September 11, 2001. It’s a day that changed us. Here is an account from Photographer, Frank Lee Ruggles, on assignment for the Associated Press.
On an otherwise quiet and beautiful September morning, my business partner Adam Paseman and I found ourselves speeding down Route 1 in Virginia to take some photos for the Associated Press of the White House which had mistakenly been reported was on fire. The AP had phoned our photo studio in Falls Church and asked if we could get there quick, since our shop was close to the District and apparently no other photographers were available for dispatch on such short notice. The man told us that route 66 was completely stopped for some reason and some of his regular photographers were stuck sitting in traffic. He offered us “1000 bucks for every shot that makes it into the paper”, so we quickly took an alternate route into to the District. As we rounded the corner just past Crystal City, we saw an explosive plume of black smoke rising from the Pentagon. It shot into the sky like those old movies of nuclear tests in the desert. It was startling and scary but it felt like something that ought to be recorded on film, so we pulled over on the side of the road next to the Pentagon, grabbed our camera bags and started running towards the entrance of the giant building, snapping images along the way.
We approached the Pentagon entrance as crowds people were streaming out the doors, some at a full run, some barely walking, some covered with blood. We didn’t yet know that a plane had just slammed into the side of their workplace a just few moments earlier, but we could tell the situation was urgent and people might need our help… this was a mass casualty event. Amazingly, none of the employees evacuating the building was screaming or panicked. We were surprised to see that those who were uninjured did not evacuate the area, rather, they either tended to the wounded or met up with other workers who were handing out first aid packs and stretchers. Then, just a quickly as they ran out, the able-bodied civilian and military workers all marched back in. After a quick discussion between us, Adam and I decided to join one of the groups heading into the building. We didn’t have permission and we weren’t asked, but realized when we saw the emergency teams carrying stretchers that a few extra strong backs might come in handy. We hoped we could help, so we just went into the Pentagon to do whatever we could.
We stowed our camera gear back over our shoulders and marched in with the teams, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if we could even be helpful. The desire to do something was overwhelming.
Inside, the smoke from the spreading fire was incredible and the scene was a little more chaotic. The windows on the doors has been blasted out even though they were two sides of the Pentagon away from the point of impact. Even though we were all now wearing dust masks (which were handed to us at the door), we found breathing nearly as difficult as seeing. An Air Force Full-Bird Colonel stopped us briefly; noticing our camera gear. He said “Guys, this isn’t a press event” as if he was going to turn us away. I looked at him and said…”no, this is history”. “Good point” he answered and waved us ahead. I hadn’t even thought of taking photos at that moment, I just wanted to get to the people who needed to be carried out. The lights flickered and we walked around E-ring towards the impact site. Windows had been blown out throughout the entire building, lights hung from the ceiling… there was glass and debris everywhere, we moved slowly but deliberately toward the impact site. The scene got worse with every step. My heart was racing, but Adam seemed calm so I stayed calm, too.
Down the corridor ahead, a door flew open and three men came running out. The lead man, a US Marine Corps Major, shouted: “ Get the F_ _ K out of the building, another plane is heading right at us!!” I think I heard him say they had picked it up on radar or something, I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying, but the note of urgency was unmistakable. Where once our group of ten people was shuffling together towards the fire we were now flat-out running in the other direction, back towards the exit. My mind immediately thought of Lisa. “If I get hurt, she’ll KILL me” I said to myself.
Not knowing the quickest way out, we simply ran towards the light hoping somehow that we could outrun a jumbo jet. The reality of the situation started to sink in for the first time…”this is an attack” I thought. I looked to my right; Adam had pulled his camera out and was snapping photos as he ran. He looked determined to document what he was witnessing during what might be the last moments of his life. As we broke through the doorway, my cell phone rang. I don’t know why , but I answered it even though I was at a full speed sprint.
It was Lisa:
“Oh MY God , Frank, did you hear the news??” “Yeah” I said, “I heard” ….“Why are you out of breath? Where ARE YOU ???!!!” “Um………honey…………….I can’t talk right now, I’m at the Pentagon and right now I’m trying to find cover because they said another plane is heading for us, Don’t worry, I’ll be carefu…..”
I lost the connection. My stomach sank…I feared those might be the last words I may ever say to my Wife. Why didn’t I think to say “I love you”?
We spent the rest of the day shooting 4 rolls of film the evacuation at the Pentagon, cut off from all communication and unaware of what was happening a few states away. Thanks to the brave passengers of United 93, I got to see the look of anger and relief on my Wife’s face that night as I pulled into the driveway. She didn’t know until that minute if I was alive or not. That plane on the radar never came to kill me and my friend. Would it have hit the Pentagon? Nobody will ever know, because when we needed them most, regular Americans became heroes. Those people saved lives, possibly mine.
I think that day in Virginia as well as in New York, and in the sky over Pennsylvania, in every city across the USA, we ceased being republicans, democrats, poor, rich , black , white, young or old. We were simply Countrymen. As the situation worsened for us, our American instincts kicked in and we did what came naturally; We automatically went into recovery mode. Everyone aided someone else that day, whether it be the heroic act of taking back a high jacked airliner or offering a kind word of reassurance to a stranger. For a short while, we were all lucky enough to witness America at it’s absolute best in the face of it’s worst circumstance.
