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Portfolio: Eric O’Connell’s moments in Hell

by Kara Fox

photographer eric o'connell

Early, Sept 11, 2001. The shrill ring of the telephone broke the peaceful silence of the morning...”Mom, the worst thing that ever happened in our lifetime...hurry...turn on the television!”

I stumbled, phone in hand, just in time to see the explosion of the second iconic twin tower in NYC. From that day forward I knew our country would never again be the same. 2011 marks the tenth anniversary of that tragic event which changed forever the complexion of our beloved United States.

This is a bittersweet time. We must always remember what happened, and, just as importantly, we must not allow ourselves to become a nation filled with hate and anger.


twin towers

    There was no way Eric O'Connell could have known, just as he and his high school friend would shine flashlights on each other's faces to take 'monster' photos, that he would one day be taking photos of the result of true monsters’ actions on the 11th day of September, 2001. 

     "I had just moved to New York,” he pointed out, “and I was still unpacking boxes from an extended overseas trip. Despite the jetlag, I couldn't miss the interruption on my television screen. ‘A Cessna or something hit the building,’ said a voice.

As Eric watched the seemingly impossible image of the burning tower, he was immediately struck with the implausibility of this being an accident. Lower New York is flat, very flat, and it would be next to impossible – even for the worst pilot – to not avoid those towers.

     Eric O'Connell was right. From this point on, I will let him tell his story:

twin towers

"I can only assume it was my training as a journalist that possessed me to grab my camera bag and run. As I descended my steps, the building shook violently, as if from an earthquake. I had no idea then, but I learned later that it was the second airplane hitting the south tower.  I ran until I had made my way up Broadway and toward the burning towers. It looked like the images I'd seen of a ticker-tape parade in NY with confetti raining slowly down from above. It was only as I got closer, that I realized this "confetti" was paper and ashes of the people who were trapped above me in the towers, and who had died in the explosions. As I entered what would become known as "ground zero," I realized I was now dangerously close. The debris fell and mixed with heavy ash and bodies, and pieces of steel or a body slammed into the ground around me. I looked up to see bodies draped and contorted over building walls and precipices.

street scene

street scene three

     “It was as if someone had gone into a butcher shop, grabbed handfuls of flesh – bones and all – and thrown them all over the streets. At my feet were limbs, a shoe, and dismembered fingers. I was overwhelmed and had no idea how to process what I was seeing. At the same time I'd entered survival mode, and remember I was constantly dodging obstacles. Because speed with which an object falls is so fast and so furious, I realized that there would be no time to move out of the way. Suddenly I was afraid to get too close. I made my way up and down side streets – Washington St., Albany St., Greenwich St. and onto Liberty St., just south of the South Tower. As I walked, I became hyper-aware of the unrecognizable body parts littering the ground. I started looking down, and not up.  I narrowly sidestepped, "What's that? A piece of … of spine?" Horrified, yet mesmerized, suddenly a Wham!  I understood then that I'd also have to look up. As I became more conscious of the world above me and at my feet, I realized I was walking over the detritus that was people's lives: a shoe, someone’s thumb ripped from a hand, all mixed with concrete, stone, steel, vegetables and paper, fanning out as far as I could see in all directions.


“On Liberty Street, I was directly south of the South Tower, standing in front of the Deutsche Bank building. (Later to be condemned because of the heavy burning and damage it suffered.) I looked up at the gaping hole in the building and thought: ‘That's not good. That could fall, and if it does it's going to fall toward me and I’ll have nowhere to run. So, I walked west a few doors to 90 West Street, directly in front of St. Nicholas’ Greek Orthodox Church.’ 

“There was scaffolding above the sidewalk from work being done and I stayed under that to avoid being hit by small falling debris. I noticed two policemen near me and two or three bystanders, when all of sudden I heard a low, loud rumble. I knew immediately what it was and without looking up, I turned, pushed the two people standing behind me, and shouted, run! 

