World Trade Center: an interview with journalist Lori Grinker

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

More than twelve years have passed since 9/11, but Undicisettembre is continuing to collect and preserve accounts of the people who witnessed that dramatic day.

Today we are publishing an interview with journalist Lori Grinker, whose photographs of a devasted Ground Zero are a highly valuable record of the day’s events.

We wish to thank Lori Grinker for her kindness and time.

Images in the article are taken from Grinker's 9/11 footage and cannot be reused without her consent. 

Undicisettembre: What do you remember, generally speaking about 9/11? Can you give us an account of what you saw on that day?

Lori Grinker: I was living in an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that was somewhat temporary. I didn't know if I was going to be staying there or not so I didn't have anything unpacked, I didn't have a television, I didn't have a phone. I was on my cellphone with a friend catching up on things in the morning, early, and then I had to go to a doctor's appointment. This place I was living in was a private house, the lady that owned it was Italian actually and she didn't speak a lot of English. My ex husband was Spanish and he was in Spain at the time. I hung up quickly with my friend who happened to work in the American Express Building in the World Financial Center, she was late because of her baby; I was running out to get to this doctor's appointment which was important and the landlady stopped me and she said: “Come, come, you have to see. You have to see!” She had all her TVs on and I saw where the plane had gone in and at that time we thought it was a small plane, she said: “Call your husband!”. I used her landline to call my agency and they said: “You are on assignment, we've been trying to reach you” because by that time my cellphone had gone out. It was for “People” magazine and “Time” magazine.

I went out, from where I lived in Williamsburg you could see the towers, so I saw them smoking. I started walking and I found my way to the Williamsburg Bridge. While I was on the bridge all these people were coming towards me because they were leaving Manhattan, I was going the opposite direction and I saw the first tower fall from the bridge. I was walking, I was shooting, you could see all the smoke and I was also shooting people crying on the bridge, then I looked up and the tower was gone. It looked like crazy, like Photoshop, because you could still see the outline of the tower, but maybe it was only my imagination, like I could see an outline around it. I kept walking over the bridge, I had the New York City Press Card and the Police were telling everyone to get off the bridge but then they saw I had a Press Pass and let me go. I went down there to the East Side and everything was covered in white dust. I didn't see any dead bodies, I didn't see anyone jumping out of the windows, by the time I got there the second tower had fallen and I didn't see that. I started photographing things and I made my way all the way around to the bottom of the island on the West Side to where the Towers were and started photographing there, then I got up inside the World Financial Center where I took a picture of a firefighter raising the flag. I know there are conspiracy theories about that too.

Undicisettembre: I'm not aware of that. Please, enlighten me.

Lori Grinker: Someone said it wasn't real but set up, “they did it for the photographer”. Obviously it's not like that. That's very stupid. If you look online you can see that somebody wrote about that saying “how did she get there?”, “she didn't have any Press Card”, “how come she doesn't have any other pictures?”. It's ridiculous. There's another photographer who took the picture from the same vantage point as me, and then there's a third photographer. So how can this person dispute anything is something I don't understand.

Undicisettembre: What can you tell us about people who were coming out of the Towers? Have you met any of them?

Lori Grinker: When I got off the bridge there were lots of people walking with their surgical masks on and covered with dust, but I was just trying to make my way down there so I didn't talk to anybody. I just kept walking and some volunteers stopped me and said: “You should have a mask on”, I took a mask and I kept walking. I was supposed to meet this writer I was on assignment with but it was impossible to try to meet up with somebody especially with the cellphones going in and out. So I just got down there and I thought: “I'm going to shoot what is here and I'm not going to stop and try to create a story and follow somebody in particular”, I wanted to shoot what was happening. When I got there, there were very few people left. There was a guy in his suit holding a briefcase looking up, everybody was looking up where the towers had been. This was on Broadway, on the East Side of the Wall Street Area. When I got all the way around to the West Side I saw the firefighters pull out some bodies but I didn't see anybody who was wounded coming out and I didn't talk to any individuals on that day. The next day I did.

Undicisettembre: Why? What happened on the next day?

Lori Grinker: The next day I was photographing for “People” magazine those who were looking for their loved ones at the hospital, where the morgue was. People were panicked, hoping to get some information about those that they lost and whose bodies hadn't been found.

I talked to one woman, she worked for Bloomberg News, her fiance was missing. People were posting signs and pictures of their loved ones, looking for information and wanting to talk to the press, trying to get help to find their loved ones.

Undicisettembre: What are your thoughts about the firefighters and the rescuers who risked their lives to save others?

Lori Grinker: Those are some of the people I did talk to. When I got to Ground Zero phones were not working. Sometimes my phone would work, they saw me talking on the phone and they asked me if they could use my phone to call their families and let them know they were okay, so I was passing the phone around. They were exhausted and very nice, the police weren't so nice trying to get rid of us. The firefighters were a little more protective, they were saying “Don't stand under that streetlight, that is about to fall, you might get hit” and things like that.

There were volunteers there going around with sandwiches and bottles of water and I couldn't believe anyone could eat the sandwiches out of those trays because of all the particles that were flying around. But most of the volunteers just wanted to help firefighters, cops and journalists.

Undicisettembre: What do you know about WTC7? Did you see it collapse?

