Photographing 9/11: ‘What did they think as they jumped?’

In September 2001, I was sent to New York to report on a boxing match for a Puerto Rican newspaper. The bout featured Puerto Rican boxer Felix Trinidad and American boxer Bernard Hopkins, who were competing for a world championship title.

I was informed that I had to attend, but I had previously requested not to participate in that specific mission. The publication would assign me to report on the majority of his matches, and Trinidad was a close companion of mine.

Therefore, on Saturday, September 8, I embarked on a journey from the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan.

The match was planned to occur on the upcoming Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

On the morning of September 11th, my team from Hopkins’ newspapers, along with two other Puerto Rican photojournalists, headed to Park Central, where we hoped to spot him training in the park. However, access to his training sessions was blocked, which was unusual. So, if one of us saw him, we agreed that we would share the location with the others. After breakfast, we took photographs and worked on getting shots of him.

That was when I received a call from Puerto Rico, telling me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. At first, he thought it was a joke, and then my boss called and told me to get the photograph of the crash.

We promptly grabbed our cameras and departed, requesting a taxi to drive us to the city center.

We occasionally stopped to capture the chaotic scene around us, as we ran along West Broadway towards the towering buildings. We hailed a taxi and quickly jumped out as the driver handed us a $20 bill. Although some of the towers were still in the distance, we were able to get closer than anyone else, as the city had been sealed off to everyone except first responders. By this time, the city had been sealed off from 14th Street downtown.

I took a photo of him capturing an image that day. No one else was present. I saw a policeman looking up at the North Tower on Broadway West and Park Place, at a quiet corner. We were within a block of the towers, and it took us about 25 minutes to get there.

A man falls to his death from the World Trade Center after two planes hit the twin towers on September 11, 2001, in New York City in a terrorist attack [Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images]

I thought it was peculiar that they would be present at a plane crash. Soon after, a person wearing a Secret Service jacket walked by while I continued to walk towards the towers, and then a man wearing an FBI jacket walked past me.

She appeared to be floating. I could clearly see her. She was a well-dressed woman in a black vest and skirt. As I was walking, I saw the first person jumping. I started walking towards the West Side highway and turned around.

I knew I wasn’t lucky enough to see her hit the pavement, so she wasn’t screaming out of fear or for help. But I had no other option than to jump. I was so close to seeing her face. I thought it was a person, but it turned out to be a piece of the falling building. He refused to make me believe, but I remember my fellow photographer, Araujo Xavier, saying it was enough to tell. I picked up my camera and took a photo.

I often wonder what must have gone through their minds when I stayed with me and saw many other people jumping from those windows, as we got to the west side of the North Tower.

While I was present for approximately 20 minutes, I heard a dreadful noise resembling the shattering of a colossal tree limb as the North Tower collapsed.

I realized that the South Tower had completely fallen when I could no longer see the view. At that moment, I only photographed it as it collapsed.

As I took the frame of the photo of “Napalm Girl” from the Vietnam War, it reminded me. I saw a child screaming and running, so I switched lenses. As I took the frame of a man kneeling on the floor, his shirt all torn and crying. I ran from the chaos.

Next to the office, law enforcement had suspicions that a explosive device had been positioned at the Holland Tunnel, therefore we were instructed to vacate the premises. While transferring the files from my memory card to a computer, I hurriedly ran several blocks to the Getty Images headquarters on Varick Street as I had come to the realization that all my digital cards were completely occupied.

Since my photos were utilized, my newspaper published a delayed edition on that day. After submitting the photos I had captured, I hailed a taxi and returned to my hotel before departing.

People hang from the windows of the North Tower of the World Trade Center after a hijacked airliner hit the building on September 11, 2001, in New York City [Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images]

I barely managed to speak, but I remember calling my ex-wife and trying to tell her how many people I saw jumping from the towers. Between sobs, I screamed. I cried a lot. I stayed in my room for the rest of the day.

The surprise must have been due to my actions between 6pm on September 11 and the subsequent morning; even now, I have no memory of it.

When I woke up at 6 am on September 12th, I walked towards the towers for more than 20 blocks. I didn’t even see a single person walking their dog, because the streets were so empty. I’m sure that was the only time when the streets were that empty, because I wish those images of other places existed somewhere in my mind.

Returning to Puerto Rico, I finally photographed the postponed Trinidad-Hopkins fight on September 29 after spending 21 days covering the 9/11 story.

I wonder what they saw that helped them make the decision for peace. Even today, I still have flashbacks of the images of people standing in the windows before they jumped.

The constant creation of scars, such as conflicts and wars, has led to a halt that should be respected by all nations, cultures, and races. It has always reminded me of how fragile we are as human beings, and more importantly, it should give us a chance to respect each other.