Reuters news photographer
I was assigned to the evening shift at the White House on September 11. I was going to leave the house at 11 a.m. I got this phone call from the office, and an editor said, "Larry, an airplane just hit the World Trade Center, and it appears to be a very large aircraft. Why don't you start heading downtown?" Just before I left the house, another phone call came and he said, "You better hurry up! Another aircraft has just hit the other World Trade Center tower."
I started racing. I live near the Vienna Metro, so it's about 13 miles. I thought it would be quicker to take surface streets and sort of weave my way downtown. I was listening to NPR and WTOP, trying to figure out what was going on. All of a sudden, I think it was WTOP that first said, "We have a report of an explosion at the Pentagon."
So I started driving a little quicker, cutting through back roads. As I got to Columbia Pike, there was a mass exodus coming away from the Pentagon and the Navy headquarters. People were on foot, and you could see the smoke rising. I stashed my car and grabbed my cameras and started running. Police officers were pushing people back; they were starting to put roadblocks up. I remember I wore my nice black loafers, which were not something I would use for hiking with all my camera gear. Perhaps because I was determined, I was never questioned, never challenged. I'll never forget it-I was the Invisible Man for an hour.
On Columbia Pike, there's a hotel, the Sheraton, and I tried to get up on the roof. I got all the way to the top, and the door was bolted. So I ran back down, cut across, and there's the Marine base, Henderson Hall area. There were already Marines with M-16s and their battle fatigues, and they'd taken their sentry positions. I went to the back of that area and jumped over this iron fence that attaches to Arlington Cemetery, and ran up on the hill.
Somebody had walked up to me when I was outside of the cemetery and said, "Don't you know, there's another airplane on its way inbound, and they think it's going to go toward the Capitol?"
It was really strange because you had all the headstones, and then you had military-type people who had appeared out of nowhere. People were staring in disbelief. One of the pictures that I photographed was the backs of the heads of all these Marines. They were watching their Pentagon, the center of their world, with fire still coming out of it. And it was very, very quiet.
I remember running on the hill, and because I had on my little black dress loafers, I kept slipping. When I finally got to a position, I moved to the west side as much as possible because there was so much black smoke, and there were some flames coming out of the gap from where the airplane had impacted with the Pentagon. And I kept going to the left of that, so I had a view of the Pentagon and the Capitol.
I was trying to maintain a professional composure, to stay on the target that had already been hit. If another aircraft was inbound, I wanted to be able to have a shot of the Capitol. I had a long lens. I set my exposure for what I thought would be a ball of fire.
I remember saying to myself, "Just stay on the Capitol." And my hands started shaking. I was an American at that point. I'm going, "My God! My country has just been attacked, and I don't know why."
"My God! My country has just been attacked, and I don't know why."
This went on for probably a minute or two. Someone said, "Oh, the plane is down; it's not inbound." And I saw an F-16 aircraft just scream over the top of the Pentagon. At that second I thought, "OK, everything is under control, nobody's going to get by these guys."
I looked at the Pentagon and walked up to these Marine officers and asked them, "Exactly where is the impact?" because I couldn't see anything. And this officer said, "It's right there! You can see the tail of the aircraft. It's right there!" He was excited and agitated. I picked up my camera and I couldn't see it. I think in his mind he had it etched that he could actually see the tail of the aircraft. But there was none. This plane just evaporated when it hit the building.
So I started shooting pictures, and rescue helicopters were flying through the image. Streaks of flame were coming up at one point, and then they're shooting water on them; the flames disappeared, and then more smoke would come out. I remember it was a very black smoke, and every once in a while, you could see just a patchwork of a very blue sky that would fade away.
I shot probably 22 or 23 frames. Now is the hard part-I've got to get out without getting stopped. I was thinking, "I'm on a military reservation. I trespassed. And now I have the images, but if I don't get them out, they are no good to anybody." I started walking away very quickly with my head down. I had the two disks that had my images on them, and I just slipped them down inside my sock into the shoe. I replaced the disks in the camera. If I had been stopped, I would have popped those out and said, "OK, I'm sorry, I didn't realize I was trespassing."
While I'm running out, I tried to make a phone call to the office, and there was no cell service whatsoever. I got back to my car. Everything was gridlocked going toward Washington, so I headed out to my house. I sat down and turned on the computer and moved five pictures immediately. I would say within five minutes of getting to the house, I had the first picture out. Then I called the office. I remember them saying, "We've been trying to get people to the Pentagon off the Washington side," and they couldn't get anybody over there. Had I been downtown, it never would have worked. It worked because I was the late guy and I was Mr. Invisible that day.
I raced my car to the Vienna Metro, and people were streaming out of the subway. There were only three people on the subway going back to Washington, and 23 minutes later I got off, and I was within a block of the White House. It worked flawlessly.
I went over to the White House, outside the perimeter, and they eventually walked us over to the FBI. People were commenting about how eerie it was-and how quiet.
Karen Hughes came out and said the president was safe; he was on Air Force One, and he would probably be coming back to the White House later on. I was in a little bit of shock at that point, because the magnitude of what had happened to the United States was just starting to settle into my brain-and the fact that I'd been to the impact site at the Pentagon, and now I was going to this White House briefing and was soon going to see the president and watch his reaction. It was a very large day for me. I called my wife from the FBI to let her know I was OK.
Maybe an hour or two later, they herded us over to the White House briefing room. And that's where we stayed the remainder of the day until the president briefed the nation in the evening. So we put those pictures out, and then I remember finishing up around 11 that night. And one of the other Reuters photographers gave me a lift.
I turned to my wife when I got home and said, "Throw these shoes away!" My feet were very sore. Later, I bought a very nice pair of brown steel-tipped boots and black construction boots, so that whatever happens, and wherever it happens, I could run through the mud and do whatever it takes.
My job is to see things for millions of people who don't have the opportunity to be in the front row. On most days, I can detach myself and say, "It's a news event." But this impacted me much, much more. I was an American first and a newsman second on that day.
This interview originally appeared in the August 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.
Want the news first every morning? Sign up for National Journal’s Need-to-Know Memo. Short items to prepare you for the day.