“Field Trip to Hell”: A Survivor’s Story

By David Handschuh

For more than two decades, I have had the privilege of covering New York’s Bravest as a photographer for the New York Daily News and as FDNY’s first honorary photographer since 1985. I have witnessed and photographed many heroic life-saving efforts over the past years, but I never once thought that the people I so often photographed saving lives would, in turn, save my life.

On the morning of September 11, I was driving downtown, sitting in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic. Around 14th Street, I looked up to see a massive column of smoke coming from lower Manhattan. Then the voices from Manhattan Fire on my fire scanner started screaming to send every piece of available apparatus to the World Trade Center. I thought that some knucklehead pilot flew his Cessna or Piper Cub into the building.

As FDNY Rescue 1 rushed southbound in the northbound lane, I swerved across the traffic island on the West Side Highway and followed the truck on its rear bumper. As usual, the rear door was open, and I could see firefighters in the back as they threw on their air bottles and pulled tools from compartments, getting ready to battle the flames and smoke.

We were racing down the West Side Highway at breakneck speed into oncoming traffic, and several of the firefighters were waving out the back door. They were guys I had covered for years, and all 11 of them died that day.

I arrived at 8:53 a.m., according to the clock on the dashboard of my Daily News company car. I remember looking at the clock and praying that many firefighters would be spared. Massive destruction was looming 90 floors up, but it was eerily quiet on the street. You could hear the flames crackling and glass breaking; you could hear things falling.

I don’t think that anyone standing in the street or arriving soon after had a clue that the beautiful end-of-summer morning would soon turn into a field trip to hell. I just thought I would be recording the largest challenge that the firefighters, paramedics, and police officers of New York City would ever be facing.

Rescue workers were arriving, workers were running from the towers, fleeing for their lives. And then the noise—this loud, high-pitched roar that seemed to come from all over but from nowhere.

Then the second tower just exploded, and it became obvious that what we all had thought was a horrible accident was actually an overt act of intentional hostility. I didn’t see the plane even though I was looking at the tower at that time. I have no recollection of taking the photo that appeared on page two of the Daily News the next day, a photograph taken milliseconds after the second plane hit the South Tower.

Time stood still, as I continued to document the terror. Soon after, another loud terrifying noise shook the ground. I looked up to see the South Tower begin to disintegrate in slow motion.

By instinct, I grabbed my camera and brought it up to my eye but in the back of my mind I heard a voice say, “Run, run, run, run.” I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, and I’ve never run from anything. I’m convinced that listening to that voice that morning saved my life.

I managed to get about 40 or 50 feet and had just rounded the corner of Liberty Street when I was picked up by a tornado of night, of darkness. It was like getting hit in the back by a wave at the beach—but a wave that was made of hot gravel. All of a sudden I was flying, with no control over my feet, my legs, or my direction.

The noise was overwhelming. There were cracking and creaking and things flying, and the debris and the choking cloud kept coming. And, like a hurricane, it was followed by silence.

I was thrown almost a full city block, landing underneath a vehicle and becoming trapped by debris. One leg was crushed, the other badly damaged. My mouth and nose were blocked by the choking dust.

I really thought it was all over—that I was going to die, buried alive, scared and alone in the gutter of a lower Manhattan Street. I reached for my cell phone to call home and tell everyone that I loved them, but my cell phone was gone. My pager was gone. My glasses were gone. But somehow I had held onto my cameras, which held 200 images of history.

Rescuers carried Daily News photographer David Handschuh to a deli to escape the debris, dust, and rubble. (Photo by Todd Maisel/New York Daily News.)
Click here to enlarge image

I started calling for help and soon heard words that I will never forget: “Don’t worry, Brother. We’ll get you out.”

At that moment, I realized that I had been found by a firefighter. I knew I would be saved. Lieutenant Tom McGoff and firefighters from Engine 217 and Ladder 131 dug me out of my tomb and then left me while they searched for others more severely injured.

Another team of firefighters, Phil McArdle of Haz Mat 1 and his partner Jeff Bukowski, picked me up minutes later and carried me a block to a delicatessen in Battery Park, rendered medical assistance, and continued on to try to save more lives. They had the presence of mind to move me out of danger: Despite my protests, they realized that I was in the middle of a collapse zone and that any falling debris or subsequent collapse would in all probability lead to my death.

I cannot begin to describe the gratitude I have for my rescuers and the 343 good souls who gave up their lives while saving so many on September 11. We owe each and every paid and volunteer firefighter around the world our never-ending thanks.

Many others and I owe our lives many times over to members of FDNY. We will never forget the sacrifices made by firefighters the world over, not just on September 11 but every single day.

David Handschuh has been a staff photographer at the New York Daily News for the past 15 years. He is a past-president of the 10,000-member National Press Photographers Association and an adjunct professor of photojournalism at New York University. He has been nominated several times for a Pulitzer Prize and has received numerous awards for photography. He is co-author of The National Media Guide for Emergency and Disaster Incidents, a primer to establish better relationships between the media and public safety providers. Handschuh was a 1999 recipient of a DART Fellowship to study the effects of trauma on visual journalists. He continues that work with Dart Center Ground Zero, an initiative in New York City established to assist journalists affected by the September 11 attacks.

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