Tue. Sep 10, 2002
'I'm OK, I'm with the firemen': In Memory of Bill Biggart
It’s no surprise why September 11 cut so many of us to the core, at least, those with any capacity at all for empathy. If you worked in a tall building, or any office, it was easy to put yourself in the place of those workers in the Towers. If you travel a lot by air, it was easy to imagine being on a flight where the worst happens. And in a more literal sense, over the course of 30 years, millions of people entered the Trade Center itself. Thousands of people flew on Flights 11, 175, 93, and 77.
On a purely emotional level, it was easy to empathize with someone who’d lost a husband in the Towers, or a wife on one of the flights. We could all pretty easily put ourselves in the place of someone who that morning had the sudden and awful realization that someone dear to them was in mortal danger.
I think that over those next few days, most of us took extra care to make sure we said “I love you” on parting, because we all had raw wounds that had proven how fragile life could be, that it could fracture painfully at any moment. In short, there were hundreds of ways for those who were many miles away to identify with someone caught up in that awful day.
Being empathic (not in any kind of psychic sense, just the ability to project yourself into the place of another) is a double edged sword, and it is something with which I’ve always been blessed/cursed. In fact, that’s been one of my post 9-11 realizations; I’ve always known I tended to be a bit more empathic than most, but I’ve learned there are some who would begin emitting smoke from their already overheated brain pan if they were injected with even a small dose of the empathy they so clearly lack.
Anyway, I think that was part of why I was a pretty fractured individual for the first week or so, and easily moved to tears for long after that. But grief changes, and turns. I tried to get past the worst of it, and mostly did.
Until October 11, when I wrote these two simple sentences: "I hope I can bring myself to read this later. But I just looked at the last frames shot by a photographer killed 9-11, pulled from the rubble, and I can hardly type this entry." With that, I lost it, in ways that a year later I am just now trying to repair, with these very words.
The photographer was Bill Biggart, who was killed at the age of 54 when the North Tower collapsed. This long convoluted essay is meant to honor him, and to tell how his story powerfully affected me, in detail. Because only by telling it in detail can I get out the demon: that he made choices that I would have made had I been in his place, he did things I would have done because they seemed the safe thing to do. And he died, doing what he had to do, as I know I would have died.
There is so much between the lines in the quote above. Even now it is very difficult for me to write this, and then, well, it was impossible. That day, I found the link to the original MSNBC story (now sadly “404 Not Found”) somewhere long forgotten, and I never made it past the first long paragraph. I went immediately to the pictures after getting the barest details, and getting to the final frame of his life left me totally devastated. I wanted to make a quick entry to get the link out there for others to read, but I literally had a hard time typing because I was shaking. My intention was to finish reading the article, and then write about it later. But I never could bring myself to do it. It affected me far too deeply, left me shaken in a ways I could not pinpoint, and I could not bring myself to write about it.
Two months later when the story appeared in a new form at Digital Journalist, I thought I’d try again. But I never did. I made a pointless call for him to get a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, but I never addressed the real point, the demon inside.
Though it may sound stupid, silly, and self-indulgent to anyone who’s bothered to read this far, over the past week I’ve felt strangely haunted. Not by him. By myself, for some absurd yet powerful and painful feeling that I abandoned him. Just as surely as if I’d run in cowardice and left him behind. I know it’s ridiculous, and I can’t explain it, but I feel it so strongly. And now I know it’s because I put myself in his place … consciously and subconsciously for a year now … and I see myself making the same choices. And I see myself dead.
So here we are. It’s taken me 11 months to face this and write about it.
To be sure, Bill Biggart was not the only photographer who died that day: "Photographer Tom Pecorelli died when the American Airlines flight he was on was the first plane to slam into one of the towers. Bill Biggart, a still photographer, and Glen Pettit, a still and video photographer, were on site covering the events at the World Trade Center and were both killed when the towers collapsed. Photographers David Handschuh and Michael Alexander were both seriously injured in the process of covering the event."
In fact, "2001 was the worst year since 1995 for journalist fatalities [...] Bill was one of 51 journalists killed in 2001." A tragic number of journalists died in Afghanistan last fall, but I count Bill Biggart as the first casualty of the working press in the War on Terror.
