Photograph by Ian Spanier
September 11th for me, like most New Yorkers started like any other day, I got up for work, (at the time as a freelance photo editor at Marie Claire and a freelance photographer as well), and started my day. I had to drop some film at the photo lab before heading to mid-town so I got dressed and walked out to the lab which was on Washington Street, 2 blocks from my apartment. Washington St faced straight down into the Twin Towers and I pretty much saw them every day leaving for work, if not from there, then again from the 7th Avenue and Christopher St Subway Station. Like the moon, out a moving car window, they almost seemed to follow me wherever I went in my neighborhood.
Outside the lab, people looking at the North Tower on fire knew nothing about what was going on. I assumed a small plane had hit the tower by accident, as I always saw them flying close to the towers. I dropped my film, and walked outside with the thought I should go up to my building’s roof and take some pictures, but being in a rush, I figured I’d just get on my way. I remember looking down 7th Ave just before I entered the subway and nothing had really changed, so I went down to the train. Thinking back, I must have literally just missed seeing the second plane hit the tower. I can’t really imagine what would have happened if I was on my roof.
Clueless and out of touch underground I reached 34th St and saw a co-worker, I couldn’t tell you now who that was. He asked if I heard what happened and then he told me. By the time I got to 57th St and up to the 3rd Fl office, the towers had collapsed. I think my mom called me to make sure I wasn’t downtown, security told us to evacuate the building, and that getting out of the city was not going to be possible. I called my buddy who worked a few blocks away as I knew he would be stuck in the city, and we decided to walk downtown, about 70 blocks to my apartment. I remember I got paid that day, so I deposited my check, which got lost in the system I recall because the city was in such turmoil the days after. A few people we saw said they were going to a bar on the way, so we went, not really being aware, or rather acknowledging what happened.
At the crowded bar, the news clips flowed, and things began to become to light, and I remember someone in the bar saying something about all the people in the buildings, and on the planes. This didn’t originally occur to me, I assumed people got out of the buildings. It just wasn’t reality. We felt kind of weird being in the bar and left. The further we got, we started to see people with dust on them, and the smoke and the smell I will never forget. We sat at a restaurant on 6th Avenue, which looked straight down into the towers, and as we tried unsuccessfully to eat, we watched people and head-level smoke travel up the Avenue.
In the following days, the death tolls rose, and stories of all the different aspects of the fateful day pounded into our heads, along with the replay of the planes and the towers burning into my eyes. Living near St. Vincent’s, sirens were constant, and I had to show ID to get to my apartment every day. I found myself feeling worse and worse about the victims, I learned one of my photo assistants and a photographer friend whom he assisted were there, and were literally under the building. Both survived but were separated, thinking for days the other was dead. I stopped watching TV, as the stories and the repeated visuals became too much to bear.
Earlier that summer I was down by the Trade Center on an oddly foggy day, and I was shooting with a refurbished Polaroid 110A, and I made a few images of the Towers as the fog swirled about the buildings revealing a piece of sky. I always think of it when I hear Springsteen’s song, Empty Sky. At the time, it was just an interesting weather pattern that I documented, but after 9/11 it became hauntingly different. I didn’t show this image for some time, it was just too uncomfortable. Time passed, and I started showing it on my website and portfolio, but I cannot help but be somewhat uncomfortable regardless of years between.
Today, Ian lives in Long Beach, NY, with his wife and two sons. Coincidentally, Long Beach was home to many of the lost police, firefighters and paramedics that were victims of the terror attacks. This past July, he just completed shooting portraits for a tribute to firefighters in his forthcoming book, Local Heroes: Portraits of America’s Volunteer Firefighters, due out in Fall 2012.
To view more images from Ian Spanier, visit Aurora Photos.
On the 10 year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Aurora Photos published a series of essays on our blog by Aurora photographers and staff who were in New York, Washington, or Pennsylvania on that day, or covered the events of 9/11 in the days following the attacks.