Remembering the horrible events of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center on its 15th anniversary. Among the 2,996 people killed that day was Bill Biggart who raced from his wife and four children to photograph the unfolding tragedy, forever now part of it, the only member of the news media killed that day.
by Blake Pembroke Sell
For the small group of you who shared that horrible morning with me at the World Trade Center site as the towers burned around us and then fell, you know first hand how these 9/11 anniversaries bring back a flood of memories and reminders of horrors we witnessed.
If you know me you know I don’t talk about that day, but I want to use this anniversary to remind us of the ultimate sacrifice paid by news photographer Bill Biggart, the only media person who died covering this horrible event and contributing to the immense tragedy of that day. Bill raced from his Union Square home towards the burning towers, alternating between digital and film cameras photographing the people running in the opposite direction, photographing the south tower as it fell, and ended up standing beside the burning north tower with a group of first responders.
Bill’s body was uncovered four days later under the collapsed pedestrian skyway, along with the bodies of firemen he was with, crushed by the falling north tower, just beyond the flag pole flying the shredded American flag in my picture above. His smashed cameras and his scorched belt pack holding seven crumpled rolls of exposed film were returned to his wife Wendy Doremus by the police.
I was there with Bill’s friend and fellow photographer Chip East as he pried the memory card from the remains of Bill’s digital camera with pliers and as we shared elation and sadness after putting the card into a Mac in the office and saw the card still worked, and that Bill had photographed the moment of his own death as that pedestrian skyway fell down on him.
The next morning I took those dented and bent film canisters to the photo lab and had them processed with little hope of recovering images, but found many of his pictures of that morning visible between burned out and fogged areas of the film rolls. I immediately took the processed film to our client Newsweek magazine and told them about Bill’s death.
I took the photo leading this article just after the collapse of the north tower, while the first responders who had been there moments before with me lay buried in the rubble, before the living rushed back to the site to search for them. What strikes me most about this photo looking back on it now, is that I’m the only one there, that everyone else standing there had just died as they tried to outrun the falling tower, and that Bill’s body lays under the collapsed walkway in the background where he had just been killed.
I carry the memory from that morning of climbing over the rubble surrounded by smoke and debris, with blood dripping down my legs, and a fireman who was one of the first back to the area grabbing me by the shoulders as I stood dazed in shock and caked in WTC dust, shouting at me: “Are you going to try to help find these people or are you just going to take pictures.”
I put my cameras down on top of some debris and dug in the rubble along with the firemen at the sounds of faint beeps of buried firemen’s automatic rescue devices penetrating the slabs and boulders of broken cement. All we found were bodies. We didn’t save anyone.
Blake Pembroke Sell, Sept. 11, 2016
The Newseum. 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC, 20001
Bill’s melted and crushed camera equipment, bags and press cards found with his body are on display in the World Trade Center gallery on the top floor at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., donated by Bill’s widow Wendy.