When the first aircraft struck, I was sound sleeping. I lived four blocks from the World Trade Center at the time, close to a hospital, a fire station, and the New York Police Department’s headquarters. The sirens jolted me awake. They didn’t stop. When I turned on the TV, one of the towers was on fire. Because I lived so near, I could hear the second aircraft strike the south tower as I watched it on TV.
I was a picture editor for the Associated Press (AP). As their closest employee, I knew I had to go out and record it. I suited myself, stuffed some film into my camera bag, and dashed out the door to the World Trade Center. A lot of photography is learned by rote. Even in this circumstance, your body instinctively understands what to do. “How can you take photographs?” a policeman once asked me. “I have to document this,” I informed him. It’s all in the past.”
This photograph was shot on Fulton Street, between Church and Broadway, in New York City. Looking through my lens, I recall watching the south tower begin to crumble. I fired one shot before someone yelled, “RUN!” I raced, tripped, and fell, then hid behind the vehicle on the left for shelter. The earth rumbled, the vehicle shook, and suddenly a huge cloud of thick dust swept through the streets. There was a lot of harsh, hefty sediment in it. The whole room became quiet. Then I began to choke and was unable to breathe. My eyes, nose, and mouth were all covered with dust. To hide my face, I drew up my T-shirt. For a brief time, I believed we had been buried alive. Then I saw vehicle headlights flashing.
I started photographing folks as they walked down the street. The individuals in this photo walked right by me. We didn’t exchange any words. I’m not sure whether anybody was talking. We were all stunned. Many people don’t realize that when they saw this picture, I was just like them, coated in dust and hardly able to comprehend the idea that I was on the verge of dying. I switched to automatic mode. I replaced the film and lens at some point, although I don’t recall doing so. I was taken aback. It never occurred to me to run. It took me a few moments to get moving. However, I believe my camera saved my sanity. I was an observer, unattached, seeing this happen with it in front of my face. It aided my ability to operate and maintain concentration.
When someone gave me a bottle of water and a mask, I snapped out of my stupor. I started walking home, grateful to be alive. I turned around and got some more pictures of the north tower, which was still blazing. Later, in the toilet, I took a self-portrait, then mixed the chemicals and started developing the film. I found that I had two black and white rolls and one color film, which was odd since I wasn’t shooting in color at the time. I’m not sure how the roll ended up in my purse. Color didn’t seem to have much of a benefit. You couldn’t determine what color people were after the fall. We were all a shade of grey.
The north tower fell just as I was preparing to develop the film, bringing a lot of dust into my flat. A colleague from AP phoned to see how I was doing. “Gulnara was there!” she exclaimed to the office when I informed her I’d gone out shooting photos. “Get to the office as soon as possible!” shouted another editor. Because the trains were not operating, I walked approximately 40 blocks to the residence of AP photo editor Madge Stager, carrying a tank containing two wet rolls of film. We hung it to dry in front of a fan. Dust was still clinging to my body. I didn’t even consider showering.
That day, I made the choice to concentrate on individuals, although photographing wounded people was unpleasant and invasive. People were leaping, as I noticed. I couldn’t even raise my camera since it was so frightening. This picture, in my opinion, captures how hazardous and horrific it was for individuals to be so close to the twin buildings.
As a consequence of the exposure, I’ve developed a few health problems, which have been closely examined by the WTC health department at Mount Sinai Hospital. However, this picture has assisted me in recovering from my mental trauma. It made me realize that my presence was not in vain: 9/11 had a profound impact on my life. It was the start of a quest to figure out what my life meant and what I was here to accomplish.
Thanks to Tim Jonze at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.