Aristide Economopoulos | 9/11
At 8:55 am, I got a phone call from photo assignment editor Donna Wallace that a plane had hit the World Trade center. I quickly dressed. While running to the ferry at Port Liberte I heard a loud boom. I didn’t realize that a second plane had just hit the towers. A ferry had just come in and there was a large crowd coming off. I got on and from the ferry I saw the two towers on fire. I shot tight and wide angle shots.
I arrived in the city around 9:15 am and I made my way west on Wall Street. On Broadway, only a block east of the WTC, I photographed the buildings on fire and the reaction of the crowd. I took a shot of a Latino man simply in shock looking up at the building. A young 20 something blond guy pulled me over and showed me his digital camera. This camera also had a video mode and he had footage of the second plane hitting and the huge fire ball. I wanted to get his name and number but then I saw two NYPD police officers helping a woman to an ambulance. I quickly started taking pictures and never saw the guy with the video again.
Soon after the south tower fell. I ran from the cloud going north on Broadway and then took a right onto John Street where I found one of the entrances to the Fulton Street subway station. There was only enough room to get to the first landing, about 10-15 feet below street level. I quickly realized that this was not where I wanted to be with a thick, dirty cloud of toxic, dust, and ash about to rain down on me.
Then everything went black. People were shrieking and crying because we were packed in a tight area where it was hard to breathe. I knew I had to get out of there, so I walked into pitch darkness holding the handrail as I went up. I got back to the street and I felt for the building next to the subway entrance. Visibility was maybe only a few inches, and using my hands to feel around, I made my way east away from the towers.
After the cloud thinned out I went toward the towers and ran into a group of NYPD officers. They were trying to wash their eyes out from the toxic dust and they shared some water with me. One of them was covered with dust and bled from the bridge of his nose. The only thing I heard him say, which he kept repeating, was: “This is war!”
I went to ground zero and it felt like I was in the twilightzone. One guy asked me to take his photo with his disposable Kodak point and shoot in front of the wreckage. I was starting to get low on film. I asked another photographer, Don Halasy of the NY Post, if he could spare a roll. I would later find out that he gave me one of his last two rolls.
While I was in front of the towers on Church Street, I talked to a firefighter who then went towards the north tower to aid people while I walked in the other direction. It would be a miracle if this guy is still alive today. About a minute later I heard a metallic groaning sound. I looked up and I saw the top of the north tower teetering while pieces of it started falling towards me. I turned and ran the fastest I have ever run in my life. Joe Tabacca, a freelance photographer, took a photo of me running as the tower collapsed behind me. As I raced towards a parked tour bus on the corner of John Street, something hit me and I stumbled backwards. I pushed it off me and I dove behind the bus. Then a darkness descended on us. I got into the bus to see if we could use it to protect us from the dust but I was unable to close the doors.
Complete darkness fell over us. Joe was near the bus, searching for a dropped camera. I called out and he managed to grab my hand. Knowing that there was a building behind us, I headed through the darkness. We had to climb over a 5 foot slab of concrete that had landed near us. It made me realize how close we had come to getting killed. Using the building as a guide we turned down the corner to Fulton Street and clearer air.
I walked into a Chase bank where they were giving first aid. A couple of people came up to ask me if I was OK. I felt fine but I agreed to go wash my face at their request. I had my hands full of water, ready to splash my face when I glanced into the mirror in front of me. What I saw shocked me. I saw this freak. All grayish white from head to toe with dark circles around the eyes. I took a couple of shots of myself in the mirror. This was a sad and tragic event, so why the hell was I smiling? This really bothered me. I headed back to ground zero. It looked even more bizarre than before. The cops put up a police line to keep the bystanders away but they had no problem with shooters coming right to the wreckage. There was this eerie smoke around that just looked so unnatural especially near noon time on a sunny day. I overheard a firefighter captain telling his crew that they had already lost some guys and to stay put. You could hear explosions towards the west and south which were probably cars’ gas tanks. Everybody was helping everyone out. A fire fighter gave me a box of dust masks to wear and I passed them out to firefighters, cops and shooters who didn’t have one. On the way out I saw an abandoned fruit stand where I took photos of some fruit with this grayish dust on it. As I headed further east on John Street I came upon two elderly ladies and a gentleman. It looked kind of bizarre, to see them walking down this gray dusty street and papers that came from the towers tossed everywhere. I took some pictures of them and I wanted to get their names but I had lost my notepad earlier. Because this group was slowly walking it was easy to ask them for their names. I picked up a sheet of paper, one of the thousands strewn all over lower Manhattan, and wrote down their names. The paper I wrote on was a confidential memo from American Express with an architectural diagram on it.
I got to the east side of lower Manhattan at Pier 11 where they were ferrying people out of the city. While on the ferry I started to feel really beat. My breath was getting very short and I’m sure I looked bad. A couple of people came up to me and asked me if I wanted to sit. At Exchange Place I found a phone in front of a restaurant and called Chris Collins who had paged me. Don Halasy, the NY Post photographer who had given me a roll of film had called his desk because he was under the impression I was underneath the rubble. They called the Star-Ledger photo desk and for about 3 hours they thought I was buried underneath the towers.
A cop convinced me to go about a block away where they had a medical area. Next thing I know they had me in the back of an ambulance headed to St. Frances Hospital in Jersey City. Even before I got into the emergency room they had five people working on me. An ophthalmologist numbed my eyes with a pain killer and cleaned them out. Feature photo editor Lucius Riley picked me up and we walked back to his apartment. My eyes were now very sensitive to light, so Lucius led me to his apartment where I took one of the best showers I have ever taken. I borrowed some clothes from Lucius and we threw my dirty clothes and gear in a trash bag. Saed Hindash met up with us and we headed to the PATH train station. The trains were packed because they were using every means possible to get people out of NYC. Outside Newark Penn Station we tried to get a cab but it was bedlam. We ran the three blocks to Broad Street where John Munson picked us up.
Back at the paper my film got developed by lab technician Mario Oliveira and Photo Editors Ed Murray and Bumper DeJesus looked over my pictures since my eyes were not in the best of shape. The reaction to the dust in the air caused my right eye to get seriously inflamed while I partly lost the first layer of my cornea in the left eye, but the most important thing is: “I’m alive!” The next day a taxi took me to the doctor to get my eyes checked. The driver mentioned the cars that were left over in the ferry parking lot. There must have been ten to fifteen cars left and he was wondering if the drivers would ever be back to get their cars. That’s when it finally hit me what had happened on September 11. – Aristide Economopoulos