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Bill Biggart: The Journalist Who Died Photographing 9/11

Bill Biggart was the only journalist casualty in the 9/11 tragedy. When the first plane hit the first tower of the World Trade Center, he picked up his cameras and walked the twenty blocks to the building on fire. He was killed when the second tower collapsed.
September 11, 2001 © Bill Biggart

On September 11, 2001, Bill Biggart and his wife Wendy Doremus were walking their dogs in downtown Manhattan. At about 8:45 a.m., the couple noticed clouds of grey smoke forming against the clear blue New York City skyline. A passing taxi driver informed the couple that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

Biggart began his two-mile, twenty-block run toward the destruction from which everyone around him was fleeing. He shot film and digital images, cameras swinging from his shoulders, as he approached the unfolding scene.

Over the phone, Bill told Wendy not to worry. He felt safe with the firemen. He asked her to meet him at his studio some twenty minutes later. He never made the appointment. Equipped on this day with the two technologies, he shot 6 rolls of films and 150 digital images, an almost identical number of film and digital shots. Though, for years, Biggart denounced color and then digital photography, working exclusively in black and white 35mm.

September 11, 2001 © Bill Biggart
September 11, 2001 © Bill Biggart

At 9:03 a.m., while still en route, Biggart observed a commercial airplane slamming into the South Tower. He lifted the D30 to his eye. Likely with his 80-200mm lens, he captured a brilliant orange and red fireball exploding out of the second tower.

Biggart photographed rescue workers and victims coated in grey-brown dust. Yellow reflective stripes of firefighters’ clothing and red emergency lights pierce foggy scenes of disorder. A well-clad man striding through a field of strewn office papers, fractured drywall, and miscellaneous pulverized material. People with ashen faces gasping for air through dirty towels. Strangers helping strangers. Arms around shoulders. Coughing. Crying.

September 11, 2001 © Bill Biggart
September 11, 2001 © Bill Biggart

Most of Bill Biggart’s images were thoughtfully composed and carefully timed. Others appear to be made more frantically, yielding evidence. Biggart drew closer and closer until his photos of the towers were near fully vertical. Emergency rescue workers and even other photojournalists cautioned that he was getting too close. At 9:59 a.m., Biggart captured the South Tower disintegrating as it came crashing down, blanketing him and his Canons in dust and debris. Shrugging it off, he continued to shoot, taking several frames of the North Tower still standing, amidst the remains of the South. Then he began documenting the efforts of rescue workers, ignoring the smoking North Tower. When it collapsed at 10:28 a.m., he was killed.

September 11, 2001 © Bill Biggart
September 11, 2001 © Bill Biggart

It was a miracle when he was found 4 days after the attacks. Firefighters also found his cameras and his press card. Photojournalists are always harnessed with their equipment. “When I went to the mortuary, everything was there I was traumatized his soul was in his cameras,” told Wendy Doremus. She was first apprehensive, she hesitated but pushed by the passion of her husband. She finally had the films processed and looked at the pictures one by one. All have great historical value. On the digital images, there is the exact time and date, until the last one.

Bill Biggart loved the streets, those of New York and those of the many cities he visited. He had traveled extensively and worked alone and had a strong interest in minorities. “He was very sensitive to the rights of the African American”, recalled Wendy Doremus. “He would have been proud to see Obama President, even though his first bet had been for a woman president.”

September 11, 2001 © Bill Biggart
Bill Biggart’s camera and press card © Bill Biggart Estate

He took on many fights, he covered the fall of the Berlin wall, Northern Ireland and the Palestinian cause. He used to say: “I could move to Jerusalem and have enough to talk about for the rest of my life”. September 11 is a cornerstone in the history of photography the last event before the all-digital. Bill Biggart loved analog photography. He loved the technique from the noise of the shutter to the processing of the film. He loved the magic of the still camera and always kept one at the foot of the bed. When digital technology arrived, he was all against it, he hated the technology. He said it would kill the profession. Unknowingly he covered the last big news event documented with film.

More information on Bill Biggart.

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