And this essay is surely as much for me as it is for him. He doesn’t need my words to be remembered, his story and the remains of his cameras are in the Smithsonian: "Out of that collective experience, curators at the Smithsonianï¿½s National Museum of American History (NMAH) have shaped an exhibition intended neither to explain nor to analyze — it is still too soon for that — but to commemorate. ‘September 11: Bearing Witness to History,’ which opens on the one-year anniversary and closes four months later, presents personal and public narratives, conveyed in word, image and artifact [...] ...visitors are invited to contribute their own stories to a digital archive by answering two questions: ‘How did you witness history on September 11?’ and ‘Has your life changed?’ "
"’With my cameras,’ Bill Biggart, 30 years a photographer, might have answered the first question. But his determination to witness history — to shoot the story — cost him his life. On that morning, sometime between the collapse of the South and the North towers, Biggart had spoken by cell phone with his wife, Wendy Doremus. ‘I’m OK,” he reassured her, ‘I’m with the firemen.’ "
“I’m OK , I’m with the firemen.” Those were among the last words Bill Biggart said to his wife, meant as reassurance when she pleaded with him to get out of there. In such a situation, there could hardly seem a wiser choice than sticking with the firefighters. Not only do you maintain access to keep shooting, you’re with the best guys to be with in a crisis: first responders with training and support, who are certain to be headed to the hottest spot, with the sure intent to tame it, and an equal desire to make it safely home at the end of the day.
On any other day, it would have been the perfect choice. There was no way for Bill to know that on September 11, 2001, not even the New York Fire Department could hold up the sky. But it was the only safe choice for a working photographer. You might think, the only safe choice for any civilian was to run, and anyone who didn’t was foolhardy, even asking for it. I can’t begin to explain to you how, in that situation, a working photographer takes his obligation as seriously as those firefighters. They don’t kid themselves that they’re going to save lives like the firefighters, but that day Bill Biggart and hundreds of other shooters knew they were witnessing a vast historical event. They knew it by 9:03am, when it became clear this was no accident, but an act of war. In such a situation, they would have literally had to handcuff me, hogtie me, and carry me out before I would have stopped performing what I would have seen as a sacred duty: to witness and record what I saw, so that no one would ever forget. I would have done whatever it took to stay on the scene. Latching on to the firefighters would have assured that, and it’s the choice I would have made, just like Bill did.
They found Bill Biggart’s body on September 15, still among the firefighters: "After four days, Biggart’s body was pulled from the rubble, and identified by his fingerprints. The medical examiner told Doremus it was not suitable for viewing. But his clothes were all recovered, and all his belongings, down to the $26 in his wallet; the only sign that he’d been at the scene of one of the world’s great conflagrations was a burned edge on his press card. As for his equipment, the three camera bodies were mostly intact, although the lenses had been smashed or sheared off, and the backs had blown off the two film cameras, destroying whatever images might have been in them at the end. But seven rolls of exposed film had been recovered, and the microdisk was still in the back of his digital camera."
And that is part of the legacy he left us, those final images that outlived him: "When Chip East was handed the bag containing Biggart’s gear by his widow, Wendy, he was convinced that no pictures had survived [...] ‘As I looked at them for the first time, it wasn’t just the pictures, but I was looking around and listening to those of us who were at Bill’s studio. Hearing Bill’s wife, Wendy, saying things like, ‘Oh Damn, Bill, why are you so close;?’ really meant something too. Here we were two weeks after he was killed, and she was still talking to him, through his pictures."
" ‘And then you see the last frame that nobody else will ever have. You see the honeycomb pieces of the first building… and we see half of the hotel that was destroyed as well. After the second building fell, the hotel, the Marriott I think, was gone. You see it cut in half from what fell from the first building and it is time stamped 10:28 and 24 seconds. Basically that time stamp is the end, because at 10:30 is when the second building came down.’ " It’s a stunning and unique image of that day, but I can’t show it to you yet. You’ve got to take a walk with me, and Bill, and a couple of others.
For a year now, every still image I’ve seen from that 100 minutes, I’ve analyzed, however briefly, what the angle is, and where the photographer was standing when they took it. I’ve wondered about each of their stories, but you usually only see a frame or two, not enough to find a trail.
James Nachtwey, perhaps the Michael Jordan of war photography, gives us both a lengthy interview and a gallery of images that mostly tell his tale. I’ve come back to them over and over again in the past year, in wonder at his survival, the images, and of the experience itself. His survival and Bill’s death became somehow intertwined for me, as they were opposite sides of the same ugly coin of fate. Bill didn’t leave us an explanation of his actions like Nachtwey does in his interview, but he left us the whole sequence of images from that day, and I can’t help but be drawn into it.
Some might think it a bit presumptuous of me to try and guess what Bill Biggart was thinking and doing in his last hour or so. That’s not my intention, and much of what follows is educated supposition. I didn’t know Bill. But every picture does tell a story, and linked together in a time sequence, they lead me down a path over which I have no control. I’m sucked in by the empathic “what if?”
On any given day, there are literal tons of professional photographers in New York, but on that day, Magnum, a well known agency for photojournalists, was having their annual meeting. Many of the best shooters in the world just happened to be in the vicinity of Lower Manhattan that day. James Nachtwey primarily covers war and strife, and is usually not even in the country, but he was at his eastside Manhattan studio that morning. When he heard of the first crash on the news, he grabbed his cameras and headed for the scene.
