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12 years: One Photographer’s Account of September 11th

By // September 11, 2013 // Posted in Photography, Portrait

For me, today has become a somber day of reflection on the past. Each year as September 11th approaches, I reflect on those moments, and can’t believe so much time has passed. It feels especially poignant this year because our office is within a few blocks of the World Trade Center, and I walk past the Freedom Tower often.

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My wish for today is that you give someone you love a hug, and tell them how much you love them.

Below is my account of 9/11 from a blog post I wrote on the tenth anniversary:

10 years.  I can’t believe it. 10 years since I was woken up by a phone call from a friend in California seeing if I was okay.  I had been out at Yankee stadium the night before, and got home quite late due to a rain delay…and well, quite a few beers too.

(8:50 AM)
Dave: “Jay, what’s going on over there?”
Me: “I’m sleeping, what time is it?”
Dave: “DUDE, go turn the TV on.”
Me: “Holy…Dave, I gotta go, I’ll call you later”

I threw some clothes on, grabbed the only camera (film) I had in the house, and ran out the door. As I ran down the stairs I called Elizabeth (my wife) to let her know what I was doing.

Before heading downtown, I stopped at the bottom of my steps in my apartment building to see if I had my metro card, some cash, and a few rolls of film. I took a quick look at my phone and noticed I had four voicemails. Not wanting to waste any more time I ran off to the subway.

(9:01AM)
About halfway down the block I overheard someone saying the subways were shut down. I turned around, unlocked my bike on the street, and off I went. I still could not see the towers from where I was, until I hit 14th street —at that point I looked up and nearly fell off my bike. There it was, the north tower billowing with smoke. I picked up my pace…suddenly, I found myself in a row of bikers with cameras slung on their sides headed in the same direction. At almost the same moment, I looked up and noticed the second tower was on fire.  I stopped for a moment, and overheard some people discussing a second plane hit the WTC. A PLANE?!?  Holy shit, TWO PLANES have hit the WTC?  Remember, I had no idea what had even transpired, other than one of the towers were on fire.

I continued to ride, stopping occasionally to grab a picture. Each time I raised the camera to my eye, I realized how horrific this was. Throngs of people were walking uptown as I pedaled downtown, and it was at this moment that I first thought about my friend Bob…

Bob was a “probie” in the Fire Dept. stationed on his third leg of training – this time at Engine 23 in midtown. I remember him discussing how busy this house was in comparison to the others, and how he often ran into “pesky” photojournalists at fire scenes. Joking of course, but he did talk about how many times they put others at risk because they might be in the way.

I could hear lots of sirens over on the West Side Hwy, but there was nothing stopping me from continuing my journey closer to the buildings. I stopped on the corner of Greenwich and Harrison streets to grab another photo. There were now hundreds of people on the sidewalks and it was starting to make me a little nervous on my bike with the crowds of people, so I grabbed a few photos, and decided to find a different vantage point.

As I turned the corner…a rumble. People were running and screaming, horror on their faces. I turned and noticed a cop run past me with a look of fear I’ve never seen on a cop before. Around the corner, I see a giant cloud of smoke approaching us, not so much worried about the smoke, but the crowd trampling me on my bike. I found a safe spot, took refuge with a few others, and watched the smoke run up the avenue. We all huddled very closely to each other not knowing what had just happened. I poked my head around the corner, looked up and could only see one tower. I turned to the cabbie next to me and said,  “WTF, I think one of the towers just fell!”

It was at that moment I realized I might’ve put myself in danger. Remember, I had no idea what was happening.  I honestly thought I was going to photograph a big fire.

