times, was covering Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign that fall and had been planning to get into work later that day.
He was in his Park Slope, Brooklyn, apartment when he saw on the news that the World Trade Center was on fire. With his 18-month-old son, he looked out his window and watched as the second plane hit.
“A second plane flew out of the harbor and flew into the second building. It was a gigantic f****** fireball,” he said. “We watched the buildings collapse. We watched them fall down. Then the dust cloud came and covered our whole building. The dust was so thick you couldn’t see out the window.”
Everyone in his building gathered in an apartment on the lower level. No one but him went to work.
He passed crowds and dusted off his car before driving into Manhattan. He managed to get onto the Williamsburg Bridge, despite it being closed, after speaking to a police officer.
He arrived at The New York Times building, located at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, amid chaos.
“I stayed overnight and all the next day helping to direct reporters, helping to move them around from hospitals to one place to another,” he said. “There was no one in the hospitals. Either you were fine or you were dead.”
The days seemed endless. Then, the profiles of the victims began.
“We had a team of reporters set up and we were going to do a short profile, 250 words, of every victim,” Jamieson said. “We would focus each profile on one aspect of the victims’ personality. If someone was a jokester, or if someone loved to cook. Or, if someone had a funny name. We called it ‘Portraits of Grief,’ and that is what I did for the next year.”
Jamieson led a team of 140 reporters who each contributed to the special section devoted to the dead.
His team wrote 2,400 profiles. Jamieson edited 2,000 of them.
“It was tough,” Jamieson said, “And it was my life for a year.”
Looking back, Jamieson said he still remembers many of the stories.
“I remember the people who loved (the steakhouse) Smith & Wollensky. And, the people who loved Bruce Springsteen,” he said. “I remember one story about how one of the girlfriends of a firefighter who died always loved to smell his hair whenever he came back from a fire.”
Covering the events of Sept. 11, 2001, was the most difficult assignment of Jamieson’s career. “Of course, it was the most difficult because I lived it. I saw it happen. I’m a New Yorker and it affected me. It was traumatic,” he said.
Echoing Handschuh, Jamieson said, “It feels like yesterday and it feels like a million years ago at the same time.”
Corky Siemaszko was in the middle of getting his young children off to school when he heard a radio report that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. He left his children with a friend, threw some clothes on, and ran out the door of his New Jersey home.
“I could see the Towers burning from Route 3. I had the radio on and I knew what was going on. I got as far as the Lincoln Tunnel, which was blocked off so I drove over to the Port Authority police station near the tunnel entrance to try and report from there,” he said.
Police refused to talk to the reporters. “They seemed rattled and angry,” he said. “They already knew some Port Authority officers were killed.”
Siemaszko drove to Weehawken, hoping he would be able to talk to anyone coming in from Manhattan on the ferry.
“I interviewed a half-dozen rattled commuters and tried to call in my notes to The (New York) Daily News. It was then that I realized that I was cut off because the cell towers came down with the buildings,” he said.
Siemaszko piled as many of the stranded commuters into his Honda Civic and drove back to his home in Montclair as the cloud of smoke where the Twin Towers once stood grew larger and larger.
It was then that he remembered that his brother, Casey, was supposed to be in Lower Manhattan that day. “When I got home, I started calling every number I had from him,” he said.
It wasn’t unit the next day that he and his brother connected. He said Casey had been down at the World Trade Center, but escaped unharmed.
Determined to get back into Manhattan and get to the newsroom, Siemaszko and a fellow colleague drove to the Tappan Zee Bridge in Nyack. They crossed over the Hudson River and drove through the Bronx before finally making it into Manhattan.
“It took four hours or so to get to the newsroom,” Siemaszko said. There, everyone was dedicated to covering the devastation of 9/11. “Sports reporters were sitting with regular reporters and making calls. In between stories, some of the rewrite guys were calling the hospitals to find Daily News reporter Virginia Breen’s husband, who was a firefighter and had gone missing. He was later found and was OK,” he said. “Over at the news desk, the editors were calling hospitals in search of Vince Jovic’s brother, who also was a firefighter and whose body was never found. “
Siemaszko spent more than two decades at the Daily News on the rewrite desk. No day in the newsroom was like Sept. 11 or the weeks that followed.
“The Daily News could be a noisy place with editors yelling and barking out orders. But on that day everybody was calm and professional and, dare I say it, polite,” he recalled. “Of course, we all knew this was huge. We all were aware that our lives were about to change. But we were all business. No crying. No breaks. No farting around. No yelling. It was, let’s get this done.”
He remembers turning to his colleague, political reporter Dave Goldiner, who sat next to him on the rewrite desk and saying, “Just watch, Bush is going to use this as an excuse to attack Iraq.”
“Unfortunately, I was right,” Siemaszko said.
For the next few months, Siemaszko worked between 10 and 12 hours a day, six days a week. In those months, he spoke, “with way too many young widows, many of them the wives of NYPD officers who were killed.”
“I kept it together because, well, I just did. But I do remember one moment where I went off on a reader who somehow got my phone number and who informed me ‘the Jews’ knew this was going to happen and were warned to get out. I don’t normally swear at readers and I’m not Jewish, but it just pissed me off that at this moment when our country was under attack. this clown was peddling this divisive b******,” he said.
The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 9/11 was Siemaszko’s hardest time as a journalist. “But I was removed from the tragedy because I wasn’t at Ground Zero and I wasn’t knocking on the doors of people in mourning,” he said. “I was sitting on my a** and typing furiously. And because of that, I think it didn’t affect me the way it affected reporters and photographers out in the field.”
Siemaszko, now a senior writer for NBC News Digital, said that the 20th anniversary kind of “snuck up on him this year.”
’For many people in the news business, there was a pre-9/11 life and now we’re in the post-9/11 life. I’m one of those people,” he said.