Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Forgotten Heroes of 9/11

Allison Cook

9/11 is the tragedy this nation will never forget. For those of us who were not in New York City or old enough to remember the day, we visualize September 11, 2001 as videos and photos. Videos that the news stations ran in the background as the screen flashed "BREAKING NEWS." Photos that ran on front covers of magazines and spanned the entire front page of every newspaper in the nation.

When we mourn the 3,000 people lost that day, innocent citizens, firefighters and police officers come to mind. But aren't we, as a nation, forgetting an important group of people to include on this list?

What about the men and women who ran straight into the danger of the burning and collapsing towers, to get us (the people who couldn't be there to see it ourselves) the images and information we needed to understand what was happening.

What about the journalists, photographers and videographers?

The Stories

David Handschuh was one of the photojournalists on the scene 15 years ago. He was lucky. Luckier than his firefighter friends that he waved and talked to just before they walked to their deaths. Luckier than fellow photographers and journalists that ran into the buildings to get the truth of the story, and died doing it. Handschuh was carried away from 9/11 with a shattered right leg and broken left. He stands today to tell his story and the story of those he saw. On Tuesday, he stood in front of a room packed of Ohio University Scripps School of Journalism and Visual Communication students to tell his story.
Photo Credit: Allison Cook
Handschuh talks about his experiences as a
photojournalist on 9/11 to OU students.
His story begins like that of many others: It was a beautiful September morning. Handschuh wasn't supposed to work that day, so he was going to NYU to teach a class. He was in his car when that first plane hit. He laughs as he recalls calling NYU to tell them to put a sign on the lecture hall's door saying he would be a little late. Nine months late was the reality. 

Handschuh was, and still is by the sound of it, friends with many of the New York City firefighters. So, when he saw one of the firetrucks flying down the street, Handschuh followed behind. He remembers waving to the eleven firemen, friends of his, as they drove to the tower. All eleven of these men were in fact driving to their death. 

Handschuh remembers arriving on scene to hear something unusual for the normally bustling city. It was quiet. Everyone was in deep shock. Of course the silence didn't last long, a "loud noise came from all over but nowhere in particular," Handschuh says, referring to the second plane flying over head and hitting the South Tower. 

Handschuh interjects his story many times to talk of the pictures he was taking as the horrific events unfolded. Many of his pictures from that day won awards, but those awards are tainted. Handschuh says that he would give back every one of those prizes if the world would have never had to experience that day.
Photo Credit: Don Halasy
Escaping survivors of 9/11 were covered in ash and dust. 
Handschuh says that after he had been struct down by the
South Tower's collapse, he was essentially buried alive in
the mess. 
In 2011, the U.S. News and World Report put together an article by Danielle Kurtzleben that illustrated many journalists' thoughts and stories on that day and their present thoughts looking back on that day. The piece is simply titled, "Journalists Remember 9/11."

One of the journalists interviewed is NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten. He and his wife, an ABC reporter, heard the news while at home and both felt the need to fulfill their duties as journalists. 

Gjelten was at the pentagon when the plane crashed into the building. Luckily he was on the other side of the building and "was unaware of the attack until host Bob Edwards told him mid-interview," according to Kurtzleben. Still, the journalists were in the dark, hearing only that there was a fire. Gjelten told Kurtzleben, "'However just as we're talking now, Bob, I can hear a PA out in the corridor saying that all personnel should, I think they're saying, 'Leave.''"

Once evacuated, Gjelten tracked down a phone, since cellphones were essentially useless at the time, and called in to work. He gave an hour on-air interview and then headed back to the Pentagon to record more audio of what was happening on scene. 
Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill
The aftermath of the Pentagon's hit on 9/11.
The New York Daily News also ran an article by Richard Huff in 2011, titled "9/11 remembered: For TV reporters on the scene, stress lingered long after the cameras stopped." In this piece many of the reporters featured were on the scene of the Twin Towers collapsing. 

For CBS News correspondent Bryon Pitts, 9/11 was the first time he ever saw the towers. He was in a cab when the South Tower was struck and ended up "walking as throngs of people were going the other way" according to Huff. 

The most horrific part of his story is what he saw as he was looking up at the towers with three New York City police officers.  Huff said in his piece that Pitts thought he saw "a piece of paper floating downward, perhaps an SOS note. 'Then I realized it's a woman, in a dress, falling to her death.'"

Kristen Shaughnessy, from NY1, was in Brooklyn that day and rushed downtown when she got the call. While there, if it weren't for an officer telling her to run, she would have most likely been buried in the collapsing towers.

Shaughnessy told Huff, "'It was the only time in my career as a news manager that I actually thought we lost people on assignment, (...) I thought it was the only time we had assigned people a story that resulted in their death. It was a horrible feeling."

The Problem

So why is it that when you search "How many journalists/photographers died on 9/11" no number comes up? Why is it that only recently are the photographers and journalists being asked to tell their stories?

I think it's an issue of ethics and an issue of relevance.

The ethical issue is more straight forward. It's a conflict of interest for the news publications to publish about their staff. From my experiences, while newsrooms may be competitive, they are also full of people who know and understand each other. 

Who wants to write about their dead friend? We all want to honor the person who died doing their job, but it's awkward to write about people who were writing about others. 

Also, the journalists and photographers on that day were not the most important people. Today, they need to be recognized with the other heroes and victims, but on that day they did not. That day was not about them. 

Journalists are like lights in a classroom in situations like this. They're always there, doing their job, but the everyday person doesn't really take much notice of them (unless they aren't doing their job correctly). And that's the way, it seems, journalists prefer it.

These photographers and journalists don't need recognition, or think they don't. They see themselves as nothing more but informers. Huff even wrote when talking about how many survivors "came close to dying, but they're reluctant to say it, because the story isn't about them. But it is."

No, they did not directly save any lives. No they were not innocent people that happen to be at the wrong place and the wrong time. Yes, they were the ones running head first into danger. Why? Because they had to do their job. They had to go get the facts and get them to the people who couldn't be there to see the horror themselves. Yes, they were the informers that helped bring the nation together and prevent another day like September 11, 2001.


Handschuh describes himself that day as a "guy with a camera and was too stupid to run away." But the truth is, he is one of the heroes. 

He may not see it, but the firefighters who found Handschuh after he had been dug up and carried him to safety see it. Handschuh recalls that the firefighters told him that he had saved their lives, because if they hadn't seen Handschuh there, they would have been inside the North Tower as it fell.

He may not see it, but the millions of people who lived the horror of 9/11 through his pictures see it. 

No photographer, journalist or videographer on that day may see it, but in the eyes of the public these men and women are heroes too. 

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