TWO HOURS IN TIME ON 9/11
My cellphone rings so I ignore it. I figured it was work and I had just worked 6 months straight.
Splash News had sent myself and another photographer to head up their new East Coast office for the company. This involved being on the road traveling for 6 solid months in every state of the US and often getting last minute calls saying “You have one hour to get to JFK, you’re on a flight to Argentina for a shoot that is at 10am tomorrow.”
September 11th was to be my first official day off and I had just worked to 3am that previous evening so I was not in the mood to pick up my cell. The usual protocol was cellphone would run off, then my house line would start ringing continuously until I picked up.
This time my landline did not go off and I heard a beep indicating a voicemail had recorded. Figuring it was one of my parents I listened, it was in fact a Splash reporter who said: “Phil a plane has flown into one of the World Trade Center towers, you might want to check it out.”
I switched on my television to see the live images being shown by NY1 and thought to myself -Holy shit !- and you might want to check it out? of course I will I’m headed down there now.
I jumped out of bed threw on whatever t-shirt and pants I could find, grabbed my camera bag and jumped on my bicycle and cycled like a man possessed to get to the towers as quickly as possible.
At this point I had not even known that a second plane had hit the other tower as I had left my TV in such a hurry that I was down at the site within 10 minutes. I was making stops along the way where I knew their was a good vantage point to show the size of the towers with the flames engulfing the top of the towers.
First stop was on West Broadway in Soho. People were just watching dumb struck with what was unfolding before their eyes. At this point I was so out of it that all I was thinking about was getting the best angle.
I raced down Broadway where people were being held back, from what looked like a part from one of the planes. I was still blocks away so it did not really register. I stopped took a picture and jumped back on the bike.
Everything was in fast forward mode for me as I wanted to get these pictures but my main goal was to get below the towers as I knew it would not be long before the Police roped everything off with tape and I would not get near.
This may sound stupid now but I got to the site and locked my bike up. I had absolutely no idea how my day was going to be and I had no intentions of losing my bike to theft.
I arrived to what has become my place to go every year to mourn, by Trinity Church and what used to be where I bought all my DVD’s and CD’S at “ J & R music.”
It was a real mix of businessmen in suits, tourists, construction workers, and local store clerks staring up at the towers. Some people were screaming others with their hands over their eyes struck in disbelief of what was unfolding before them.
I could hear loud screams as people were jumping from the top of the building.
I’m not going to pretend that I was really registering what was going on. I was a young kid in my early twenties that was a news photographer. These stories were what I had always hoped I had not witnessed but if they did happen, I was going to make sure I was there to cover them.
The Police started to move people away from the Park row area. Television crews were doing their live feeds around me and ambulances were attending to people struck by what they were witnessing.
The area had started to clear out and I was focused on getting shots of the church with the towers in the background.
As I was shooting all of a sudden I could hear a loud noise and the building was collapsing in front of my very eyes through my viewfinder. I clicked away just watching the tower come down further and further as the large beams from the towers got bigger and bigger in my camera.
I pulled my camera down from my face and a bunch of fireman were running past me shouting “Run kid the towers falling this way.” I ran into J & R music to see Policemen and people headed to the back of the store.
Within seconds the windows that looked onto the street had turned black. You could see nothing.
A man runs in screaming “Fuck! I made it” he was covered head to toe in debris. A policeman gives him a bottle of water. The man looks possessed as he had literally just ran for his life.
I go up to the guy and say do you mind if I take a couple of pictures. He says “go ahead Kid!”
I started taking some shots. The contrast between this Man completely covered in debris whilst people were fresh in their suits in the middle of a CD section was just surreal to me.
If you were just standing at the back of the store you would have absolutely no idea what was happening outside.
I walked to the front and could see that the visibility was getting better. I stepped out the store to what seemed like a parallel universe from the store I had just been standing in.
Paperwork was falling from the sky all around me and the streets were covered in debris. There was a deadly silence and it took a few minutes to register what had happened.
As I stood there I started to see the resemblance of what looked like people walking, some being held up by friends and co workers, others sat in shock.
I pulled my camera up to take a picture of a Woman being helped by what looked like a traffic warden.
They were both covered head to toe and she was crying. I questioned myself, could I do this? take pictures of people at their weakest moment.
In the past all I had to shoot was football fans rioting or celebrities. The closest I had come to this was photographing people after they had lost a close one but the shoots were always official and the people wanted to tell their stories.
It’s not like I thought this is history playing out in front of me and I have to record it because at that space in time I was really not with it at all. A building had just come down in front of me and I had put myself in this position. I had always wanted to photograph these types of moments and all the photographers I grew admiring were war photographers like James Nachtwey and The Bang Bang club.
I started to document the history unfolding in front of me but when in reality, these were human beings, someone’s loved one, a friend and family member.
