Photo of firefighter sitting on twisted metal wreckage surrounded by enormous excavators
For months after the attacks, New York City firefighters and police officers and volunteers from around the country searched what they called “the pile” for human remains.

What New York Looked Like After 9/11

Photographs from before the smoke cleared

This article was published online on August 9, 2021.

Eugene Richards lives in Brooklyn, but was out of the country on September 11, 2001. When he returned to New York City four days later, he has written, he “metamorphosed into a bruise.” He stayed home, convinced that no one needed another photographer surveying the wreckage. But Richards’s wife and collaborator, Janine Altongy, insisted that they go see it. “You can’t avoid history, not when you’re so close to it,” he remembers her saying. Over the course of several months, Richards and Altongy traversed the city, recording scenes of loss from the long aftermath of the attacks. Their 2002 book, Stepping Through the Ashes, is a collection of Richards’s photographs and Altongy’s interviews with survivors, bereaved family members, first responders, and others.

These days, Richards and Altongy almost never go back to Ground Zero. The memorial pools that now mark where the two towers stood, Richards says, are “so far, far away from the experience” of walking the smoke-filled streets that fall. If it were up to him, the site would be simpler, less polished—perhaps just the portions of the buildings’ facades that remained after the attacks. Two decades on, his photos are a stark reminder of a time when those ruins were all that was visible, a time that already feels long past.

Photo of bird flying at edge of skyscraper through dense smoky haze
A bird flies by a building a block away from the World Trade Center. On September 25, the area was still shrouded in thick yellow air.
2 photos: Hand reaching into group of dust-covered souvenirs in shop window; at Ground Zero, silhouette of person with remaining facade of WTC smoldering in background
Left: A snow globe covered in dust and debris, for sale near the site of the World Trade Center on September 24. Right: The fires at Ground Zero burned for months after the attacks.
Photo of funeral procession with flag-draped casket at memorial service for the Brooklyn firefighter David Fontana with young child's profile in foreground
Outside the memorial service for the Brooklyn firefighter David Fontana, in October. His body had not yet been found, so mourners carried an empty casket into the church. “I chose to have a coffin because I knew that my son would be able to understand it a little more,” Fontana’s wife, Marian, told Altongy. Later, Fontana’s remains were found and the family held a second funeral.
2 photos: Lt. William Ryan with eyes closed holding baby granddaughter with his hand on her head; A church group praying with man holding book and raising hand on street corner behind metal barriers
Left: Lieutenant William Ryan, a firefighter from Staten Island, holds his granddaughter. He recalled “how desperately he had wanted to believe there would be people found alive.” Right: A group from Massachusetts prays on the east side of Broadway—as close as the public could get to the site of the attacks in late September.
Photo of woman frowning with two bars of vertical light and shadow on her face, wearing two necklaces with photos of her husband.
Norma Margiotta, the widow of Lieutenant Charles Margiotta, a firefighter from Ladder Company 85, wears mementos of her husband.
2 photos: Photo from inside vehicle of a wall at hospital covered with missing-person flyers; Man wearing badge drenched in rain and saluting by wrought-iron fence with mourners carrying umbrellas behind it
Left: Missing-person posters, like these at the VA Medical Center in Manhattan, covered the city. Right: Outside the memorial service for Leon Smith Jr., a firefighter from Ladder Company 118, in Brooklyn.
Photo of plywood wall with taped remnants of missing-person flyers that had been torn down
Eventually the missing-person posters came down. “The cleanup went on forever, but the hope for any kind of human restitution was gone,” Richards says.
Photo of reflection in window looking out from Staten Island Ferry at skyline, where two sunlit doors almost reflect as phantom mirage of Twin Towers
Lower Manhattan, reflected in a window of the Staten Island Ferry in January 2002. “Everybody was trying to come to terms with the empty skyline,” Richards says.

This article appears in the September 2021 print edition with the headline “Before the Smoke Cleared.”