Remembering the September 11 terror attacks through pictures

A day before terror struck the Twin Towers in Manhattan in 2001, sports photographer Kamal Sharma stood atop the nearby Empire State Building and photographed them for hours. On the ill-fated day, too, he rushed to the site and captured the city’s shock and grief. On the 13th anniversary of 9/11, sunday mid-day looks at the tragedy through the eyes of the lensman

Between August/September 2001, Sharma was in New York, and in great spirits. Pakistani cricketer Wasim Akram had sponsored him as the official photographer of the Double Wicket Cricket Tournament at New Jersey. In addition to this job, the Press Trust of India and a national Indian magazine assigned him to officially cover the US Open that was to begin at the end of August and conclude on September 9 that year. Three days later, on September 12, was Sharma’s 39th birthday. On an impulse, on September 10, Sharma spent the whole day taking hundreds of shots of the Twin Towers.

Twin Towers
Manhattan’s skyline would never be the same, as the fumes from the debris of the Twin Towers illustrated hours after the terror attack

A day later, two airplanes, hijacked by the Osama bin Laden-led terror group, Al Qaeda, crashed into the Twin Towers. The attack shook the US, and the rest of the world, and Sharma realised he was one of the last people to have photographed the iconic structures.

Children at Ground Zero at a candlelight march after the attacks
Children at Ground Zero at a candlelight march after the attacks

“That morning, my brother-in-law in Queens woke me up with the news and I grabbed my camera to rush to Manhattan,” he recalls. Sharma couldn’t shake off memories of the previous day — the Twin Towers he captured in the twilight. “Little did I know that all those photographs would someday constitute a unique collection,” recalls Sharma.

The evening before two airplanes hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan, photographer Kamal Sharma clicked this photograph of  the structures
The evening before two airplanes hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan, photographer Kamal Sharma clicked this photograph of the structures

On 9/11, while Sharma headed to the site, thousands of panicking New Yorkers, mostly office-goers and commuters, tried to rush back home via the Queensboro Bridge. The police had cordoned off the entire Manhattan area and diverted traffic. Sharma and his brother-in-law weaved their way through the crowd and reached Ground Zero. “It was the longest day of my life,” he says. Sharma worked through the morning and, by late evening, he had hundreds of photographs of the fateful day.

Panic ensued minutes after the planes hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan
Panic ensued minutes after the planes hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan

Sharma is one of the few photographers in the world to have the distinction of photographing the Twin Towers hours before and after the tragedy. Sharma is all praise for the discipline displayed by New Yorkers that day. “I did not witness a single stampede or a hate crime while I was there. Hundreds of cops and firefighters displayed courage and dedication, and performed their duty, unmindful of the risk to their own lives and limbs. We remember those who died in the towers, but tend to forget those who died during the rescue mission,” points out Sharma.

Sharma wanted to capture devastated but determined rescue workers as much as grieving citizens on that fateful day
Sharma wanted to capture devastated but determined rescue workers as much as grieving citizens on that fateful day

Sharma’s photographs of the 9/11 have been exhibited several times over, the most notable being an exhibition in September 2002 at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, Janpath, New Delhi, which was inaugurated by legendary cricketer Kapil Dev and Arun Jaitley, then law minister in the Vajpayee cabinet. The US Embassy, too, was represented by Michael Anderson, minister counsellor public affairs, who was all praise for Sharma’s photographic homage to the victims of 9/11. Anderson was greatly touched when all those gathered at the exhibition lit candles and prayed for the peace of the 3,000-odd victims of the terror attack.

Civic officials cleaning Ground Zero after the terror attack
Civic officials cleaning Ground Zero after the terror attack

“It is impossible to remain unaffected by 9/11 even today. Soon after the tragedy, I become a hardcore pacifist and a crusader against terrorism,” he says. Sharma has organised several exhibitions on 9/11 for school children in Dehradun, Delhi, Chandigarh and in other parts of the country. He combines it with sports and cars photographs to drive home the point that sports unites us while terrorism is divisive. It is his way of paying his tribute to the victims who perished in the tragedy and thousands of others who have died since then in various parts of the world in acts of terrorism.

Photographer Kamal Sharma
Photographer Kamal Sharma

Raj Kanwar is a Dehradun-based author and a veteran journalist

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