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,
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.