Eric O'Connell is an award-winning photographer, visual anthropologist, and Associate Professor of Practice (Photography) at Northern Arizona University. His training inspires his work as a visual anthropologist (USC 2010) and photojournalist. His 2010 film, Cowboys: East Germany, Rebels of the Vogtland, is distributed by Alexander St. Videos of London, England. The Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, NM, represents his 9/11 work. Freda Scott Creative represents him for his commercial work. His work is in the permanent collections of The Wittliff Collections, Texas State University, and the 9/11 Museum in New York.


The Violent Unfolding of a New Reality Events of 9/11, and the collapse of the WTC
My Personal Experience on September 11, 2001 –Eric O’Connell

I had just moved to New York, and I was still unpacking boxes from an extended overseas trip. Despite the jet-lag I couldn't miss the interruption on my television screen. "A Cessna or something hit the building,” said a Hispanic voice. As I watched the seemingly impossible image of the burning tower, I was immediately struck with the implausibility of this being an accident. Lower New York is flat, very flat, and it would be next to impossible –– even for the worst pilot –– to not avoid those towers. 

I was right. 

I can only assume it was my training as a journalist that possessed me to grab my camera bag and run. As I descended my steps, the building shook violently, as if from an earthquake. I had no idea then, but I learned later that it was the second airplane hitting the south tower. I ran until I had made my way up Broadway and towards the burning towers. It looked like the images I'd seen of a ticker-tape parade in NY with confetti raining slowly down from above. It was only as I got closer, that I realized this "confetti" was paper and ashes of the people that were trapped above me in the towers, and who had died in the explosions. As I entered what would become known as "ground zero" I realized I was now dangerously close. The debris fell and mixed with heavy ash, and bodies (bodies!), broken concrete and steel. Intermittently violent crashes of mammoth pieces of steel or a body would slam into the ground around me. I looked up to see bodies draped and contorted over building walls and precipices. 

It was as if someone had gone into a butcher shop, grabbed handfuls of flesh – bones and all – and thrown them all over the streets. At my feet were limbs, a shoe, dismembered fingers. I was overwhelmed and had no idea how to process what I was seeing. At the same time I'd entered survival mode, I remember I was constantly dodging obstacles. The speed with which an object falls is so fast and so furious, there would be no time to move out of the way. Suddenly I was afraid to get too close. I made my way up and down side streets –– Washington St., Albany St., Greenwich St. and onto Liberty St. and then Cedar St., just south of the South Tower. As I walked, I became hyper aware of the unrecognizable body parts littering the ground. I started looking down, and not up. I narrowly sidestepped, "What's that? A piece of … of spine?" Horrified yet mesmerized, suddenly a Wham! I understood then that I'd also have to look up. As I became more conscious of the world above me and at my feet, I realized I was walking over the detritus that was people's lives: a shoe, someone’s day-timer, a child's drawing, a fore-finger and thumb ripped from a hand, all mixed with concrete, stone, steel, vegetables and paper, fanning out as far as I could see in all directions. 

On Liberty Street, I was directly south of the South Tower, standing in front of the Deutsche Bank building. (Later to be condemned because of the heavy burning and damage it suffered.) I looked up at the gaping hole in the building and thought: That's not good. That could fall, and if it does it's going to fall towards me and I’ll have nowhere to run. So, I walked west a few 

There was scaffolding above the sidewalk from work being done and I stayed under that to avoid being hit by small falling debris. All around, it sounded like oversized rain drops hitting at odd intervals. Tick…tic, tic…. Dink. Tic…. Dink, dink, tic. I noticed two policemen near me and two or three bystanders, when all of sudden I heard a low, loud rumble. I new immediately what it was and without looking up, I turned, pushed the two people standing behind me, and shouted, run

In that brief moment we ran a mere 25 feet to the western entrance of 90 West Street. (There was also an entrance on the North side facing the WTC tower, which enters into the same lobby.) Confusion gripped us. Years, decades started to rush through my mind: Enter this door? Don’t enter this door? Keep running? Don’t keep running? Psychology 101. Fight or Flight. I enter! I dive like superman (in my mind I look like superman) towards a corner. Why a corner? Where I grew up there were tornadoes. My mom always said go for a corner where a wall meets a floor, or another wall. I did. As I was thinking corners, tornadoes and superman, the shockwave of air blew up the lobby and forced my choice violently into the wall. I think that’s it; we’re dead. 

