Rocky yelled for me to turn on the television, his girlfriend called his cell phone to tell him a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Rocky the carpenter was working to true up a deck on my family’s townhouse that had been sold recently.
I started to get a very bad feeling as the crew crowded into my office workspace just in time to see the second plane crash. An emptiness and silence fell over a normally boisterous crew as we started to estimate the numbers of dead and injured. Then another report, a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. What was next?
It was at this point that I entertained the thought of heading to New York or at least to Jersey City to photograph the burning towers. Then the report that another plane had crashed near Pittsburgh.
As a contract Photographer for Reuters I tried to contact the Reuters office in Washington D.C. for instructions only to get a fast busy signal. I headed to the house that my wife Susan and I were renovating as I had moved the core of my office operation in order to better manage the construction project. I tried a number of times to establish telephone contact with the Reuters office only to get the same fast busy signal I would hear for the next day.
When I sent my initial message on instant messenger I knew by the response that I was going to be leaving town in a hurry. I was told to take three days worth of clothing and gear and head immediately to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the heck is Shanksville Pennsylvania? Eighty miles southeast of Pittsburgh I was told. I quickly mapped an approximate route, gathered my clothing checked my equipment and headed West on the Pennsylvania Turnpike relying on news radio for updates as long as the signal lasted. All the while replaying the sight of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center and the plume of smoke rising from the Pentagon again and again in my mind. What was next? Where these acts of terrorism over? Who did this and why? Was my family safe nestled between a number of nuclear power plants? Where the heck was I going? What was I going to find? Too many questions, Phone contact to the Reuters office was still just a fast busy signal.
It was two o’clock, then three o’clock. I was getting closer to Shanksville. Time to get the map program running on my laptop and try to call the office. How were the New York photographers doing? Were they safe? Were any crushed when the buildings collapsed? Still fast busy. Maybe I can instant message with the laptop and cell phone. Success, the editor on duty told me to find Reuters photographer from Pittsburgh, Jason Cohn and transmit any images, as he was able to get near the crash site.
After exiting the turnpike an exit too early and winding my way along a mountainous stretch of the Lincoln Highway (U.S. RT. 30), a sign for Shanksville said turn left six miles. Four miles ahead the silhouette of a Pennsylvania State Trooper stood guarding the long driveway of a landfill. After identifying myself to the trooper I commented about the size of the debris field. He told that there was no debris field that the largest piece of the plane was “nothing larger than a phone book”. Nothing left.
After some ribbing on the fact that I had just covered a long drive in a short period of time the trooper directed me to the press staging area, but I proceeded into Shanksville to find Jason Cohn. Jason had been allowed near the scene. Jason pulled his car beside mine. I asked him to take me as close to the scene as possible as my cell phone signal was stronger near the crash scene than in Shanksville, and this is how we would transmit his images.
The pictures from Shanksville were not dramatic or exciting, couldn’t hold a light to the World Trade Center photos. They would help to tell this horrendous story. Jason had bummed a digital camera from a friend as his Reuters issued camera was in for repair, shot a few frames of white suited emergency personnel walking near some trees. The trooper was right, “nothing larger than a phone book”. Jason headed on his way, as he had shot film of the scene as well and needed to process and transmit these. No access to the debris field area until tomorrow was the answer from the command center as my arrival was too late. I secured a motel room for the night, had a quick sandwich for dinner and sat glued to the television waiting for the news of survivors from the World Trade Center.
Up early, to the crash scene at first light, through the mist the sight of many tall radio antennas appeared magically in the overnight on the hill overlooking the crash site. The word from the NTSB and the FBI was that media would be allowed to the scene on two buses in the early afternoon. Sit and wait, listen to and photograph an angry Congressman, Special Agent in Charge, National Guardsmen putting up a tent. Time to go to the crash scene. A lot of media, television, photographers, writers, anxious to see the crash site. The buses unloaded in an area overlooking the landfill crash site, maybe 500 yards away.
Yellow tape marked a stopping point on the hillside. Nothing in view said "plane crash". It was just a field, with people in yellow and white suits, and lots of little flags. A plume of smoke starts to rise in the woods, and outlines some trees that were charred in the fiery crash. A piece of metal hangs in a tree. “Nothing larger than a phone book”. To the top of the hill, not far enough. "Stop! Now!", I’m told.
The crater starts to take shape higher on the hill. The crater with crash debris as far as eighty feet deep in the landfill. A ridge blocked most of the crater from view as the people in suits walked aimlessly around the site pausing to look at items on the ground. A few trailers from the various investigative agencies lined an access road on the edge of the landfill. No survivors, just debris and a large crater. No engines. No fuselage. “Nothing larger than a phone book”.