I picked up my bike and rode over to the West Side Hwy, thinking that would be safer. I began to see people covered in dust. I thought to myself how Bob would have been annoyed with me showing up to a dangerous site to get some pictures. Actually it would’ve sounded like this: “Jason, WTF are you doing here? You’re no photojournalist! Get the hell out of here, jackass.” Seriously, that’s what he would have said…

It was an eerie feeling to be riding on the West Side Hwy, riding south in the northbound lanes, and watching fire truck after fire truck ride down. Thinking I might catch a glimpse of Bob, I watched them park, grab a shoulder full of hose, and run down the highway. Hundreds of fire trucks lined the highway.  It was at that point a cop stopped his cruiser, and yelled out the window.  “YOU—get the F–K out of here NOW!” I obliged…

As I rode east on Canal Street, I began to see the NYPD really moving things into position as they closed off lower Manhattan. I was in shock, and couldn’t believe every time I looked up, one of the towers was gone. I stopped on the corner of Canal and Hudson streets, just outside the Holland tunnel. As I lifted my camera to my eye, I could see the north tower was really enveloped in smoke. People around me were crying and hugging each other, then suddenly, the tower appeared to turn into liquid in front of my eyes right before it fell. Then silence. I could hear screaming off in the distance, and it was at that moment, tears came to my eyes realizing that this was really happening. Something just took down the twin towers, the skyline was bare. What just happened?

Who did I know that worked down there? No way Bob was in there, he came all the way from Midtown. I’m sure most everyone got out, there was plenty of time, especially the South tower right?  Ugh, I don’t want to know. I pulled my phone out to see if anyone had called—NO SERVICE. Crap, Liz is probably wondering where I am. I hopped back on my bike, and rode to her office on 31st and Park Ave. South. Thousands of people wandering the streets, huddled around TVs and radios. Walking into her office her receptionist screams, “LIZ, JASON’S HERE” in a relieved voice. They were worried about me, Liz had been calling me for 45 minutes…A few minutes later, Kate joined us at the office.

Who are Kate and Bob?

Kate had been Elizabeth’s roommate at Notre Dame, Bob and I went to high school together, and had been friends since 3rd grade. They set us up on a blind date four years prior, so we were close. Just a few weeks earlier, we had all been out at our friends Chris and Anne in Pennsylvania celebrating their 5th anniversary. That was the last time I saw Bob, I’m thankful for those last memories…

At this point, there was no reason to stay at Liz’s office so we decided to go back to our apartment with Kate, and to offer refuge to other friends who were trying to figure out how to get back to New Jersey. We figured we could watch TV, and help in anyway we could. Hoping at some point we’d hear from Bob, but knowing he was a “by the books” type guy and would only reach out to Kate when his superiors deemed appropriate. At some point, an FDNY official came on the TV and said that there were over 300 firefighters missing. None of us said anything. A little bit later we walked our New Jersey friends over to Chelsea Piers, as they got onto a naval vessel to escort them across the river.

Almost immediately upon returning to our apartment, both phone lines began ringing, our friends (mine from high school, Elizabeth’s from ND) all checking in to see how we were, and of course to see if we’d heard from Bob.

Bob was a family man. He loved Kate, he loved his brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. He came from a long line of cops and fireman, and was proud of it. He loved being a firefighter and waited a long time to make his dream come true.

Bob never came home that day. He went to work, did as he was told, and never would have put himself in danger on purpose. He was not the “run into the burning building to save the cat” type firefighter. He didn’t chase danger, he wasn’t a thrill seeker and was always the one in our group to use good judgement. Bob took his job seriously and was there to save the lives of others.

Bob is my hero. We miss him terribly.

As for me, I shot two rolls of film that day. I processed them a few days later, looked at them on the stoop outside the lab, put them back in the folder, and filed them when I returned to the studio. I haven’t looked at them since.

In the ten years since that day, life has moved on. In our small circle of family and friends, almost 25 children have been born. Life has gone on—but there is a big part of us that was taken that day. We’ll never forget, you will always be in our hearts, and souls.

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Jason Groupp

Jason Groupp

Jason Groupp is the Director of WPPI and a New York City photographer heavily steeped in the industry. Adoring New York City far beyond any healthy proportion, Jason has maintained his photography studio in West Chelsea for the past 12 years.

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5 Comments

  1. Very moving, Jason. I lost a friend in the towers, but can’t even fathom the horror of being there. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  2. Jason, I’ve read this before – and it’s no less emotional for me now. I absolutely will fulfill your wish for today. Hugs to you, too.

  3. J-how I missed this before is beyond me…and I can tell you as we were in AZ trying to locate you, Liz, Gigi’s brother, etc. when all broke loose, the one good call we got back was that you were ok:)

    Thanks for sharing something so personal which I am sure has helped many.