Ricky Flores | 9/11
“The Praise is not worth the price. I wish that I never had to take that picture.”
By Ricky Flores
I replay the events of Sept. 11 over and over in my mind. I remember the shock I felt as I watched the smoke billowing out of the towers on television and how that second plane made its way into the shot just before it hit the second tower. I put on my sneakers without any socks, jumped into my car and started to drive down into the city.
I was attempting to cross the Bronx-Manhattan bridge trying to get past police, who were redirecting traffic away from Manhattan, when the first tower fell.
As the second building fell, an overwhelming sense of despair and shock began to set in.
Somewhere around Canal Street, the NYPD had already begun to set up a perimeter around the site, but I was able to park and find a way in. I remember the utter chaos around the perimeter, with scores of emergency vehicles making their way toward the World Trade Center. I also remember that somewhere between the perimeter and the actual site, the streets were completely empty and silent and covered with this chalky white dust.
As I got closer, the dust got higher and was mixed with all this office paper. On some of the memos you could see handwritten notes to a colleague on the edges. On the ground a logo caught my eye, that of a blue butterfly. It was the logo of my wife’s company, Empire Blue Cross / Blue Shield. I broke down and started crying. In a mere 24 hours she would have been in that building and could have very well perished with all the others.
Through the debris and the choking dust that seemed to permeate every exposed part of your body, I saw individuals walking from the scene: a lone firefighter, a cop, or a nameless person, and an overwhelming silence dominated everything.
As I got closer the noise got louder, most particularly the noise of motion alarms that firefighters carry that go off when they are not moving. Or I would hear an occasional car, store, or building alarm in the background, always in the background.
At the scene, everywhere you looked–it didn’t matter if you were a hardened street cop, or a veteran of the fire department or EMS, or a hardcore photojournalist, or someone who was there just to help–a look of shock and disbelief was on every face you looked at. That mixed in with a brutal sadness and rage as you take in the devastation before you.
I remember thinking I had better shoot, shoot anything, just so I could try to work past the overwhelming despair that seemed to be choking me. I knew then, somehow, that what had happened was beyond anything that I have covered in the past, beyond anything that anyone has ever covered at all.
When I took the photo of the firefighters raising the flag in front of the World Financial Center from a second floor window, it felt like the rescue workers were beginning to get a grasp and a comprehension of what had taken place. I knew that what I saw was different from everything else that I saw that day, but if you had asked me at that moment if it was the most significant picture I took that day, I would not have been able to give you an answer.
I called the office and gave a description of all the images I had shot, and I remember that my editor fixated on my description of the flag picture.
Once I was back at the office, my laptop was soon surrounded by a large group of writers, photographers, designers, and editors as they looked at my photos for the first time. I sat there feeling ambivalent and overwhelmed by their response. They saw something that, at the time, I could not see, one image–in my mind–that was just a small part of the story.
The response since then has been overwhelming. What brought it home to me was a phone call from a recently retired NYPD officer from Florida who just wanted to express her appreciation for the photo. That was quickly followed by an Oklahoma City firefighter who did the same. In the ensuing days we have received calls from around the country wanting to purchase the photo or just express their thanks for our coverage of that horrific day.
I’m just simply a witness, testifying to the bravery of simple men and women, of flesh and bone, rising to an extraordinary challenge and giving the very best of themselves. I simply documented the tomb of others who died needlessly at the hands of a insane band of men. This I did that day so that my children and all those who follow our generation will hopefully never have to experience this in their lifetimes.
Ricky Flores, Staff Photographer
The Journal News