‘I Was in Disbelief’: Photojournalist Velvet McNeil Tells Story of 9/11 Experience in Photo Exhibits

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Velvet McNeil took a few days off from her job at The Detroit News in September 2001 to travel to her hometown of New York for her older sister’s wedding. After an extended weekend of celebrating with family and friends she prepared to return home on Tuesday, Sept. 11. That didn’t happen. She woke up just in time to see live coverage of the second plane fly into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

McNeil quickly decided to head to Lower Manhattan and document the tragedy with her film camera. She was shaken by what she saw at the site where her grandmother used to work and where she would visit her as a child.“I was in disbelief. I could see the bottom of the tower just sticking up,” McNeil said. “The air was so thick. And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my God!’ I couldn’t believe it! Even though I witnessed it on television, when I got down to that space, I was still in disbelief of what actually happened.”

The images she took capture the chaotic, dust-covered scene during the immediate aftermath of the attack. They show the shock of people walking through the ruins of an unimaginable major attack on U.S. soil. They show regular people assisting first responders as best they could, even if passing out water and coffee to the exhausted workers. They also capture the humanity of victims through their personal items scattered on the streets, covered in toxic ash.

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