At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower in New York City. The plane hit the skyscraper between the 93rd and 99th floors, sending a massive shockwave throughout the structure. And while people on the lower floors attempted to leave the building, everyone above the impact zone was trapped. Then, at 9:03 a.m., the South Tower was struck by United Airlines Flight 175.
Overall, the coordinated terror attacks that took place that day claimed the lives of 2,996 people. And the unprecedented tragedy was broadcast live to millions of people around the world, with many who witnessed the events of September 11 still remembering where they were when they first heard the news.
Even years on, media images of 9/11 and its aftermath have lost none of their potency. Photojournalist Mark LaGanga may have known this when, in September 2018, he released a powerful and unsettling video that he had captured in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC). Shot in the brief interval between the collapse of the North and South Towers, the video depicts chaos, destruction and disorientation on the ground.
Then, 56 minutes after Flight 175 had crashed into the South Tower, the building fell, releasing an enormous cloud of ash and dust. Only a few minutes later, LaGanga arrived at the scene – just a short distance from the so-called “hot zone,” or the immediate area of the disaster. It is from this point that his video begins.
Firstly, LaGanga captured a stream of people fleeing the enormous dust cloud coming from the tower. In order to get a good shot, the cameraman had climbed atop a news truck, and from this viewpoint he was unaware that the South Tower had just collapsed. “There was so much dust, and the street signs were hard to see, that it never really dawned on me that one tower already came down,” he recalled to the CBS program 60 Minutes Overtime in September 2018.
Then LaGanga began walking towards the hot zone, with the sound of sirens and shouting all around him. Trying to figure out what was happening, he made an inquiry to a stunned-seeming police officer who was coming the other way. “The roof,” replied the police officer. “Something caved in… it collapsed. I need some water.” Covered in dust, the cop stopped to clear his throat and nose.
LaGanga continued down the road towards the World Trade Center. As he arrived in the hot zone, however, a haze of smoke obstructed his view. The streets around him were covered in dust and debris, while emergency services personnel ran back and forth. Fire trucks and police cars were also parked haphazardly within the chaos, with one firefighter nearby escorting an injured woman to an ambulance. “I can’t see,” she is heard saying in the footage. “I can’t open my eyes.”
Advancing further, LaGanga then arrived at 7 WTC – a 47-story building joined to the World Trade Center plaza by a raised footpath. This structure itself would collapse later in the day. And the photojournalist subsequently ran up an escalator and arrived in a smoke-filled lobby, where he came across Office of Secure Transportation agent William Bennette.
“I think we’re just about the last ones in this building,” Bennette told LaGanga. “I think you should leave.” Before departing, however, LaGanga asked the other man what had happened. “The top of the building fell down,” Bennette replied, referring to the South Tower. “It fell over on us… I haven’t seen outside yet.” Bennette then revealed that he had witnessed a plane hitting one of the towers. “The plane, engines screaming, then an explosion [and] glass,” he said, dazedly describing the moment of impact.
Back outside, LaGanga advanced through the mayhem and arrived at the smoldering ruins of the South Tower. The scene resembled a war zone. Where once had stood a skyscraper, there was now an oblivion of waste and rubble. Twisted girders and other wreckage littered the ground, cars were destroyed, and all around the constant clatter of falling debris could be heard.
Positioning himself at the base of the still-standing North Tower, LaGanga then spent some moments filming the blaze on its upper floors. Over the years, many images have been disseminated of this scene, but they primarily have been taken from a distance. LaGanga’s shots were taken at ground level, however, and so they present a rarer and even more chilling view of the fire.
Then, after capturing the video of the burning North Tower, LaGanga paused to talk to an office worker called Michael Benfante. “I was on the 81st floor,” said Benfante. “There was an explosion… a light flash… The whole… entrance to my office blew open, [and] my office was freaking out… We just started heading down the stairs… I stopped at like [floor number] 68, and there was a woman in a wheelchair. I… just carried her down the steps, carried her down 68 floors.”
A few minutes later, the North Tower collapsed, killing everyone who was trapped above the impact floors. Next door, the Marriott Hotel was obliterated. And LaGanga, who was standing nearby, attempted to capture the whole scene on camera. His gaze was unflinching too – he even wiped his lens in an attempt to get a clearer shot.
Indeed, although bystanders sprinted past him as the tower fell, LaGanga stood firm. Moments later, a cloud of smoke and ash completely engulfed the scene, plunging everything around the cameraman into darkness. And for a couple of minutes, the footage shows nothing but blackness and the sounds of coughing and retching. “Boy, that was close,” a voice is also heard saying.
Then, when the dust finally clears, the streets are shown to be an apocalyptic haze of smoke and debris. Eventually, LaGanga spotted an elderly man in a shirt and tie. “It collapsed,” said the elderly man on camera. “The top floors collapsed down. I saw the top blow, and then I ran like hell. Thank God I’m 69, but I can still run. There’s gotta be firemen trapped back there, though.”
And LaGanga spent several more minutes wandering around before he was finally escorted out of the area. In one of the most surreal moments of his journey, he arrived at a barricade beyond the perimeter of the hot zone. There was no chaos, no dust, no wailing sirens and no alarms. On the other side of the blockade, crowds of tourists were simply being ushered along the street.
But while the September 11 attacks left New York reeling, the city was quick to recover. And in 2014 the One World Trade Center was inaugurated in Lower Manhattan in the same place where the original World Trade Center had once stood. Also known as Freedom Tower, One World Trade Center is now the highest building standing in the U.S.
The survivors, too, rebuilt their lives. Benfante, the office worker who helped the wheelchair-bound woman to escape the North Tower, later wrote a book about his September 11 experience called Reluctant Hero. He has subsequently received numerous honors and delivers keynote speeches at events.
Bennette, on the other hand, would ultimately be charged with stealing government cars from the hot zone. The cars were suspected of being contaminated with asbestos and were meant to be scrapped; instead, he passed the vehicles on to his mother and daughter. Bennette was found guilty and was given six months’ probation.
Meanwhile, LaGanga himself continues to shoot videos for a living. “At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is capture real moments,” he told 60 Minutes Overtime. “So you must kind of follow and try not to get in anyone’s way but [instead] document real moments of what’s going on.” And his footage from that day in 2001 proves that he has lived by this very mantra.