I was at the World Trade Center as a photojournalist on Sept. 11, 2001 – a day of infamy that rivaled Pearl Harbor. Not to diminish that 1941 attack by the Japanese on our homeland, but the World Trade Center terror violence was like nothing the world had seen, and must retold for the senseless loss of life, both civilian and those selfless men and women trying to rescue them.
We need to keep retelling the story, so that we don’t ever experience the same thing, or worse.
My own children still can’t comprehend the enormity of the loss that day. My son was seven and could see the smoke rising from the Twin Towers. His teacher closed the shades so the children wouldn’t see it.
It was Primary Day and mild-mannered Fernando Ferrer was casting his vote in the Bronx for himself for the Democratic nomination for mayor. I was there with him at 6:30 a.m.
“I can actually win this one,” the jovial former Bronx borough president said of his vote that morning.
After seeing Ferrer vote, I was supposed to meet up with Governor George Pataki at Columbia Presbysterian Hospital for a story that same morning. I headed into Harlem to get an iced coffee when the shocking call came over the police radio.
“We have a report of a plane hitting one of the towers of the World Trade Center,” crackled the dispatcher on the Special Operations Division.
I called in to the photo desk of the New York Daily News, where I worked at the time. “Go, go, go,” my desk editor shouted.
I headed to the World Trade Center grabbing the bumper of NYPD Emergency Services Unit 2, with Sergeant Curtin and Detective Michael Viggiano among the others racing to the plane crash; neither of them would survive that day.
We weaved in and out of traffic, onto foot paths, through red lights that meant nothing as traffic was beginning to build as the north tower was burning. By the time we reached Canal Street on West Street, the story would change dramatically.
Boom! The south tower was struck by the second airliner. Fire and debris blew out of the building towards the Hudson River.
“We’re under attack,” screamed a police emergency service cop who was already on the scene preparing to enter the north tower. All hell broke loose.
Numerous rescue crews, both police and fire, were racing to the scene despite us being “under attack.” These rescuers weren’t looking for cover despite the prospect of more planes plunging into the buildings or surrounding structures. They felt nothing for their own safety, as I and my colleagues in the media did the same.
I took pictures of many heroes that morning — Police Officer Chris Amoroso of Port Authority, Police Officer Bobby Fazio, numerous firefighters including having to witness Firefighter Danny Suhr struck by a jumper while putting out fires in a parking lot next to the south tower. Among the 2,911 people killed that day were 343 firefighters, along with 23 NYPD officers, 37 Port Authority cops, 8 EMTs.
Because I covered fire and police for so many years, a lot of the rescuers were my friends.
For months and even years after, I searched the neighborhoods and communities for signs of other terror threats. Some of those were intercepted by police and federal investigators – I was there too. It was conceivable and even obvious that we were not done.
So many great men and women gave their lives that day and many civilians who were given no choice in the matter. Subsequently, many more rescuers, some of them my friends, died of 9/11 related illness — or like myself, have some sort of related illness that has stuck like glue from extended exposure to the toxic dust.
The story of that day was unbelievable to me as one so hardened by gun violence and disasters on the city streets. Nothing has ever compared to this.
There are people out there that are jealous of our success, wealth, health and ability to have a multi-cultural, multi-religious society. There are those around the world who live on the extremes, only their view of the world is acceptable and everyone else, especially the United States, is a product of the devil. We must not forget this threat has not disappeared.
But more importantly, the United States pulled together after 9/11. When 343 firefighters and nearly 100 police officers were killed that day, rescuers from throughout the country and the world showed up to help – they assisted with the search and rescue and even manned our firehouses as so many firefighters continued to sift the wreckage. They did this despite the risk to their health and safety.
It’s amazing how this country comes together despite its political and social differences, in the face of great adversity. We become brothers and sisters, and it is a shame that it takes such terrible consequences to make that happen.
That this society is so split politically and socially represents an opportunity for our adversaries to attack – whether it is economically, through ransomware or may be, at some point, another confrontation that might be far worse than what we’ve already seen.
Who might’ve believed that anyone would dare attack the United States with more death and destruction than what occurred on Dec. 7, 1945? Who would imagine someone could do worse than 9/11 in the age of nuclear weapons? We must always be vigilant and perhaps, agree to disagree amongst ourselves so we may be ready for evil to return.
For this reason, I continue to lecture, exhibit and talk about 9/11 like it happened yesterday.
Todd Maisel, retired breaking news editor for amNewYork Metro, is hosting an exhibit of photos in the Berkshires, Becket Arts Center in Becket, Massachusetts, beginning Sept. 10 and running through Oct. 11. For more information, visit toddmaiselvisualjournalism.com/new-page-2.