A different type of panic grips me. Slammed against the wall, I’m enveloped in blackness, while thunderous, deafening sounds pound down around us. I envision monstrous pieces of steel and concrete falling on me. My mind goes inside myself as I curled up like a baby, and decided my life would be over soon. I whimpered, and could only think of those that I knew. I hoped that it would end quickly and not in a situation where I was trapped for days with broken limbs under rubble. I said, I love you, to my parents and family, and coiled up in fear waiting to be suddenly crushed. From the first rumble of the building, to the diving and ducking and crying, my whole life – including details – flashed through my mind. What seemed like years took a mere 10-seconds. 

The roar stopped and in that moment I realized nothing had hit me, but I could not breath. So this is what it's like to die of smoke inhalation, I think. I questioned whether I was even alive. Someone nearby yelled, "I can't breath!" Another voice behind me said, "keep your face on the floor." Good idea, I thought. I was somehow sitting up on my knees. I couldn't see my hands in front of my face but I bent over and blew to clear a spot in the powdery ash for my mouth and covered my face with my hands and tried to breath. I wanted to breath. Then, another voice said, “Over here; we can get out over here!” It was one of the cops. I knew it because it was the only female voice, and I remember seeing her on the corner. Maybe I really am alive; I think. 

I knew where the door was and was afraid to move towards it. What would I fall into, or over? Would I fall through a hole, or onto someone? Again I questioned whether we were alive at all? Could I make the short 10-15 feet to the door? Was it that far off? Keep talking, I yelled to the female voice. We cannot see you. I reached out my arms to feel, and feeling another body, we walked towards the voice. 

I took more pictures by unscrewing my lens filter, and then screwing it back on, trying to hide my lens from the thick fog of dust. It was impossible to see through the camera, indeed, almost impossible to see at all. It was hard to tell if I was inside, or outside. My field of view obliterated any distinction, and people appeared like ghosts. Appearing and then disappearing, people moved in and out of view like apparitions. 

Without words, we separated and walked south down West Street towards Battery Park. Outside the door everything was crushed. A Fire Department Ambulance sat somewhat intact outside the doorway, where moments before I watched as the medics drug a fireman's remains that had fallen from the fiery tower above. I could only wonder if they were now dead themselves. 

There was now silence, a complete and utter silence. An unusual calm seemed to have settled on everything. We were walking in a thick powdery dust. There were no cries, no sirens. Nothing. Silence. There must be fire; there must be screams. I heard nothing. I remember no sounds at all at this point. How am I alive? Didn't one of the world’s tallest towers just fall only tens of feet from me? Am I really alive, I wonder again? Perhaps I'm not. 

A cart of water stood abandoned, people helping themselves. One of them, a policeman, looked at me with shock in his eyes, which scared me. He grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me to the water fountain, making me put water on my face. I must have looked dead to him. A group of people surrounded a transistor radio, which was sitting on the roof of a car. Fear gripped me. What’s next? Would planes start dropping bombs? Would something blow up? How would we escape? Where would we run? We're on an island! As I wonder what’s next, I hear that same loud rumble, but this time in the distance. A massive cloud of smoke and debris comes rushing through the buildings and engulfs us, obscuring everything again. The North Tower has just fallen. 

Covered again, I cannot breath and all people, and everything in my field of vision disappears. I am once again bathed in darkness, lungs and eyes burning. All sounds sights and smells are gone. My only thought is that I cannot open my eyes, and I still can't breath. I close my eyes tightly and put my hands over them. With my face down I walk towards my apartment just a block away. I look up once in a while between blinks. I was covered in ash, and coughing but I made it home. Inside, my apartment was covered with the fine dust from the collapsed towers. I knew that I was lucky; I was still alive. The TV was still on, but now the tone of the message had been inextricably altered. 


Montroe Gallery of Photography, Santa Fe
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