©2001 The Record (Bergen County, N.J.). Thomas E. Franklin, Staff Photographer

Getting the photo of a lifetime

The Record
Thursday, September 13, 2001

Editor's Note: Tom Franklin spent Tuesday capturing images of the destruction and the efforts of rescuers at the World Trade Center. Among those images is a dramatic shot of three New York City firefighters raising a flag amid the rubble. Here is his account of how he got that photograph, as told to Jeannine Clegg.

The day started at 8 o'clock in The Record photo office. I had just gotten back from an assignment in the Dominican Republic. I flew on American.

An editor told me what happened. I started driving down to the World Trade Center on the turnpike and heard the second plane had crashed.

At Exchange Place in Jersey City, I got out and hiked to the riverfront. Having shot hundreds of pictures of the World Trade Center over the years, I knew the best vantage points.

I reloaded my digital camera with a new photo card (it's like film) and snuck back. I could see ferries carrying the wounded coming from the city. A triage center was set up. I was able to make some shots.

The whole day was an emotional roller coaster. I was scanning the faces in Jersey City, hoping that I would see my brother. He works two blocks south of the World Trade Center. I didn't find out until 3 o'clock that afternoon that he was OK.

By noon, the boatloads were less and less frequent, and I was running out of room on my card. I downloaded some photos into my laptop and then went back.

That's when another photographer, John Wheeler, persuaded authorities to let us on a tugboat that was shuttling survivors back and forth.

When I arrived, I rushed to the scene. I was right underneath World Trade Center Building Seven. Police ushered everyone out, but I worked my way to ground zero. They threatened to arrest me at least a half-dozen times.

I was making pictures at the scene for about an hour. I was expecting to see death, but mostly I saw mangled metal, overturned cars and ambulances, and everything covered with dust. The heat from the smoking debris was incredible.

Firemen evacuated the area as they prepared for the collapse of Building Seven.

There was one other photographer with me -- James Nachtwey. He's won the Pulitzer Prize. He's covered wars. He told me how he narrowly escaped death earlier in the day. I didn't even realize until I was telling the story later that Nachtwey and I had been the only ones there.

We were catching our breath, drinking water and juice, when I decided to walk back toward the debris. It was between 4 and 5 p.m.

I would say I was 150 yards away when I saw the firefighters raising the flag. They were standing on a structure about 20 feet above the ground.

This was a long-lens picture: There was about 100 yards between the foreground and background, and the long lens would capture the enormity of the rubble behind them.

I made the picture standing underneath what may have been one of the elevated walkways, possibly the one that had connected the World Trade Plaza and the World Financial Center.

As soon as I shot it, I realized the similarity to the famous image of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

This was an important shot. It told of more than just death and destruction. It said something to me about the strength of the American people and of these firemen having to battle the unimaginable.

It had drama, spirit, and courage in the face of disaster.

I probably made about 10 frames.

Throughout the day, I was afraid that something was wrong with my camera and that these once-in-a-lifetime pictures were ruined.

I immediately took that photo card out of my camera, put it in my pocket, and put another card in, figuring I should be OK. That's when I realized I'd entered the dangerous area.

Spread out in front of me was 200 yards of burnt-out cars, ambulances, and firetrucks that were crushed and covered in soot. There was no color; everything was dusty white. I saw money, notebooks, financial reports, couch cushions, calculators, and shoes.

At that point, I didn't think about the danger. I knew I wouldn't have any assignment as important as this. Nothing was holding me back.

In the back of our minds, all photgraphers believe we're going to get "the big one." I've shot hurricanes, earthquakes. But I've never seen anything like this. There were times during the day that I cried. Nothing had ever touched me as emotionally as this. But I had a job to do.

I'm not comfortable taking "credit" for something like this. None of it would have made it into the newspaper if I hadn't gotten a ride on a police boat back to Liberty State Park, a hitchhiked ride to my car in Jersey City, and then help transmitting photos from a hotel after getting stuck in a Route 3 roadblock.

Once I made deadline, all I wanted to do was see my wife and my son.

Copyright © 2002 North Jersey Media Group Inc.