A view of the Twin Towers looking up between the two buildings, partially obscured by clouds
Benjamin Thompson, Wikimedia Commons

September 11 Through My Father’s Eyes — and Lens

by Keiko Zoll

This is Akira Suwa. He’s my dad, my Papa.

It’s rare to capture a photo of him — for most of my life, he’s always been the one behind the camera. In 2014, my dad retired from The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for over 30 years as a senior photojournalist. My father’s career spanned the globe as it did three decades, covering everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall, to shadowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, to spending several months on the ground covering Operation Desert Storm when I was in fourth grade. In his retirement, his photos are deservedly far more local and tame. My father’s subjects are less historic headlines and more the red-headed woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and the squirrels who visit the backyard of my childhood home.

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday: his regular day off. And yet like so many other times in his life, he picked up his camera, got in his car, and headed toward the chaos from which so many other people fled. Ten years later, I realized I never really talked with my dad about what that day was like for him. In 2011, on the tenth anniversary of September 11, I finally sat down with my Papa via Skype to talk about what his experience was like and what he remembered from that day.

I think it’s an important story to tell and remember, year after year. I was compelled to capture my father’s experience from a quote I read by Joao Silva, one of the Bang-Bang Club war photographers: “At the other side of the camera, there is a human being, and that human being is trying to stay alive, trying to capture, trying to get the message out to the world, and trying to stay safe.”

Here is my dad’s story.

“It was my day off.”

My mom had just made her morning coffee, my father still in the shower.

My mom sat on the edge of their bed watching The Today Show when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. She shouted for my father, who had just gotten out of the shower: “Akira! A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center! Come look, it’s on TV right now!” My father ran into the bedroom with just a towel. Together, they watched in horror as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, live on TV, as millions did that morning just minutes later.

In his gut, my father knew it was a terrorist act, an instinct borne of journalistic experience. He threw on a quick change of clothes and was out the door in minutes. He told my mom that he was headed to New York to cover the story. For my mom, my dad’s sudden departure felt eerily similar to when my dad left for Iraq within hours of President George H. W. Bush’s announcement of Operation: Desert Storm ten years prior. In both moments, my mom understood now as she did then that my dad had a job to do. While my parents aren’t overtly religious, my father lingered only a few moments as my mom said a quick prayer.

Before my mother’s coffee had even cooled, my dad was on the Turnpike, a tide of southbound traffic on the other side of the road as he rushed toward New York. My dad hadn’t even packed a bag: no toothbrush, no medicine, no change of clothes. Just his cell phone and a trunk full of cameras and equipment.

“Because I’ve worked so many years for the newspaper, I can judge whether it’s big news or not big news,” my dad told me. “I could tell, as soon as I saw it on TV, this was one of the biggest news stories ever, so I knew I had to cover it. My intuition worked out right away.”

He tried in vain to get into the city via the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, but both had already been closed. He tried to cross the George Washington Bridge but that too, was closed to incoming traffic. He ended up getting some shots along the river from the New Jersey side. Figuring he couldn’t get into the city, he turned around and came home to begin transmitting pictures from his home office. He had been home only for a short while when his assigning editor called him, urging him to go back and try one last time to get into the city if he could. My father packed a bag this time — but didn’t know yet when he would be coming home.

Since it’s been a decade, my dad’s memory of exactly how he got into the city was a little fuzzy. He remembers parking his car somewhere in New Jersey and taking a train into downtown Manhattan. He’s not sure if it was the NY Subway or NJ Transit; he just remembers taking one of the last few inbound running trains.

“I was so lucky I even got into the city,” he told me.

“It was like the moon.”

When my dad came topside, everything was covered in a thick layer of dust and ash.

“A couple inches thick,” he said. “It was like the moon, because when you walked, there was dust all over the place. I didn’t have a mask and I tried to avoid it as much as I could. I saw cars covered in it, mangled burnt cars. It looked like after a volcano explodes.”

“Most of the time I was walking,” he continued. “I walked all the way to Wall Street.”

