Susan Watts | 9/11
World Trade Center Attack – I had to run for my life . . . twice.
On both occasions, the scenes were right out of Hollywood. The first time was in Honduras in November 1998, when I was on assignment for LIFE magazine, covering the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. The writer and I were ambushed by gunmen on a deserted highway, driven up a din road into the jungle and robbed of all possessions. We were sure, as they pointed guns at us, that we were going to die. Yet, in a moment of confusion, we escaped, hiding in the woods for about 15 hours in freezing rain, praying that the gunmen wouldn’t find us.
September 11 was Primary day. This mayoral race was one of the most important elections in NYC history. Mayor Giuliani was finishing his eight years and whoever entered City Hall had very big shoes to fill. It was a most glorious time of the year in New York. Mark Green voted at 7am. My next assignment was at 1lam, when Mayor Giuliani was going to vote. I went to a Starbucks to transmit. My mother lives nearby, so I told her to meet me for a coffee while I worked. I set up my laptop at a table, bought a bagel and coffee and started downloading my pictures. I was there for about 10 minutes when my pager went off, “Forget election, a plane just hit the World Trade Center,”
I jumped up, closed my computer, grabbed the coffee and bagel and bolted out the door. As I crossed 86 Street, I saw my mother walking to Starbucks with her dog. I told her what had happened and she told me to be careful and call her later. I grabbed my 300 mm lens from the trunk and sped onto the FDR. I immediately turned on my police scanner and heard the WTC activity. I expected to hear that some knucklehead pilot flew his Cessna or Piper into the building. But I heard them talking about an American Airlines plane. Impossible. Must be a mistake. That cannot happen. I heard the sirens of the emergency vehicles behind me. “Excellent, now at least I will get through this traffic.” I trailed close behind the vehicles with their lights and sirens when suddenly I heard on the scanner, “Another plane just crashed into the other tower.” Now I realized they were attacking us. I continued to race down the FDR behind the responding vehicles. We exited on South Street and made a right at the Fulton Fish Market. We weaved through Lower Manhattan.
Once there, I ran one block to Church Street and saw the Towers blazing. People were running out of the building screaming and crying. They were carrying some out bleeding. Some had their skin peeling off their bodies from burns. Bodies were falling from the sky. The scene was chaotic. The police were attempting crowd control as photographers and TV cameramen swarmed. It was mayhem. I kept my camera pointed at the building for a while and realized that I was missing other pictures. I turned my back to the building and was about to make pictures of people looking up at the flames.
Suddenly the crowd began to run faster and I felt the ground rumble like an earthquake. Everything that happened next seemed to happen in slow motion. As I turned around, I saw a huge grey/black billowing tornado of smoke coming right at me. The cops screamed, “RUN! RUN!” There was a stampede on the streets – people screaming, running. I remember my sunglasses flying off my head, my 80-200mm lens falling out of my pouch, my flash ripped off the hot shoe. I dove under a truck, thinking it would shield me. I thought it was a bomb. I never imagined that it was the building coming down. I figured, they got us from the air, planted bombs on the ground and they were going to decimate us. I envisioned the truck exploding or collapsing on me. So I got out and ran into a nearby pharmacy. People started shouting to get away from the glass.
Through the window, it became black as night. I thought the building would explode any minute. I grabbed a phone and called my boss. “Are you safe?” he asked. “None of us is safe. They are bombing us. We are all going to die. I’m trapped. This is the last call.”
I ran in the back with the others. It was chaos. Somehow I ended up in the lobby of an adjoining building. I saw photographer Brigitte Stelzer from The Post. We hugged and agreed to stick together. Through the windows of the lobby we could see outside. It was like Mars, or some bizarre-looking winter. A grey hazy snow of debris was everywhere. People looked like ghosts – dazed and drifting aimlessly. We had to go out there. I couldn’t see, my eyes burned, my lungs hurt from the dust. I covered my nose and mouth with my shirt and tried to shoot pictures. I was in shock. I did not know where I was. Disoriented I followed the screams of, “Go north, head north.” We drifted north to the foot of City Hall. I continued shooting the ash-covered people and those who were fleeing over the Brooklyn Bridge. Then, the screams of, “RUN! RUN!” Started again, and we ran again. It was the second tower coming down. We continued running north on Centre St. past the courthouse. When the dust settled, we attempted to make our way back downtown. My logic was to walk west away from City Hall and the Federal Building. I wanted to reach the West Side Highway and loop south. As we neared the West Side Highway, the cops and emergency workers began to run toward us again screaming, “RUN!
There is a gas leak on the West Side Highway and it is going to explode!” Again we ran. We made it to Tribeca and saw the smoke and debris in the distance. People on the street began shouting that another plane had also hit the Pentagon. Cries of, “they are going to get the Empire State Building next,” echoed. I believed the world was coming to an end. A man in a jeep was driving by. Brigitte and I stopped him and jumped in. He drove me to The News and her to The Post. During the drive, we feared who might not have made it out of there alive.