In that brief moment, we ran a mere 25 feet to the western entrance of 90 West Street. A different type of panic gripped me. Slammed against the wall, I was enveloped in blackness, while thunderous, deafening sounds pounded down around us. I envisioned monstrous pieces of steel and concrete falling on me.  My mind went inside myself as I curled up like a baby, and decided my life would soon be over. I whimpered, and could only think of those that I knew. I hoped that it would end quickly and not in a situation where I was trapped for days with broken limbs under rubble. I said, I love you, to my parents and family, and coiled up in fear waiting to be suddenly crushed.

dust one

dust two

“From the first rumble of the building, to the diving and ducking and crying, my whole life – including details – flashed through my mind. What seemed like years took 10 seconds.                        

“The roar stopped, and in that moment I realized nothing had hit me, but I could not breathe. So this is what it's like to die of smoke inhalation, I thought and questioned whether I was even alive. Someone nearby yelled, "I can't breathe!" Another voice behind me said, "keep your face on the floor."

firemen removing wounded

“Good idea, I thought. I was somehow sitting up on my knees. I couldn't see my hands in front of my face but I bent over and blew to clear a spot in the powdery ash for my mouth and covered my face with my hands and tried to breathe. I wanted to breathe. Then another voice said, “Over here; we can get out over here!” It was one of the cops. I knew it because it was the only female voice, and I remembered seeing her on the corner. Maybe I really was alive, I though.

"I knew where the door was and was afraid to move toward it. What would I fall into, or over? Would I fall through a hole, or onto someone? Again I questioned whether we were alive at all. Could I make the short 10-15 feet to the door? Was it that far off? ‘Keep talking,’ I yelled to the female voice, ‘We cannot see you.’ I reached out my arms to feel, and feeling another body, we walked toward the voice. 

“I took more pictures by unscrewing my lens filter, and then screwed it back on, trying to hide my lens from the thick fog of dust. It was impossible to see through the camera, indeed, almost impossible to see at all. It was hard to tell if I was inside, or outside.  My field of view obliterated any distinction, and people appeared like ghosts. Appearing and then disappearing, people moved in and out of view like apparitions.            

“Without words, we separated and walked south down West Street toward Battery Park. Outside the door everything was crushed. A Fire Department Ambulance sat somewhat intact outside the doorway, where moments before I had watched as the medics dragged a fireman's remains that had fallen from the fiery tower above. I could only wonder if they were now dead themselves.

“There was now silence, a complete and utter silence. An unusual calm seemed to have settled on everything. We were walking in a thick powdery dust. There were no cries, no sirens. Nothing. Silence. There must be a fire? There must be screams?

“I heard nothing. I remembered no sounds at all at this point. How was I alive? Didn't one of the world’s tallest towers just fall only tens of feet from me? Was I really alive, I wondered again? Perhaps not.

a shoe among debris

     “A cart of water stood abandoned, people helping themselves. One of them, a policeman, looked at me with shock in his eyes, which scared me. He grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me to the water fountain, making me put water on my face. I must have looked dead to him. A group of people surrounded a transistor radio, which was sitting on the roof of a car. Fear gripped me. What’s next? Would planes start dropping bombs? Would something blow up? How would we escape? Where would we run?  We're on an island! As I wondered what’s next, I heard that same loud rumble, but this time, in the distance. A huge cloud of smoke and debris rushed through the buildings and covered us, obscuring everything once again.

“The north tower had just fallen.

“Covered again, I couldn’t breathe and all people, and everything in my field of vision disappeared. I was once again bathed in darkness, lungs and eyes burning. All sounds sights and smells were gone. My only thought was that I couldn’t open my eyes, and I still couldn't breathe. I closed my eyes tightly and put my hands over them. With my face down, I walked toward my apartment just a block away. I looked up once in a while between blinks. I was covered in ash, and coughing, but I made it home.  Inside, my apartment was covered with the fine dust from the explosions. I knew that I was lucky, as I was still alive.  The TV was still on, but now the tone of the message had been inextricably altered.”                        

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