[NOTE: The links below with the little ASCII camera [o] are to medium sized JPEG images that will open in a new browser window]
Similarly, Bill Biggart headed out from his home, moving south to the scene. Bill’s image of the second plane hitting the South Tower [o] gives the appearance he may have headed down Greenwich, but ended up on West Broadway, which essentially dead ends at the World Trade Center. This shot [o] seems to confirm that, as I believe it was taken from in between WTC 7 (right of frame, which later collapsed) and the Church Street Federal Building/Post Office (left of frame), where West Broadway ends at Vesey Street.
And here is where the Fickle Finger of Fate first enters the picture. At this critical point, for whatever reason, Bill decided to move to the west. It may have been for photographic reasons, in order to get a view clear of the surrounding buildings or get upwind of the smoke, or he may have felt he was too close to falling debris. Maybe it was the path of least resistance in avoiding authorities who might shoo him away. It may have been simple unexplainable instinct. In such a rapidly developing situation, a photographer’s priorities are to maintain access to keep shooting, to discretely try and get closer to the story (but not get so close that you attract the attention of police who will send you away), and maintain the option of a quick exit. Not just to insure your personal safety, but so that you can quickly get out with your “take” when the story is over, the moment is right, or you run out of film.
You might say it’s a campaign of maneuver. These various priorities are balanced and dealt with on the fly, with little time for deliberation, and it often comes down to the instincts of the experienced, or simply having to move right or left to get a telephone pole or wires out of the shot. Whatever the reason, Bill’s decision to move west was a fateful choice.
Meanwhile, James Nachtwey was moving to the area from the east-northeast, and arriving slightly later than Bill. From his shot of the South Tower collapsing [o], it looks like he was in front of St. Peter’s Church, on the opposite side of the Church Street Federal Building/Post Office, a mere block from where Bill had arrived earlier. A block that made a huge difference.
While Bill moved to the northwest corner of the Trade Center, and James Nachtwey was making his way to the northeast corner, David Handschuh was shooting from the southwest. In the end, they were all roughly the same distance from the Towers, just at different points of the compass, and that had much to do with their varied fates. As this shot shows [o], Handschuh was very very close, near the corner of West and Liberty. While Bill and James continued shooting after the collapse of the South Tower, Handschuh was so close that his legs were crushed [o] by debris from the collapse, and he was carried from the scene [o].
By the time of the South Tower collapse at 9:59am, Bill’s first shot [o] of it shows he’d made it over to West Street. I don’t know how Nachtwey dealt with the debris cloud from the first collapse, there are no images of it, and he doesn’t address it in the interview. I would guess that he saw what was coming, ducked into a building no more than a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, perhaps St. Peters, and waited it out.
But Bill kept on shooting, first widening the view of the cloud [o], giving us our first glimpse of what will become a pivotal landmark, the pedestrian overpass at the northwest corner of the Trade Center complex. As it approached, creating a geyser of smoke as it passed under the overpass, Bill stood his ground to get the shot [o]. Even as he surely had to be looking for scant cover, perhaps seeing the level of debris within the cloud, he tipped the camera up and grabbed a final shot [o] before the cloud overtook him. I’m betting his eye wasn’t even fully on the viewfinder, that this was instincts at work while survival was at the brain’s immediate forefront.
Now came the most critical of times, the narrow window between the two collapses, just shy of 30 minutes. Everyone on the scene was inundated by the first debris cloud, and even if they got to cover before it hit, there was a long period of darkness. From what I can tell, it probably took at least 15 minutes for the smoke to clear enough for anyone to venture back to the scene.
I know, you may be thinking, “venture back to the scene as soon as the smoke cleared? The smoke means GET OUT when it clears.” I can only let James Nachtwey try to explain: "It seemed to me, absolutely unbelievable that the World Trade Center could be lying in the street and I felt very compelled to make an image of this. So I made my way there through the smoke. It was virtually deserted, and it seemed like a movie set from a science fiction film. Very apocalyptic. Very strange ambiance of the sunlight filtering through the dust and the destroyed wreckage of the buildings lying in the street. As I was photographing the destruction of the first tower, the second tower fell and I was standing right under it, literally right under it." You should go read his whole story of how he survived, but suffice it to say, it was a very close call. Yet, he is alive to tell you his story.
Bill Biggart is not.
