In the days and weeks immediately after Sept. 11, there was, in many people, a deep hunger to see and see again what happened as the World Trade Center towers burned and then fell, a hunger fed by disbelief and shock. But as the years have passed, 9/11 has resolved itself into a collection of core images — photos, impressions, memories — whether you were in Manhattan that day or not.
This is the condensation that time nearly always accomplishes. So it comes as a surprise — just what kind will vary from person to person — to see the photographs taken that morning by Greg Semendinger, then a New York police detective, from a Police Department helicopter, the only aircraft allowed over Manhattan once the crisis had begun.
The dozen photos — obtained by ABC News from the National Institute of Standards and Technology — were shot from several different angles: over the Hudson, crossing Manhattan north of the towers, looking back toward Brooklyn, and up the island. They capture an aerial glimpse of a burning tower and then the immense plumes of smoke, ash and dust that engulf the sudden vacancy where the trade center stood.
Because they’re shot from on high, they capture with startling clarity both the voluminousness of the pale cloud that swallowed Lower Manhattan and the sharpness of its edges, a reminder of the beauty of the morning out of which so much tragedy so quickly roiled.
It is surprising to see these photographs now in part because we should have seen them sooner. It took a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain them from the national standards institute, which provided the official, technical analysis of why the towers fell. These photos also remind us of how important it is to keep enlarging our sense of what happened on 9/11, to keep opening it to history.
They will be part of what we hope will be an enormous and publicly accessible archive at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.