I will never forget the 3000 Americans who perished that day. I will never forget the image on TV of the Queen of England , standing in St Paul’s Cathedral singing “America the Beautiful”. I will never forget the images of the towers before they fell and the sky was raining people. I will never forget those Pentagon workers marching into a burning building to help their co- workers. I will never forget the NYPD and NYFD heroes who rushed in to a doomed situation, in the hopes that they could save at least one more
life. I will never forget Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett. Cee Cee Williams, Sandra Bradshaw, and the rest of the United 93 passengers who spared the rest of us from the same fate delivered by the other three planes that day.
I will never forget.
I will never forget.
Damn it, I will never forget any of this.
And now, an interview with Frank
LF: Hello Frank, thanks for taking some time out of your day to talk to us about Sept 11th, We have read your story. Being involved and closer than most of America, what do you do in memory of that horrible day.
FR: I… I am torn between trying to put this behind me, and trying not to forget. I think it is important to remember. I am a big social media guy. So every Sept 11th, I post on social media the images in a video.
LF: If you could go back, what would you done differently on 9/11, as a photojournalist?
RF: Well… here is the thing. At the time, and even now, I don’t consider myself a Photo Journalist.
I’m not sure how or why I got the call from the AP. I had never done any work for the Associated Press before. I have no idea where they got my number. It was a strange call, the guy that called me was Arnie Sachs, who was an AP photographer himself. Years later, I met his son, who is the President of the White House Photographers Association. Certainly, some days I wish I never got the call, and some days I am glad it was me, bbecause I was there with a good partner that was calm and brave. And we got to witness and recorded this event, when nobody else did. To this day I have not seen any other pictures of this story. So, what would I have done different? That’s a tough question. I think I wished I stayed in the Pentagon a little longer, and taken a few more pictures of the evacuation. I think there was a bigger story to tell there. The sense of urgency was great. When you see Military guys running for their life….these big, tuff Marines, You know maybe it’s time to follow them, and not stick around taking pictures. It’s shocking, as a photographer, unless you’re a photojournalist, you don’t think about photographing the bad things you think about shooting good things, like weddings. There was never a bad day shooting, until 9/11
LF: What would you different as a person?
FR: I think the only thing I would do different would be bbetter communications with my wife. I was in BIG trouble with wife when I got home. When she had called, I told her I really could not talk, and the line got disconnected. When I got home that night she was beating my chest scolding me, laughing and crying. I hadn’t contacted her all day.
LF: You mentioned in your article about helping people. Do you feel there is a line, where a photographer should help or document an event like this? Did you feel torn between helping and documenting?
FR: Before photography, I was a US Army paratrooper. I took an oath to protect the country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That oath that does not have an expiration date , so when I find there is some kind of emergency, an auto accident or this thing on 9/11; because I have skills that can help, I am obligated through my oath, I am obligated morally. In the long run, the pictures might help. But I am not the guy that take a picture of a burning body without throwing a blanket over the person. I thinkon that day I was more of a solider than a photographer. My partner was a former CIA employee had the same reaction of wanting to help, though he snapped out of it quicker .As we were running out of the Pentagon,he got his camera out and photographed people evacuating, it was another minute before I got my camera out.
LF: If you knew what was happening at the time, knowing what we know now, would you have still gone to the Pentagon?
FR: Yes. (no hesitation) I would of gotten there quicker, I think I would have ffocused on people, not some of the other things going on, like classified docs being put on choppers.
LF: Last thoughts?
FR: I think photojournalist serve a very important function for society, they are historians minute by minute, of what is going on, if we did not have photo journalist, we wouldn’t know these stories, but I have never considered myself a photo journalist. I found myself in that role for a day. It takes a certain kind of l person to detach and keep an eye on the history of the moment, not the event itself. I think on that measure I failed as a photo journalist…but not embarrassingly so, it’s not like I have been doing it for years and choked when I had the big chance. I was a soldier instead and stepped up.
LF: Thank you Frank, once again for taking the time to share your story with us here at Lens Flipper. Down the road we will interview you again with your work as the Eminent Photographer for the National Park Service.
Here is a video of images that Frank and his partner photographed that sad, tragic day.
About Frank Lee Ruggles:
Frank Lee Ruggles began his photography career as a hobbyist in 1992, working in a one-hour photo lab on Kiawah Island, SC. Before and after work most days, he would hike the trails of the Island, practicing his photographic skills and developing his own shooting style. After taking thousands of images, studying Ansel Adams’ books, and with the help of his wife Lisa, he found his own style and a buying audience at the photo store, where he sold his Fine Art images.
After five years, he moved to the Washington DC area to try new challenges and found work as a camera store manager where he met hundreds of photographers and learned the business of photography by networking and sharing experiences. In 1999, with his business partner he purchased a lab of his own. Their clients for photography and custom hand processing were primarily Federal Government clients, Architects, Realtors, and Manufacturers.
Frank Lee Ruggles has photographed over 100 of our National parks and logged 25000 miles on his photographic journey over the past four years. He can often be found hanging off remote cliffs, hiking on active volcanoes,or sitting for sometimes hours – waiting patiently – for the perfect image to capture the American Beauty he sees through his lens. His hikes frequently take him far off the beaten path to discover the lesser known views of these well known places. Mr. Ruggles will go to almost any extent to “get the shot”. He has committed to not only searching out, documenting, and sharing the beauty of America, but he has also committed to protect it as well through education and fundraising for preservation foundations.