It was around three o’clock when my dad made it into the city proper. Most of Ground Zero had been closed off at this point. The press was kept back at a radius of about five to six city blocks.

Well, most of the press, that is.

“I was treated like an outsider.”

My dad was quick to notice that members of the New York press were given more exclusive access to Ground Zero, such as shooting from the roofs of buildings right next to the site. Other non-New York media outlets couldn’t get that close. “I was treated like an outsider,” he recalls.

When my dad went to Giuliani’s press conference, he specifically asked if non-New York journalists would be granted close-up access to cover rescue efforts and the damage at Ground Zero. Giuliani’s camp promised that access would come soon to all journalists, regardless of their outlet. That promise never came to fruition. More frustrating for my father was when he found out that native New Yorker freelancers received exclusive access over photographers from major international outlets. Freelancers didn’t even have press badges.

“New York press got special treatment,” my dad said.” Certain people got certain privileges.”

When it came to interacting with New York officials, my dad encountered roadblock after roadblock. Whether it was NYPD or NYFD, there was no consistent standard of access. It changed minute by minute and often from officer to officer.

At one point, he tried to take a picture of some firefighters resting. One of the firefighters came over to him and said, “Hey, don’t take our picture.” So my dad backed off. “I wasn’t going to get arrested just to try and take pictures,” he told me. “But I felt I was treated in a pretty shoddy way.”

My dad even tried to ask for some help from rescuers when the dust from the debris began making it difficult to breathe. He approached a firefighter he saw distributing masks to other rescue workers. “I asked him, ‘Do you have an extra mask?’ and he said, ‘No, we don’t have any,’” my dad recounted. He watched in disbelief when, moments later, a National Guardsman walked up to the same firefighter and asked for a mask. The firefighter handing the Guardsman a mask without hesitation.

My dad was stunned. “I was just doing my job, too.”

A doctor nearby witnessed the entire exchange and came up to my dad, pulling a mask out of his pocket. “The doctor said, ‘I’m sorry I used it a little bit but you can have this one.’ He gave it to me and I thanked him,” my dad told me.

“It was the kindest thing anyone did for me when I was there.”

Even now, my dad struggles with how he felt he was treated by city officials and rescuers. “I think there was a racial thing,” he noted. “I’m Oriental*. I’m from a Philly paper. I felt like I got a lot of ‘what are you doing here’ — that kind of attitude.” [*Side note: my father has a pronounced Japanese accent.]

Without being able to get close to Ground Zero, my dad focused on the surrounding scenes.

“I couldn’t even lift my camera.”

“Mostly I photographed people’s reactions, human interest stuff: people looking for lost relative, makeshift memorials, vigils,” my dad said. “I wanted to get the rescue effort.”

As he walked, loved ones of victims and the missing would approach my dad on the street. They’d see his camera and press badge and ask him, “Did you see this person? Do you know what’s going on?” Time after time, my dad didn’t have answers. But these people were nice to him and didn’t mind being photographed. My dad remembers very distinctly interacting with one of these people on the street, even ten years later.

“One particular girl was walking by holding a picture, I don’t know if it was her friend or boyfriend. She bumped into me,” my dad recalled. “She asked me if I’d seen this person; she was almost crying. I didn’t know if I had. I was so moved by the way she asked I couldn’t even lift my camera. I completely forgot I had my camera. I felt so bad for her.”

He continued, “After she walked away, I realized I had missed a good opportunity to shoot, so I tried not to involve feeling for the subject anymore.”

“You become pretty numb.”

My dad stayed in New York City for a week covering the aftermath. He was joined by a team of photographers and reporters from The Philadelphia Inquirer, staying in a hotel on 5th Avenue. He remembers how hard it was to find lunch. “Everything was closed. You had to go uptown to eat.”