There doesn’t appear to be much to tell us exactly how Bill made it through the first debris cloud, other than a fragment of a conversation "Bill talked by cell phone to his wife, Wendy, around 10:15 am, immediately after the first tower collapsed." That was when he told her “I’m OK , I’m with the firemen.” It’s hard to say for sure from the next shot we see [o] (note, some of the images in this sequence are fogged from being crushed in the collapse), but I have a guess. While my instinct would be to try and show the amazing depth of the debris if I’d just been through such a cloud, just as Bill did with the shot of the car hood, I also notice that his lens appears clean of the debris. Though it’s hard to judge that from a JPEG on the web, you can clearly see lens debris in the shot of David Handshuh [o], but Bill’s appears clean. That’s why I think when the first debris cloud came, he scrambled into one of the many emergency vehicles lining West Street, and that’s where he made his connection with the firefighters. In the Cloud of Death, I’d bet many connections were made that day.
Due to the direction of the wind at that hour, the northwest corner was the first where the smoke cleared, and as it does, we see Bill working his way back down West Street, where one Tower still stands. He’s now among the police [o] and the firefighters [o], all trying to collect themselves from that first blow.
Those who knew him and his work say that Bill always “brought back the faces,” [o] and this was no exception [o]. After some shots of those tending the wounded [o], Bill continued south [o] on West Street, back to the scene.
At the top of this frame [o] we again see the pedestrian overpass that will become a landmark in the events to follow. Bill continued south, taking this shot [o] looking east on Vesey Street. Just beyond the trees in the smoke is the spot he first arrived on the scene. To his right out of frame is the pedestrian overpass.
But he continued south, now underneath the overpass [o], and still with the firefighters. You first think, this is utter devastation, but it isn’t. This is something no other photographer captured that I know of, the brief window of smokeless time between the two tower collapses on the west side of the complex. The shattered hulk that dominates the left of the frame is the Marriot Hotel that sat at the base of the two towers. The collapse of the South Tower partially destroyed it, as you can see. Large portions of the South Tower’s outer steel structure have impaled themselves in the street near the corner of West and Liberty.
It looks like Bill then took a few steps forward, out from under the pedestrian overpass, and took this shot [o]. We see the partial devastation of the Marriot, sliced in half under the crushing debris of the South Tower, with one shaft of light cutting through the heavy smoke. Just barely out of the frame to the left is the North Tower. It’s 10:28am.
That’s the moment the North Tower collapsed, making that Bill Biggart’s final image. At that moment, James Nachtwey was running for his life at the northeast corner of the Trade Center: "Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for people on the west side, it listed to the west." There’s plenty of evidence of that in the pictures. James stealthily circled the site that day, and later made his way around to the southwest corner of the former World Trade Center, opposite of where he’d arrived. This shot from James [o] is a reverse angle of Bill’s final shot [o], shot 90 degrees apart. To the very right of James’ frame are the impaled steel structures in the street that are on the bottom right of Bill’s last shot. In the middle of James’ shot is the now unrecognizable pile that was once the half destroyed Marriot in Bill’s shot. All of the fire trucks and emergency vehicles you see in the bottom of Bill’s frame are crushed beyond recognition in James’ shot. Between that, and the general difference in the level of debris in the street, you can see the huge impact the collapse of the North Tower had on the West Street side.
And in the far left of James’ shot, you see the remains of the pedestrian overpass, now mostly collapsed and surrounded by rubble. Somewhere in that pile lays the body of Bill Biggart.
Three photographers, at three of the four corners of the Trade Center complex. One is severely injured by the first tower collapse, and carried away. Perversely, that may have saved his life, because if he’d been at the same southwest corner during the second tower collapse, he’d likely have been killed. The second photographer on the northeast corner barely escapes with his life during the second collapse, but does live to tell us his tale, partially because the North Tower fell slightly away from him, to the west.
At the northwest corner, Bill Biggart was killed. In my opinion, from what I can decipher, he made no real mistakes that day. He mostly made the same choices I would have made. He made what may have been a random selection of going east or west at Vesey Street, and with no way of knowing, he chose what turned out to be the wrong direction. He then chose to stick with the firefighters, a big score if you can do it in any situation.
Except this one.
He died doing the things I would have done. Although I never knew him, and he doesn’t need my words to be remembered, I will never ever forget Bill Biggart.
But it’s only appropriate that the last words come from his wife, Wendy “Bill was kind of an ornery guy, and luckily, he went out doing what he loved… and, it took two of the world’s largest buildings to do it.”
Additional Reading and Viewing:
· Bill Biggart’s Final Exposures An an introduction by Dirck Halstead
· Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs (5,280 images in the gallery)
· The Main Gallery at Digital Journalist (66 images)
· “Seeing the Horror” at Digital Journalist
· Joel Meyerowitz
· Joe McNally (go to the portfolio and click “Faces of Ground Zero”)
Postscript, 9/11/04: Two years after writing this, and three years after the tragedy, many of the links in this article have dissappeared from the web. I’ve repaired the ones I can, but I find it sadly indicative of the way we’ve forgotten what happened that day … we don’t even maintain our online memorials to those who died.