In the moment, Mark LaGanga did not know.
As the CBS News photojournaliston September 11, 2001, he did not know he was headed toward the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. He was unaware that the south tower had already collapsed in on itself, and he could not have imagined the north tower would fall shortly thereafter, engulfing him and everyone around him in a thick cloud of ashen debris.
All he knew was that he had to stay and film it.
Twenty years after the September 11th terrorist attack, the footage LaGanga captured that morning provides a unique firsthand account of the rescue workers at ground zero moments after the two planes hit. LaGanga's footage gives viewers a rare, up-close look at the 29 minutes of dust, confusion, and stillness in between the time the two World Trade Center towers collapsed.
"I saw the Twin Towers fall"
Earlier that morning, LaGanga's cell phone and home landline rang simultaneously. An editor on the CBS News national desk was calling and directed him to drive to downtown Manhattan to shoot what, at that time, was thought to be a plane crash into a building in lower Manhattan.
But the farther downtown he got, LaGanga, now a 60 Minutes cameraman, tried to make sense of the nightmare unfolding in front of him.
When he could not drive his news truck any farther, when the street in front of him was blocked by stopped cars and shell-shocked people fleeing north, he parked and stood on his truck's roof to get a better angle of the smoke billowing out of the north tower. He turned on his camera a few minutes after 10 am.
The south tower had collapsed at 9:59 am, but LaGanga did not yet realize.
"There was so much dust and the street signs were hard to see that it never really dawned on me that one tower already came down," LaGanga said in a 2018 interview.
As he walked from the highway toward the base of the north tower, he interviewed passersby, asking the question on everyone's mind: "What happened?" A policeman thought the roof had caved in; a fireman thought part of the building collapsed. Even those who watched it happen up close could not process that the entire south tower, a gargantuan skyscraper of 110 floors, had suddenly vanished.
As LaGanga walked toward the north tower, smoke and dust began to fill the cerulean sky. Eventually, it blotted out the sun. On the street near the remaining tower, New York City looked unrecognizable, all hazy and monochromatic. A thick layer of dust and soot caked every surface and dampened the sound of building alarms.
LaGanga turned his camera upward to film the north tower, smoldering and stark against a bright blue sky.
Minutes later, it too would collapse. LaGanga's camera kept rolling.
"It sounded like a jet flying over," he says. "That's why I panned up."
As the building fell in on itself, people sprinted down the street, panicked. An ensuing wave of smoke and dust engulfed LaGanga's lens, and the screen turned to black. Several minutes elapsed. Finally, he coughed.
"Boy, that was close," a voice said in the dark.
LaGanga returned to film the rescue and recovery at ground zero for a week after the attack. Remarkably, he says he's experienced no adverse health effects as a result of his time on the site.
Since then, LaGanga has continued working as a photojournalist, most recently for 60 Minutes.
"At the end of the day, what we're trying to do is capture real moments," he says. "So you just kind of follow and try not to get in anyone's way. But document real moments of what's going on."
The video above was edited by Will Croxton.