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“We have to remember this” - 9/11 Fifteen Years on with Aristide Economopoulos

7 years ago

On the morning of September 11, 2001,
Aristide Economopoulos, a young Greek-American photographer based out of New Jersey, got a call from his mother at 8:22am. She wanted to chat about something “rather trivial”. He asked her to call him back.

Half an hour later, his photo assignment editor, Donna Wallace, called to say a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He ran to get the last ferry to the city. “That could have been the last time I talked to my mother,” he recalls. On the first anniversary of the attacks, Aristide was in lower Manhattan covering the memorial service. At 8:22am, he called his mother and told her he loved her.

15 years on from that day, Aristide shares with us his memories of a chaotic, heartbreaking, life-changing few hours of image-making:


“All my photos were taken within a 3 hour time period. After that, I needed to get back to my office in New Jersey and I needed medical help. I was living on the Jersey City waterfront on the Hudson River and you could see the towers from my apartment. I originally thought it was a small plane that crashed but while running to the ferry I heard the second plane hit and I knew it wasn't a coincidence.

While working you are focussing on the telling the story. It is like flipping a switch. You try and turn off your emotions and focus doing your job. The challenge is switching. I suffered with PTSD for a number of years after that day.


I was on an autopilot, looking for photos to take. I wanted images that told the story, showed emotion, humanity and also the lack of humanity that tragic day. I wasn’t trying to analyze what was happening, who or why and what the results and repercussions were going to be.

That was not my job. That was for another time.

I quickly moved around lower Manhattan taking photos. I was engulfed in the toxic dust when the first tower fell because I was only a block away. In hindsight it wasn't the smartest thing to do, but after the first tower fell I had to see what had happened.

When the second tower fell I was just 50 meters away and had to run for my life. I dove with another photographer behind a bus which then got partially crushed as the debris fell. That bus saved our lives. 

I continued to photograph but left by 12:30pm. Most of my photos from that day were about the people affected by the attacks. Towers can be rebuilt, but there were so many lives lost that day that we can never bring back. And for those that survived, their lives are dramatically altered.

By the end of the day, my eyes were badly injured. I lost part of the first layer of my right cornea and my left eye was scratched. I also had microscopic shards of glass embedded in my eyelids, so every time I blinked there was irritation. Through medication, my eyes have healed completely and although I inhaled a lot of that toxic dust, I was only exposed to it for 3 hours; it was prolonged exposure of the workers that made them sick.

I remember there was an orthodox Jewish paramedic also doing his job in the lobby and was attending to the injured. He takes his yarmulke off and starts using it as a filter to breath. He then turns and says to me: “See, yarmulkes do come in handy.” At that time I wasn’t feeling anything, I was just working. That man brought a huge smile to my face for a few seconds. The building where this photo was taken has been torn down and they built dorm rooms for Pace University students there.


© Aristide Economopoulos

There is one photo that takes me back to a certain moment the most. In the photo of the woman hugging in the lobby of 2 John Street, the woman in the foreground cried out to me: “Oh my god we’re alive, we’re alive. Oh my god we’re alive!”  She then saw me taking photos and questioned why I was doing that. I responded: “We have to remember this, we cannot forget.” No one bothered me again after that.”