Interview by Scott Mc Kiernan :
9/11 Never Seen
Randy Taylor : FIRST PERSON
September 11, 2001, Tuesday 9-5, Lower Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA
Randy Taylor: “As I exited the subway on September 11th, twenty years ago, everyone was standing in the street by the Flat Iron Building, looking at something. I turned to see smoke billowing from the Twin Towers. Someone said a plane hit the towers, and I knew instantly it was intentional. There were blue skies in all directions and visibility for miles around.
I had a camera in the office and a few rolls of film that I grabbed. A co-worker, Evan Frohlich, and I started walking down Fifth Avenue towards the World Trade Center. When we passed Washington Square Park, where the small streets were lined with people watching, tower one collapsed. “Awesome”, “Cool”, “Wow”, “Oh My God” were the shouts of spontaneous astonishment and excitement. Within seconds, the crowd of people fell silent as they realized they weren’t watching a video game or TV show. This was real. A moment later, a person began to cry. Then another, and another. The enormity of so many people realizing all at once what they had just witnessed was palpable.
As I got closer, I could see bodies falling from tower two. I didn’t know if these were people who were accidentally falling, who couldn’t hang on any longer, or who had given up hope and jumped. I chose not to take that picture.
I was a few blocks away when tower two fell. Everyone turned and ran from a wall of smokey debris that was rolling down the street. It was like a sudden sandstorm in the Sahara desert that quickly overtook everyone on the street.
I’d never been to the World Trade Center before. With visibility now about a block, I made my way by instinct. Past the burning cars in a parking lot. Past the dust covered tables and public art. Across an empty square. Then I saw four firemen in full gear walking in, and I got in line behind them.
We were the first to arrive on the West side of what would later be known as “ground zero”. The visibility was not yet clear enough to see the remains of the twin towers. But what we could see was horrific, as if a giant bomb had detonated. Entire fire trucks were thrown against the walls of buildings, like toys. Windows were smashed as far up as one could see. And the eerie silence was broken only by the occasional sound of loosened windows crashing to the ground and exploding in tiny pieces. I pulled my shirt over my face to try to filter what I was breathing.
After the initial disbelief wore off, one of the firemen turned to Evan and me and asked us to help gather oxygen tanks. We were to drag them to this spot and make a pile. Oxygen would be needed to begin search and rescue, we were told. And so, we did this for a while. I was in an Emergency Medical Services vehicle, getting a tank, when the back door opened, and a person in an EMS uniform asked what I was doing in his vehicle. Nobody was in charge yet, and there was confusion, as a growing number of emergency workers gradually arrived at the scene. I picked up a helmet, which reassured me a little as the windows continued to come crashing down. I learned later I was at what used to be the Marriott Hotel. It and the nearest tower had been turned into a huge pile of twisted metal that was beginning to become visible. Water rushed through what used to be a street, from broken water pipes. Dust covered everything. But it was unlike any dust I’d ever seen. Inches thick in some places, it sparkled, like pixie dust, as if someone had put glitter in it. It took awhile for me to realize this was pulverized glass from the collapsing towers. Some of the emergency personnel tried to clear a street of debris, in hopes that vehicles could reenter the area. It was clear they wanted to mount the rubble and begin looking for survivors. But it wasn’t happening, probably because of the extreme hazard to the rescuers.
At one point, an old fireman came and spoke with James Nachtwey and me. He walked out on an I-beam, looked down at us, and told us how he had been dispatched to the fire truck to get something when the tower collapsed. He said the rest of his crew was buried in the rubble. And then he described with great passion how this would not stop firemen from doing their job, that young men would take their place and save lives. What he was telling us was so powerful, so emotional, so profound that neither James nor I took any pictures at that moment.
By mid afternoon, I was about out of film. I offered to hand carry James’ film to Time, which I did. I walked back to the office, and home that evening. The island of Manhattan was completely shut down. Nobody was allowed in or out with a vehicle. The New York Times was not even delivered the following morning.
I went back for the reopening of the NY Stock Exchange a few days later, which had overwhelming security. But other than those two days, I never returned until some visiting guests wanted to go to the museum at Ground Zero. Evan and I never spoke of that day ever again. Now, twenty years later, I’ve dug out the archive and am looking at my photos of that fateful day, and reliving the shock of it all.”
Interviewed by Scott Mc Kiernan
Scott Mc Kiernan: Great efforts in a tough situation. You had been a magazine photographer. Also apart of legendary picture agency Black Star, as was I and James Nachtwey. So, why did no one every see these amazing images?
Randy Taylor: I was not on assignment. I was no longer an active photographer at that stage. I was “all in” on one of my tech companies by then. Hence, no agency either. No syndication. I processed film, scanned and called around. The only magazine I remember that published one was Business Week. If I remember, they ran the shot of the business man, covered in dirt, walking next to the fireman. A funny side note. James Nachtwey had to think long and hard whether he trusted me to carry out his film. Who knows what I could have done with something that important. But he did. It was in the afternoon. I’m guessing about 4pm, which answers what time I left to walk back to the office. He, of course, wanted to stay and shoot more, but also needed to get his film out. Quite a difficult decision for any photojournalist on scene. I took his film back to my office (which was at 23rd Street and the intersection of Broadway and Fifth at the Flat Iron Building, the 23rd street exit on the N-R line at Madison Square Park, which is why I could clearly see the Towers straight down Fifth Avenue when I exited the subway) and called Time from there. They sent a courier to pick it up.
Scott Mc Kiernan: What camera did you use and film or any other tech specs?
Randy Taylor: The camera was a Nikon. I’ve always been a Nikon guy. I don’t remember which one. Maybe an FM. It’s a miracle that I had a small camera bag in the office at all, in case something important happened one day. Old habits die hard. I had one camera and two lenses – a 35mm and an 85mm. I had, maybe, three or four rolls of film. So I was very careful about what I shot. The cell phone network was overwhelmed. Nobody could get a call in or out. Dagmar, my partner, finally got through to me in the afternoon, maybe 2pm, to ask if I was alive. I was unable to call anyone for most of the day. Manhattan was shut down and sealed off. No vehicles or trains in or out. I stayed at Dagmar’s home at 96th Street that night. There was a lot of walking that day! A lot of walking. The next evening, I walked home, over the Brooklyn Bridge, to my apartment in Green Point. Since looked up Wikipedia and it says: “One World Trade Center (WTC 1, or the North Tower) was hit at 8:46 a.m. Eastern time and collapsed at 10:28 a.m. Two World Trade Center (WTC 2, or the South Tower) was hit at 9:03 a.m. and collapsed at 9:59 a.m.” So, I’d say I came out of the subway about 9:10am. Both towers were hit, and I had gone upstairs to my office and walked past the mini Arc of Triumph in Washington Square Park by the time the first tower collapsed at 9:59.
The map at end of essay, shows Randy Taylor’s path. Randy concludes with: “the path shows how I blindly wandered into “ground zero”, indicated in red. I probably arrived at the main rubble area, where I remained most of the day, about 10:50am. Things I photographed are on the map. The main rubble area is where the firemen are climbing the wreckage with the skeletal remains of the twin towers rising in the background. The map is of the area today, not 20 years ago. The two blue memorial areas are the footprint of the towers when they were standing. Where it says One World Trade Center, that’s the new building that is there now. “
Scott Mc Kiernan: Thank you Randy for sharing. To all those whom lost their lives or had friends and family, ZUMA Pess one all to NEVER FORGET those whose lives were forever changed and destroyed!