By Integritas Staff
The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center weren’t only about the sudden threat of suicidal extremists, but also about acts of kindness by average Americans struggling to survive the crushed towers and those risking their lives to photograph it, a panel of veteran journalists told an audience at Ramapo College.
Ramapo College hosted a panel discussion Sept. 30 with New York Times reporters, Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, co authors of 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, a story of ordinary people’s heroism pieced together from hundreds of interviews, emails and documents that chronicled the events inside the towers on Sept. 11 before they fell. They discussed their reporting experiences with an audience of about 100 students, faculty and staff.
For a tragedy that touched the lives of these journalists so closely, the coverage of 9/11 was risky,emotional and ethically challenging, panelists said. But it was also a story about great humanity and the kindness of people in the face of a struggle to survive.
They told stories of everyday heroes like Frank DiMartini and David Ortiz, who went back countless times to free trapped people on the upper floors; they didn’t survive. There were firefighters and first responders who carried people from the upper floors and co-workers who stayed by the side of their wheelchair bound friends.
“[9/11] was a great chapter in the history of human life,” Dwyer said. “What happened [at the towers] is a response to war that people made with acts of kindness.”
Professor Thomas Lueck opened the discussion, “The Real Ground Zero,” that also featured Thomas Franklin, the editor of NorthJersey.com, and photographer of The Record who took the famous photograph “Raising the Flag at Ground Zero.” Franklin screened his 12-minute documentary, “Witness to History,” featuring photographers’ account of what happened that day.
“There was so much great work done that day by photographers,” Franklin said. “That was the story of our lifetime.”
When asked about the job of interviewing survivors and so many families in grief, Flynn said that for the most part, he was able to compose himself — it was their moment for release, for catharsis, not his. Still, though, even people that had told their story over and over to journalists choked up at times, and Flynn found himself reacting with them during these particularly difficult moments.
“You realize that there would be moments when they were telling the story, like when the towers collapsed, that they would, even in the tenth telling, they would begin to tear up, or they would have to stop and pause,” Flynn said. “You realize that the power of the event to them, no matter how many times they’ve told the story, still had an emotional grip on them.”
How much are these pictures worth?
Franklin screened a 12-minutes film entitled “Witness to History: The photographers of 9/11.” It showed interviews with photographers who were in New York on the day the attacks occurred, and who subsequently put their lives on the line to get as many shots as they could.
These photographers included Ricky Flores of The Journal News, David Handschuh of the New York Daily News, Richard Drew of the Associated Press and many more. Even tourists, amateur photographers like Carmen Taylor from Arkansas were there to see the events up close. The era of citizen journalism began with her photograph of a plane flying into the North Tower. They watched as the airplanes approached, stared in awe as smoke gushed from the buildings, perhaps ran as the towers began to crumble.
Even when it came to that, these people wouldn’t have let themselves be deterred. Economopoulos ran briefly when the North Tower collapsed close to 10:30 a.m., but then returned to continue photographing. David Friend, author of “Watching the World Change; The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11,” couldn’t overstate the photographers’ courage.
The Star Ledger’s Aristide Economopoulos was in the lobby of one of the buildings at the World Trade Center when he saw people crying while covered in ash and dust. One woman asked him why he was taking pictures. He responded, “We have to remember this; we can’t forget.”
None perhaps sparked more controversy than photographs taken of people falling out of the burning towers.
The ethics of showing ‘ the jumpers’
The most photographed disaster in human history had countless visual and textual stories to tell but it was a fine line between information and sensationalism. Some questioned the need for a picture that appeared so intense, the jumper in the white jacket falling head first.
Dwyer acknowledged the notoriety that those photographs received back then, but added, “The ethical questions are now moot.”
During the discussion panel, the identifying certain well-publicized victims was a topic much talked about—about how Dwyer and Flynn were ultimately against it. “The Falling Man” and other jumpers in particular were mentioned, only for Flynn and Dwyer to reaffirm that there is a fine line between journalism and exploitation.
Flynn recalled that most of the jumpers originated from the South Tower.
“Almost no jumpers came out of the north towers. The heat from the fire makes the decision to jump almost involuntary. It was a very delicate topic to discuss; we weren’t interested in identifying them,” Flynn said. “We ran a small photo of people on the ledge, but our editors wanted to make it bigger; I had to go through the chain of command to stop them.
“I personally made the photo smaller so you couldn’t identify the person,” said Flynn.
Flynn said United States television outlets soon declined to broadcast film of jumping or falling people. Foreign broadcasters continued to run the film for several days.
“The gatekeeper role of mainstream journalism organizations is a little bit defunct,” said Dwyer.
He explained that once the images get out onto the internet they are quickly and freely spread around the world.
Flynn reported on the people trapped above the impact zones who jumped or fell from the burning towers. His goal was to report on the reasons why people jumped rather than identifying any specific jumpers.
Dwyer and Flynn kept back from the edge of tabloid sensationalism. Culling from hundreds of documents and interviews, they reconstructed the last minutes of hundreds who perished on 9/11. Writing about someone who would die later, took its toll on the journalists.
“All these people that had been alive in my head narratively were now gone,” said Dwyer. “It was crushing to realize that as long as you were writing about them in some way they felt alive and to reach the end of that was very hard.”
Photographer captures iconic image
There’s a familiar photo to all of the firefighters lifting up an American flag atop the rubble at Ground Zero on that gloomy day. What Franklin didn’t realize at the time was that he had captured ‘the picture’. It was a split second decision to focus on the firefightsdz as they raised the flag with the rubble of the World Trade Center behind them. The image took on a life of its own, Franklin said, and has been compared to the famous photo of soldiers struggling to raise the American flag at the battle of Iwo Jima.
“I just saw them raising the flag and I shot the picture,” said Franklin. There was no conversation between me and them. They didn’t even know I was there taking the picture. It wasn’t until I started seeing the picture everywhere that I realized I had the picture.”
Franklin said some images were difficult to take, but this was history in the making.
“It was hard to not become emotional, but I was there to be a journalist,” said Franklin. “I was there to document what was happening.”