Thirteenth anniversaries normally go by pretty quietly, but September 11th is an exception. Every year it echoes with that shock and surreality that came to define generations both in the United States and worldwide. Whether you watched the events unfold through your television or from your apartment window, everyone felt some version of that disbelief when — above all — the second jet liner struck the South Tower.
It’s now 2014, and the “never forget” adage has long become cliche as it’s really become all too apparent how the tragedy can never be forgotten. 9/11 claimed a tiny fraction of the some 60 million in World War II but, like a major war, 9/11 impacted the universal consciousness to the point that modern history is frequently contextualised as “pre” or “post” the tragic event. It represents in a single day what a great war represents over years. Its impact was one of context; a sunny September morning, just like this one, in bustling downtown Manhattan became a scene of utter destruction and terror within moments. New York City centre, the hub of the modern world and beacon of human progress, was reduced to rubble.
It showed us just how susceptible and even vulnerable New York, America, and the Western world was and still is to trauma. It warranted an overhaul in security and government secrecy internationally. It sparked an international “war” that shows no signs of ever ending and gave new credence to fear mongering, and while it cost 3,000 lives, over $1.4 trillion on the New York Stock Exchange and $10 billion dollars in infrastructure, the toll still feels far greater than what any number can capture.
Today, we’re paying tribute to an event that defined history through 10 striking photographs taken on the day. Of hundreds, these are the most tragic, the most surreal and best capture the magnitude of this earth-shattering event.
10 Plane overhead
This still, taken from a pedestrian’s raw video, captures both the pure perplexity of the morning and the last milliseconds before terror fully set into the city. The man in the footage looks blankly ahead—not up—as the second plane strikes just blocks away from where he’s standing. His lack of preparedness in the moment reflects that of the general public; it was the second plane that brought the day into focus.
9 Impact crater
A Boeing 767-sized wound across the face of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, shown shortly after the first attack. The fuel-heavy jetliner exploded upon impact and engulfed the inner tower with flames. Witnesses recall the first smoke looking like a snowy mist pouring from the buildings on the still, sunny morning, though they would become vicious fires that turned black and arid as they overtook the towers and ultimately caused their collapse.
8 Nowhere to go
Some of the most unsettling images were far less discernible: 1,300 feet above the city streets, workers at the World Trade Center’s North Tower hang out windows to escape toxic fumes engulfing the building. Unable to evacuate down through the wreckage, they faced the unimaginable choice of succumbing to the fire or a 400 meter fall. Those who chose the former were spared only minutes longer.
7 Seen from space
When Frank Culbertson peered down on New York state from the International Space Station that Tuesday morning, what he saw resembled some large-scale volcanic activity. The smoke trail pouring from the heart of NYC extended far longer than Manhattan island and grew to an impressive width over the Bay, conceivably enough to choke the entirety of the downtown core. But Culbertson, who lost a friend to the attacks, had no idea the scale of tragedy unfolding in the ant-like panorama.
6 Covered in dust
While the pedestrians in this photo surely felt crippled by confusion at this moment, we imagine many look back at it now with some degree of relief. These men and women from all walks of city life narrowly escaped the brunt of the tragedy, though their clothes and skin resemble the ashen streets. The ground has been fully submerged in debris and rubble, and their city and their lives have been altered horrifically.
5 Moment of collapse
The World Trade Center’s south tower was the first to give in despite being struck second. Less than one hour after the plane exploded through the tower’s southern facade, the heat from the fire caused the tower structure to fail and collapse. This photograph captured at 9:59am shows the moment rescue efforts and hopes of salvaging the City’s financial beacon were extinguished. Luckily, thousands managed to gain distance from ground zero within the hour.
4 Showering debris
In this aerial photograph we see the frightening scale of fallout from the World Trade Center’s collapse. The glass, asphalt and steel clouds consumed city blocks in an instant and quickly spread through the downtown core. Of the $10-13 billion dollars in damages caused by the attack, the WTC accounted for about $3-5 billion; the full scale of destruction came about in this moment when the towers collapsed over 6.5 hectares of buildings. Within the towers themselves, the loss of irreplaceable art and documents was equally great—21 libraries, records of the Securities and Exchange Commission, CIA files, legal case files, historical trade records, and numerous art works in public and private collections.
3 Standing in the rubble
This unidentified man stands amidst the remnants of the WTC calling out for survivors. To his left can be seen the bare bones of the towers’ structure seemingly impaled into the street. To his right, an American flag blows mournfully next to a light post displaying a New York City banner as the only familiar fixtures of the city.
2 The Falling Man
Perhaps the most powerful photograph of the September 11th attacks was captured by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew at 9:41:15 a.m. that morning. Amidst the city’s pandemonium, 'The Falling Man' details the tragedy with one modest subject against the seemingly placid background of the World Trade Center’s north tower. The unidentified man in this photo was one of hundreds who, amidst smoke and flames, was forced to leap from the towers’ upper-floors. Maybe it’s how tiny he appears against the behemoth structure behind him, or that this very moment of his tumble gives the impression of deliberately diving straight down, head first. Nevertheless, the iconic and controversial photograph has been the subject of its own documentary, and epitomizes the despair and helplessness of 9/11.
1 Ground Zero
Of all the photographs we came across, we felt none encapsulated September 11th more than this seemingly filmic scene of Ground Zero before sunset. The sun, barely shining through the plume of ash and fallen steel, casts a post-apocalyptic hue over the World Trade Center’s grave. And yet, in the wasteland stand three rescue workers staring, apparently in awe, towards the light. As a portrait of America’s despair it truly hits home, but as a portrait of the country’s hope, perhaps, it speaks even louder.