The Washington Post

New York firefighte­rs are surrounded by rubble, dust and destructio­n outside the World Trade Center site a day after the attacks of Sept. 11. More inside from one man’s camera,

- BY MARC FISHER PHOTOGRAPH­S BY LYLE OWERKO marc.fisher@washpost.com

The sound, a colossal crashing, a chilling vibration — “the loudest, most horrible sound I’d ever heard” — pulled Lyle Owerko out of his apartment on Broadway in Lower Manhattan, onto the street, where his other senses came under assault: The smell — acrid, industrial. The sight — strangely cinematic, yet too frightenin­gly real. The sky was a rich, lush blue; the air, crisp and inviting that morning, was now rapidly souring.

Sept. 11, 2001, was, Owerko said, a “beautiful warm crystal-clear fall day in September when no birds sang.”

He was a photograph­er but not a newsman. He called himself a “popular culture junkie,” someone who had avoided darkness in his work. He looked for bright moments, capturing the play in life.

Now, he hustled over to the corner of Vesey and Church streets, just below Five World Trade Center, his Fuji 645Zi camera in hand, and saw the buildings he’d always loved, those thin bands of steel soaring into the sky, on fire.

In his pictures, in those shattering moments, there is a perverse beauty: that perfect sky, those lovely people, the glowing orange fireball, the rain of debris that looked for a short time like stars in the firmament.

Then Owerko’s pictures show more: a traffic cop just before the second tower was hit, directing cars even as she gazed up at the gaping hole in the side of the North Tower, smoke starting to fill the sky. She kept at her job while she saw into the end.

Not seen here: his pictures — at first glance beautiful, then almost instantly impossible to look at — of people floating through the air, the people who saw no choice but to leap from the fire and into the ether. These photos and others like them immediatel­y became taboo — too intrusive, too terrifying, too unfathomab­le.

Instead, Owerko’s most famous image became the one that ran on the cover of Time magazine, capturing the explosion as the second plane flew into the second tower. It is a war picture. It is a terror picture. It is what 9/11 was: gut-wrenching, scary, spectacula­r, all at once forbidding and captivatin­g.

From the distance of 20 years, the picture is in some ways even more powerful, because we know that everything did change, with thousands of lives violently ended, many thousands more wrecked, long wars launched, a nation divided, its sense of security and trust poisoned.

In that moment, though, there wasn’t yet time to reflect. Owerko shows us the panic — people running up Broadway, a dark cloud of fire and debris racing up the avenue after them. He shows us the heroes, exhausted firefighte­rs whose very survival would come to haunt them for years to come.

And from a few days later, he shows us the aftermath, in dust and rubble and in a solitary crushed squad car, and it almost smells like The Pile: like the death camps of another era’s horrors, a sickening mix of pulverized concrete and melted metal and the people who once worked in towers that reached for the heavens.

 ??  ?? Plumes of ash and smokes on Broadway as people run toward the Tribeca neighborho­od. Owerko, who called himself a “popular culture junkie” and looked for bright moments in his work, captured the panic of 20 blocks in a single image.
Plumes of ash and smokes on Broadway as people run toward the Tribeca neighborho­od. Owerko, who called himself a “popular culture junkie” and looked for bright moments in his work, captured the panic of 20 blocks in a single image.
 ??  ?? Lyle Owerko’s most famous 9/11 image, of a jet hitting the World Trade Center’s South Tower, appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Lyle Owerko’s most famous 9/11 image, of a jet hitting the World Trade Center’s South Tower, appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
 ??  ?? The trade center’s South Tower seen just after second plane’s impact. Twenty years after the events of 9/11, Owerko’s photograph­s are in some ways more powerful, with the knowledge of the lives lost and the long-lasting impacts on national security and trust.
The trade center’s South Tower seen just after second plane’s impact. Twenty years after the events of 9/11, Owerko’s photograph­s are in some ways more powerful, with the knowledge of the lives lost and the long-lasting impacts on national security and trust.
 ??  ?? A traffic cop looks at the trade center from the corner of Church and Chambers streets just after the first plane hit.
A traffic cop looks at the trade center from the corner of Church and Chambers streets just after the first plane hit.
 ??  ?? Four officers of Vesey and C
Four officers of Vesey and C
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? A vehicle of the New York Police Department is seen crushed outside the Trade Center site amid dust and rubble on Sept. 12, 2001. For many of those who worked at or lived near Ground Zero in the aftermath, it was the beginning of lifelong health problems.
A vehicle of the New York Police Department is seen crushed outside the Trade Center site amid dust and rubble on Sept. 12, 2001. For many of those who worked at or lived near Ground Zero in the aftermath, it was the beginning of lifelong health problems.
 ??  ?? of the New York Fire Department walk north on Broadway just after the North Tower collapsed. Owerko went to the corner Church streets, just below Five World Trade Center, and began documentin­g the moments of 9/11 with a Fuji 645Zi camera.
of the New York Fire Department walk north on Broadway just after the North Tower collapsed. Owerko went to the corner Church streets, just below Five World Trade Center, and began documentin­g the moments of 9/11 with a Fuji 645Zi camera.

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