Lori Grinker: I was there when it fell. I wasn't near it but in World Financial Center 2 and I was photographing the firefighter raising the flag. I was waiting for a colleague to bring me film, because I shot film and I had no more of it. When I finally met him I brought him inside the building and a firefighter said: “Everybody get out! This building can collapse”. So we left and the cops were trying to get us out of the area, there was this cop who was taking us by our arm trying to get rid of us. As we walked away there were all these people standing on a mound of dirt and everyone was looking at building 7. I haven't seen it till then and it had just fallen, so they watched it fall.

As far as I know it was burning, because I've seen some pictures.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories which claim that 9/11 was an inside-job?

Lori Grinker: I don't believe them at all. It's not that difficult to fly a plane into a building if you want to. There are three lanes of air traffic there for the three airports. But they don't want to listen and they don't listen.

Conspiracy theories are mostly a waste of time. I do remember talking to some conspiracy theorists, I was coming back from somewhere soon after 9/11 and a Canadian guy who was coming back from Europe started talking to me about conspiracy theories; I think that was the first time I heard about them. I looked into them because I was curious but I didn't believe them.

After hearing the conspiracy theory about the firefighter raising the flag, I don't hold much for conspiracy theories. I think they are people with too much time on their hands and who like to spin tales. I don't doubt that our government has done things in other places in the past but I don't believe this was done by them.

Look at all the people that said there were no Jews in the Towers that day, indeed there were plenty of Jews in the building. So this is just ridiculous.

I think that none of these conspiracy theories deserve any attention.

Undicisettembre: Are there many conspiracy theorists among your colleagues?

Lori Grinker: No. I don't know of any.

Undicisettembre: Has 9/11 given you a new insight into the art of journalism?

Lori Grinker: It taught me a lot of things about instinct. It was very difficult because some of the volunteers were angry because I was taking pictures; I was supposed to help, not to be taking pictures. These people clearly don't understand how information gets out. If you travel around the world and you photograph disasters or small stories that no one knows, these people really appreciate that you are documenting it, so that other people can learn about this and either do something to help or understand what is going on in the world.

I wasn't a news shooter, so I did feature stories that might have had to do with political and social issues, but didn't go around chasing news. So I trusted my instinct when the police were trying to get everyone to go towards Brooklyn from the bridge and I was going towards Manhattan, my first thought was also to go back to Brooklyn but then I thought: “No, no. You are shooting the news here, you've got to go cover it.” So I really understood the courage and the kind of thoughts it takes to cover these kinds of events because if I had been right there when the Towers fell I am not sure what I would have done, because I think you really need to understand how to move away from the danger and get what you need to do, and then take cover. A lot of my colleagues who were there were seasoned war photographers and news photographers and they knew what to do and I'm not sure I would have known what to do. So I think that it's not just going and taking pictures, you have to be very keen and aware about things that are going on.

I think I've always been pretty sensitive to people, but you really need to know when to shoot and when not to shoot. Sometime you have to shoot when you might not feel you want to shoot because you are there to cover a story.

It taught me a lot of things like that and I think you have to stick to your guns about what you feel the story is and what you feel you should cover rather than what some editors might be saying. You have to cover because they are not there, and you come home with nothing if what they want is too difficult to find. For instance: to follow a person and do a story about that, that's not something I would do in a situation like that and I'm glad I followed my instinct.

So, following your instinct is really important.

Undicisettembre: Did you have psychological consequences after 9/11?

Lori Grinker: No, I did not. I wasn't witnessing some of the truly horrific moments, seeing the tower fall was horrible but I was very far away. I didn't see people jumping out the building or body parts, so what I saw was very abstract and it gives you some protection.

There were other things going on in my life at that moment, it might have amplified those things somehow because it added stress in a period that was already very stressful for me. I'd just recovered from cancer treatment, my marriage was ending so I had many things going on at that very particular moment, it was very tough. I think this knocked any psychological trauma I might have had out.

I was truly grateful that I didn’t witness people jumping out of the windows. I think that's the most horrific thing to think about having to confront yourself and knowing that somebody you loved did that. I feel more for the people that witnessed that or went through that. It made me feel very lucky.

Seeing people looking for their loved ones at the hospital was really tough. Seeing people panicking and not knowing and so hopeful, when mostly you know their people are gone, that was the saddest thing for me.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about the new WTC? Is it healing the wound somehow?

Lori Grinker: I cannot speak for the people who were directly affected, but it's definitely representative of something positive and moving forward. There is a 9/11 museum, so it's not like it will ever be forgotten. There are big pools where the Towers were. Yes, to me it feels like it's healing the wound and recovering.

Undicisettembre: Do you think the country is still living in fear or has it regained its standing in the world?

Lori Grinker: There are a lot of things that at least in my world I still refer to as “post 9/11”. Like teaching the students what they can or cannot photograph on the streets of New York City or getting access to things that were much easier before 9/11. So I think there's still a lot of, I don't know if it's fear, but at least some careful consideration about things that were much easier to do before.

I don't think people have forgotten and I think if something happens here people first think of terrorism, even if it's a blackout or the shooting in Boston. But we have bigger problems now here with guns or violence, that have nothing to do with terrorism, which are causing more deaths and fear in my mind.

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