On September 11, 2001, photographer Gulnara Samoilova was in downtown Manhattan when the World Trade Center terrorist attacks happened. Her images were awarded with a World Press Photo in 2002 and published in a book, Women Journalists at Ground Zero.
Gulnara Samoilova was still asleep in her apartment when the first plane struck the South Tower five blocks away. The sound awoke her. As she layed in bed listening, she heard sirens. At first, she thought the sirens signaled routine ambulance runs from a nearby hospital. But, as they didn’t stop, she began to think something terrible must have happened.
She turned on her TV and froze. “I saw the first Tower, it had just happened,” she told. “The commentator on CNN didn’t know what was going on. Somebody said it was a small plane. I was just watching it to learn what was going on. Then, the second plane hit the second Tower. I saw it on TV and at the same time I heard a powerful explosion. I realized it was a terrorist attack.”
Gulnara jumped out of bed and quickly pulled on her clothes. “I was just running around the apartment, thinking: do I need a flash? How many rolls of film do I need to take?” She had the black and white Tri-X film she prefers for her projects stored in her refrigerator. She should have been out of New York that day. “I was supposed to go to Russia on Sept. 8 to continue a personal project, photographing a family in Russia I had been working on for six years but something happened two days before my trip and I just had to cancel it.”
She grabbed her equipment and started outside toward the World Trade Center. “I didn’t think I would be able to get close. But nobody stopped me.” People were running in the opposite direction from the Trade Center. “While I was walking, I was taking some pictures. Then I saw the Towers. It was just amazing."
“Then I started concentrating on people around me — the victims and the injured. I couldn’t even focus, it was so dramatic. I saw a woman whose skin was just coming off from burns. I was a little bit shy to photograph these people because they were in pain. I didn’t want to just stick my camera in their faces”.
Gulnara Samoilova said that it was important not only to concentrate on the event itself but on what was going on around it. “Reactions. People’s faces. You must have a good eye to notice, not just the whole picture, but little things”, she said. “As a photographer, you have to notice everything”.
For Gulnara, noticing everything included seeing people jumping from the Tower. She was stunned she couldn’t even lift her camera. “I couldn’t believe that people were jumping,” she said. It never occurred to her that the Towers would collapse. “I didn’t realize how dangerous it was. They are so tall. I saw the fire, but I didn’t know there was a huge plane inside.”
A policeman tried to push her out and asked her how she could photograph with so much going on. But she told him she had to document it. “It’s a big, historical event.” Gulnara Samoilova crossed the street and just kept photographing, constantly changing lenses.
“Everything was amazingly organized. People who work at the Millennium Hotel got out chairs, towels, sheets, and water. They were ripping outdoors to make stretchers for people.” She didn’t see a lot of panic. Priests were talking to people. Police and firefighters were acting professionally. “It was amazing to see that,” she said.
Then she heard a tremendous noise. “I lifted my camera and took one shot before I saw in my viewfinder that the building was coming down. Someone said, “Run!” and I started running. I was certain it was coming right on me. I kept thinking it’s not happening to me. When it hit the ground, I fell. I thought I was going to die at that very moment because people would run over me. But nobody did. I looked back and I saw this unbelievable huge cloud of dust and debris coming right at me. I hid behind a car.”
She compared being in the cloud of debris to being in a tunnel with strong wind pushing all around her. She didn’t have time to be scared. Her heart wasn’t pumping. She didn’t have an adrenaline rush or anything. “I just kept thinking it’s like I’m in a movie, I’m not here, ” Gulnara said. Being behind the camera helped her to keep focused. She could view the scene as if it weren’t real.
The wind settled down and then stopped. Dust was going everywhere. She couldn’t open her eyes. It was in her ears and her mouth. “It was just very, very silent; and it was so dark. I couldn’t see a thing. I don’t remember how long it was. I started losing my breath. I was certain I was buried alive.”
Then Gulnara Samoilova realized someone else was hiding behind the same car, a man who asked her if she was okay. “I started seeing the lights from the car and that is when I knew I was alive and would be okay. As soon as I could see something, I started photographing again. It was so silent. Papers were flying in the air. According to my film, I shot a couple of frames and my roll ended. I changed lenses and film, but I don’t remember doing it.”
Her elbow was bleeding from her fall. She started walking home. She had trouble breathing and was in total shock. Somebody gave her a mask and water. “I got home and started mixing chemicals to develop my film,” told Gulnara Samoilova. “Because it was hot, I put ice in it and waited for it to cool down. I was watching TV when the second Tower collapsed five blocks from my apartment. I could hear it very well. It was just…well when steel goes inside of steel, only ten thousand times louder. It was very loud, like a crack. My building just jumped, and I thought it was going to collapse as well. Dust was everywhere. I quickly closed the windows.”
The photographer had a darkroom set up in her kitchen where she can develop film and print pictures. As she started to develop her film, she realized she had shot one roll of Ektachrome color slide film. “I never use that kind of film. It is still a mystery how it got into my bag. I developed the film, and it was still wet in the tank. I walked to work, rotating my tank because I didn't want to waste time drying it and I could keep the dust out of it. I thought by the time I would get to Associated Press it would be dry. The trip took one and half hours. My hair still had debris in it. I was just able to change my clothes. There was no time to take a shower.”
When her boss saw the film, he was shocked. “Black and white?” Gulnara Samoilova responded that she did have a roll of color film and that she was sure she got a picture of the Tower collapsing. But she also noted that color film offered little advantage in this particular instance. “After the collapse, you couldn’t tell in the pictures what race people were. They were all gray.”
By Judith Sylvester
Judith Sylvester is the co-author of the book entitled Women Journalists at Ground Zero.
Women Journalists at Ground Zero, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers in 2002.
More information about Gulnara Samoilova on her website.