x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

'Whatever you do, don't go there'

I knew that the clearest view of the Trade Center anywhere in the city was from the West Side Highway. So I went west, across Murray Street, and as I am going across there, I look up and I start seeing people dropping out of the North Tower

Thomas Dallal was a freelance photographer living in New York on 9/11. His images captured that day in all its enormity

I didn't have an assignment lined up that day, so I was flouncing around, checking my e-mail.

I hear this enormous bang. I'd covered enough conflicts to know that this wasn't a manhole cover and it wasn't fireworks. The first thought that went through my head was being rocked out of my bed in Gaza in 1995 by a failed suicide bomber. This was a real explosion.

But at that point in my career, I was done with hard news, so I didn't really think that much about it. Then the phone rang, and it was my then wife, calling from where she was working, which happened to be right under the flight path of the plane, due north of the twin towers. She calls me and says, "Whatever you do, don't go down there."

I was about to go up on my roof to have a look, but the phone rang again and it was my agent at Sipa Press. They didn't have anyone at the spot, so she asked me to go down there.

I said OK - a little reluctantly actually. I really didn't want to do hard news.

I head south down Eldridge. The first place I have a view, I can see something big has hit the Trade Center. I pick up the pace. Just as I'm behind the New York State Court House, the second plane hit. I don't see it hit, but I certainly hear it. Now I'm really picking up the pace.

Suddenly, this guy comes out of the crowd - I have three cameras around my neck, so it's obvious I am working - and he grabs me by the shoulders and starts shaking me really hard. He says, "Dude, go, get down there, this has to be a terrorist hit."

I knew that the clearest view of the Trade Center anywhere in the city was from the West Side Highway. So I went west, across Murray Street, and as I am going across there, I look up and I start seeing people dropping out of the North Tower. Only now, as I'm starting to shoot, is the magnitude of this is really beginning to register.

I get to the West Side Highway and I now have an unimpeded view of the whole scene. And I'm looking through this 400mm lens and at the top of the North Tower. This is where I took the picture that got a lot of play. It's a view of the north and west faces in the corner of the North Tower. And it's the basically the scene above where the plane hit.

What you see in the image is approximately 50 people hanging out of the window. There is no one falling or - as some of the more unsavoury tabloids put it - jumping. What I pieced together after the fact is that the reason these people are craning out the windows is that they are trying to get fresh air, people basically getting upwind so they could breathe.

I don't believe people were jumping. I was shooting with 400-speed film, so there's some grain. But some of the images of people falling, you can see their clothes are burnt off a bit. I just think they were trying to get to fresh air and get out of the heat and smoke.

I'm shooting this scene and I'm flabbergasted. I've covered conflict before and when you set off to cover conflict, you are very deliberately stepping into the path of danger, as it were. But what happened here, happened in my front yard. These were people I rode the subway with. I felt I was watching something very much visited upon me at home. So it was a lot more unsettling and a lot more difficult to do what journalists do, which is to put up your defences and get on with the job of documenting what's in front of you.

I heard this wailing behind me. I turn around and there are two women there, sobbing. I pick up my Leica, shoot a couple of frames of them. They are just beside themselves, clutching each other in tears. And as I'm shooting them, I feel the earth start to tremble. I spin around, and pick up the long lens again and start shooting as the South Tower falls into the hotel beneath it.

At this point I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It introduced a much greater sense of fear. The thoughts that went through my head were a) I think I just witnessed 20,000-30,000 people lose their lives, and b) that tower just fell, not on my head. The other one might.

I shot a couple more frames, but as I watched this dust ball come at me, I just thought, 'I'm out of here'. It was probably good judgment. A fellow photographer, Bill Biggart, who was in Gaza when I woke up to the suicide bomb blast in 1995, was maybe 250 metres closer than I was, a few blocks south. He was killed by flying debris.

When I actually saw the images in large size, it was really disturbing. Knowing that both towers had fallen, and seeing all these people hanging out was a little bit too much to comprehend. It was like I just photographed an execution.

About the end of the year, the New York Times told me that someone had called and wanted a copy of the photo to see if she could find her sons, whose remains hadn't been identified. Would I be willing to talk with her? This was three or four months later and there was nothing I wouldn't have done to help the relatives of victims.

This woman, God bless her, she was about my mother's age, probably in her sixties, very softly spoken, very sweet. I told her what had happened that day, and I explained to her what I thought was going on in the picture. And after we talked for a while I asked her, "Are you sure you want to see these pictures?" I wanted to be sure that she had thought this through.

She said yes, "I want to see if I can find my boys". So I showed her the pictures. I was careful. I showed her the picture she'd seen and variations on that frame. There are two guys in the frame, facing each other as if they are trying to talk to each other. Between my picture and a Reuters photo of the same scene, she later told me she thought she had made a positive identification.

Looking back now, I'm not sure. I wonder if she really was able to make a positive identification or whether it was a desperation to seek closure. I sent her Christmas greetings for several years after. I felt very tender toward her. She lost her two sons and still she was so dignified.


After 9/ll, Thomas Dallal went to law school, and afterwards worked for the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Jerusalem.

* As told to Omar Karmi