It was at this point that I thought about my family and friends. The cellphone networks were overloaded so no calls were coming through at all. I knew my family would be panicking and be trying to get hold of me but I could not call out and knew they would be worried.
I learnt soon after that my parents knew I was down at the World trade center. They were watching a live stream on television in the UK, and saw me on television taking pictures of the people walking through the debris. This was just after the first tower had fallen. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for them to know that their son was there and ok but this was before the second tower had come down.
All of a sudden firemen were running up the street towards me. “Run! the second one is about to come down.” Myself and a few other people who were there started knocking on the door of a building.
A man came to the door but did not want to let us in. I’m not sure if he was afraid or in shock but a policeman with us screamed at him to “open the door!” We all rushed in.
We quickly ran down to the basement of the building where others were waiting. I did not hear the second tower come down but after a few minutes I went back upstairs where the same man who had told me we could not come in was handing out face masks to people headed back outside.
Again the debris was coming down around us. I Saw a good friend of mine Jason a fellow photographer covered from head to toe in shock. I asked him if he was ok, his reply was more along the lines of “I’m fucking freaked out” as you would expect any person to say.
I continued to carry on taking pictures of people being helped by firemen, Policemen and EMT’s.
I could see Policemen taking sips of water and sharing the bottle with us all.
Out of this huge disaster I was witnessing how people really come together and look out for each other right before my eyes. Too often in NY we get too angry and are quick to jump down each other’s throats but deep down you can see that when something like this happens we are altogether.
My first trip to New York was in 1994 and then I knew this is where I wanted to live. The energy, the people! I spent the next 6 years or more trying everything I could to get here. My Dream of being a New Yorker never wavered.
I have now been here over 15 years and still wake up everyday loving it. We all have days when the city can beat us down, but I see the city as a friend. It may sound strange but after riding around the streets of NYC for 15 years you get to notice everything. What new stores open, which places close.
You get to know the homeless guys on the street by name and enjoy chats together over coffee in the mornings. NYC is everything to me so when I witnessed how New Yorker’s came together during this time it gets to me emotionally.
Things had gotten very silent. You would maybe hear alarms going off or a siren from a police car, but generally everyone was in a daze about what we had all just witnessed.
My phone rang. It was my friend from Rotterdam, Debbie who I had gone to College in the UK with. I told her I could not really talk but that I was okay and to call my parents and let them know I was fine.
I went back to shooting pictures of a priest helping a lady bloodied up and crying whilst sitting by an ambulance.
It was then I saw three men walking through the debris towards me. One now a good friend called George was still holding his briefcase.
The phone rings again. Its my boss Kevin who is in Los Angeles. He says “I know you do not want to leave the site, but you have to get back to the office to send as the papers were waiting.” This is still one of the biggest regrets I have ever made as a photographer, was to leave the World Trade center site as I knew there would be no way back in.
I started to look for my bike but it was gone. I had no way to get it so I started to run.
Our office at the time was basically a two bedroom flat in Hell’s Kitchen. I shared this apartment with my co-worker Dan, but in reality we were never there as we were always traveling on assignment.
As I was running I stopped at a coffee cart to get some water. For some reason I went to pay which sounds normal but at the time and place it was weird. The guy gave me a bottle and said, “Don’t be crazy, have it “.
I continued to run with my camera round my neck, covered in debris with a facemask covering me. People were looking at me like I was some kind of weirdo.
People were gathered around televisions on the street, some rushing to get uptown, others going about their business.
The run from the World Trade center to 38th and 9th is a few miles but I could not find a cab and the subways were not an option.
I got into the flat/office and quickly started to edit as I knew the Internet would likely go down fast. I managed to get my pictures moving to the papers and then Dan came in with his pictures. Of course the internet did go down, and Dan was left struggling to figure out how to get his images sent.
These two hours of my life were to be just the beginning.
The years after were some of the most painful. For a year straight I was having to photograph funerals, features with people who had lost loved ones, and anything related to the ongoing story. I remember having to shoot a feature on a man who was selling toilet roll with Osama Bin Laden’s face on it. When I say difficult its not like I lost a loved one but emotionally it really breaks you. Seeing such pain people are going through.
I have since connected with a lot of the people I photographed that day and we stay in touch and reach out to see how we are all doing every year.
One day a few years after the attack on the World Trade Center I received an email, whilst coming out of a cinema in the East Village with my wife Karen. It was from George who I had photographed that day. We had shot a feature together a year after 9/11, where we’re- united the three men I had photographed.
George had written to me to see how I was doing, I literally broke down in tears on the middle of 2nd Avenue. The emotion of the day had gotten to me. I still break down from time to time every time I think about that day and do not believe I will ever truly understand or realize the size and magnitude of what happened.
If the Building’s had come down any other way I would be dead. That’s a strange thing to wrap your head around.
WORDS AND PICTURES BY PHIL PENMAN
Listen to an interview recorded with Steve Harris of the BBC about my memories of that day.