In his career, my dad has seen a lot through the lens. Whether it was covering Three Mile Island (for which The Inquirer won the Pulitzer in 1980), bloody battle imagery in the 1991 Iraq War, spending a month photographing Gaddafi in Libya in the 1980s, or even covering the fall of the Berlin Wall — September 11 was no different in the intensity of his assignment. But for all his work, this was the first assignment where the gravity of what had transpired landed squarely in his own adopted country.

“I’m glad I contributed to spread this news story for the paper and its readers,” he said to me. Even so, my dad struggled emotionally with covering September 11.

“I felt so bad about what was going on,” he said. “You see this kind of stuff, seen tragedy in my career, and you become pretty numb. It’s not good, but it’s the nature of the business. I felt bad about so many people dying.”

My dad didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on the emotional impact of what had just happened to our country, to these individual people and lives. “Otherwise I can’t take pictures,” he said. “I try to block off all those feelings. When I got back to the hotel each night I felt really depressed and wondered if I should have covered this.”

I was shocked at what my dad said next.

“Maybe I’m too cold, but I have to be. Otherwise, if I start thinking about any kind of tragedy, I just can’t cover it.” Even knowing much of what he’s covered in his career, I’ve never heard my dad speak so candidly about how he’s been affected by his work.

He continued, “Sometimes it affects me later on.”

“A more peace-loving people.”

My mom, also sitting on our Skype call, tells me my dad doesn’t really handle the anniversary of September 11 very well. He doesn’t like to talk about it. The fact that he allowed me to talk to him for nearly and hour and a half about that day was a big deal. When I asked him how he felt on the tenth anniversary, he had this to say:

“Death is death no matter which way you go.” Blunt? Yes. Out of character for my father? Not at all. He continued: “Tragedy happens all over the world. We should have compassion for other people too.”

For my dad, he feels the anniversary of September 11 should provide everyone the opportunity to think and reflect for others who have faced tragedy around the globe. My dad believes thinking of others “makes us a more peace-loving people. It’s important to memorialize but it also reminds to me to look at the bigger scope of global tragedy.”

His words reminded of another quote by Joao Silva: “The images are so stark sometimes that people tend to think that there’s a machine behind the camera, and that’s not the case. We are all human beings. The things that we see go through the eye straight into the brain. Some of those scenes never go away.”

Despite his best efforts, my dad struggled to get close to Ground Zero. He would spend three to four hours a day focused on trying to get shots near Ground Zero, usually at a distance of about four to five blocks away. The closest he ever got was about two blocks — before officials shooed him away again. “As soon as I got back to the hotel every night, I got into the shower and washed everything,” he says. In retrospect, he’s glad he didn’t spend so much time at Ground Zero. In spite of the amount of time he spent and as close as he did get, my father’s been lucky: hasn’t developed the health problems many of the first responders have. “Maybe that was one of the good things that happened to me,” he thinks.

Even so, my dad registered for the World Trade Center Health Registry just to be safe.

If he was ever going to get shots close to Ground Zero, my dad had to get creative. He decided to try and get some shots from higher ground. On September 13, he came up with an idea. He headed out to Rockefeller Center, up to the 65th floor to the Rainbow Room restaurant. “I spoke to the manager and asked if I could shoot at dusk from their windows, so I could get the Empire State Building — now illuminated in red, white, and blue lights — while Ground Zero could be seen smoldering in the background,” he told me. The manager agreed and about two hours later, my dad came back, camera in hand.

He got his only shot of Ground Zero.

It’s a haunting photo of a new New York skyline at dusk: a distorted memory where your gut recognizes something is amiss before your brain can complete the realization. The sky—unmarred by airline contrails as all planes were grounded—is a pastel canvas where a weighty emptiness looms in place of the Twin Towers. Only a cloud of brightly lit dust and smoke betrays an otherwise calm scene of a night in New York.

Of all the thousands of images he shot, the thousands of moments captured on film, this image was my dad’s favorite photograph.

Photo by Akira Suwa. ©2001 by Akira Suwa/The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

It was never published.

Keiko Zoll is a digital storyteller doing social good. Follow her on Twitter @keikozoll.

Storytelling for social good: Humanize. Ignite. Persist.

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