NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Amy Sancetta woke early on Sept. 11 in her Rockefeller Center hotel room, plunk in the middle of midtown’s bustle. Anxious to see the Big Apple’s sites, she dressed quickly and slung her cameras around her neck, grabbed her bag. She also answered her ringing cell phone.
The Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Sancetta had been working long hours at the U.S. Open, snapping photographs for The Associated Press. Now was time to enjoy the clear autumn day in New York.
"A plane just flew into the World Trade Center, can you get down there?" asked AP editor Madge Stager.
Plans cancelled, Sancetta grabbed her digital camera and discs and headed downtown for what would be the biggest story of her life.
"We just thought a plane hit the tower," said Sancetta, interviewed from her home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. "We thought it was an accident. I didn’t even know where exactly the World Trade Towers were. "I just knew they were south, and they were tall, so I told the cab driver: Head downtown."
The AP’s national enterprise photographer, Sancetta is a veteran sports photographer and her feature coverage of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign was part of The AP’s package that won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize.
Sancetta was in the cab when the second plane hit. They drove down Broadway and she told the cabbie to stop, so that she could shoot pictures of people in the street and smoke pouring from the buildings. "I didn’t see anyone jumping from the buildings. But when you close your eyes at night you can see the burning buildings, again and again."
The public has seen Sancetta’s vivid, enduring images again and again in newspapers nationwide and then again in their own minds eye. (See the link to photos at the end of this article). Her work captured the first tower going down, firefighters with their heads in the their hands in grief and shocked, ash-covered survivors wandering the streets. She photographed chaos and destruction in the terror attack in which nearly 3,000 people perished.
The Camera Couldn’t Capture the Roar of Disaster, the Beat of Her Heart
Yet Sancetta says some shocking details were un-photographable: The sounds, for instance, were not captured adequately. "It was so loud down there. The noise, it was overwhelming. The crunch of thousands of people’s feet running and this bass sound in your chest from the buildings," she said. "I took pictures of a space shuttle launch years ago and we were two miles from the launch pad, but you could feel the sound inside of you as it lifted off. This was similar."
When the smothering smoke began to billow out onto side streets and threatened to engulf the crowds, Sancetta had to run too. She hid in a parking garage and then abruptly left it, thinking, ‘I don’t want to be underground where something could fall on me. It was so surreal. I still wasn’t sure what had happened or why buildings were falling down."
After the second building fell, rescue workers began pushing Sancetta away from the area. She called The AP and began to make the four-mile-trek back up to the offices in Rockefeller Center, where she was about to begin sightseeing just hours before. "My hands were shaking as I was trying to shoot," she said. "I walked back up to 50th Street and that night I took a bicycle and rode it downtown, just to look at everything."
Among the most painful images she captured were the fliers that would cover city signposts for months. "All of the photographs everywhere," she said, "it was unbelievable, remarkable, how fast they went up. You looked at their faces and they looked like people I could have known. They were everywhere, everywhere you went."
One of the First Women Photographers in a ‘Man’s Field’
Sancetta, based at The AP bureau in Columbus, Ohio, was one of the first women photographers in what had been a macho field and has built a career on her vibrant sports photography. She now routinely covers the National Collegiate Athletic Association games and the Olympics.
She sent The AP a box of her sports photos while she was at Ohio State University in her native Columbus and began to free-lance for the news organization.
"I always played sports growing up and that was what I gravitated to when I was taking pictures," said Sancetta.
By 1983, Sancetta was working in The AP Philadelphia bureau as a staff photographer.
"I would go to the Flyers and the Sixers games and when we ate in the press rooms before games," Sancetta recalls, "the only other women there would be the cooks."
Shortly after Sancetta finished shooting in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York City, she headed home, where she found some comfort in small-town America but also despair.
"I took a lot of shots of people in Ohio hanging flags. People wanted to help wherever they were," she said. "I kept thinking, ‘Who cares about anything else that is going on in the world?’ Nothing seemed important."
The World Series began in late October–delayed a week by the World Trade Center attack–and Sancetta went back to doing the work she loves.
"It really pulled me out of my funk and gave me something to focus on. Although for a long time all stories in the news, even sports, were somehow tied to Sept. 11."
Sancetta said she now is looking forward to covering the winter Olympics in Utah, although she still has reservations about flying
"You wonder, what else, what else, what else," she said. "The mind works in still pictures, they flash through your memory," she said. "After everything is gone, pictures remain. You can describe something all you want, but you remember the pictures."
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Maya Dollarhide is a free-lance writer living in New York.
Sancetta’s World Trade Center photos: