Sunday marks the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the 2001 terrorist attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people and changed America forever. Although no one who remembers 9/11 will ever forget what happened on that day, photos from 9/11 serve as powerful, visceral reminders of both the horrific tragedy that occurred and the many acts of heroism and sacrifice that came out of the wreckage.
Photo collections and videos commemorating 9/11 tend to focus on the horror of the attacks and the chaotic destruction that followed. Such visual depictions of the attacks have been controversial since 2001; the ethics of showing photos like “Falling Man” and other images of 9/11 victims have long been the subjects of debate, and only yesterday Jeremy Samuel Faust at Slate called for MSNBC to stop replaying its live 2001 coverage of the towers burning and falling. Nevertheless, harrowing images of destruction tend to dominate retrospectives of the event. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: 9/11 was a harrowing moment of destructive violence and death, occurring on a scale that few of us can comprehend (though there is a difference between remembering the past as it really was and fetishizing violence for its own sake). We should never forget the incredible loss that occurred on that day, nor become numb to its continuing reverberations within individual lives and the culture at large. But we should also take the time to remember the moments of heroism, unity, and love that emerged amid that pain.
Sandy Dahl, the wife of Jason Dahl, pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, said, “If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.” These photos remind us that, even within destruction, there is an enormous human capacity for unity and compassion:
1. Firefighters raise the flag.
One of the most famous photos of the aftermath of the attacks, this image of firefighters Daniel McWilliams, George Johnson and William “Billy” Eisengrein raising an American flag over the rubble has often been compared to another iconic photo associated with American patriotism, "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" (1945). The flag in the 2001 photo went missing for a number of years; just this month, it was finally returned to New York City.
2. A rescue dog is transported from the debris.
Around 300 rescue dogs helped sort through the wreckage at Ground Zero, searching for survivors. Dr. Cindy Otto, a veterinarian who cared for the dogs at the site, told TODAY that they also provided invaluable help to the human rescue workers. “You’d see firefighters sitting there, unanimated, stone-faced, no emotion, and then they’d see a dog and break out into a smile,” Otto said. “Those dogs brought the power of hope. They removed the gloom for just an instant — and that was huge because it was a pretty dismal place to be.” The last of the surviving 9/11 rescue dogs, a Golden Retriever named "Bretagne," passed away this summer, at the age of 16. She was given a hero's send-off, with a line up of saluting firefighters.
3. The U.S. flag unfurling at the Pentagon.
The day after the attacks, soldiers and firefighters at the Pentagon unfurled a gigantic American flag over the side of the building, as President George Bush toured the wreckage caused by hijacked American Airlines Flight 77. Jim Garamone of DoD News described the scene, writing, "It was a moment that quickened the heart. The United States had been attacked, the Pentagon had been hit, friends were gone, thousands were killed in New York and Pennsylvania, yet the American flag still flew."
The photo below shows 9/11 first responders hanging a flag at the Pentagon in the same way in remembrance of the attacks' fifth anniversary in 2006.
4. Thousands of people come together to pay tribute.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and in the years following, thousands of people all over the world gathered to honor the victims of the attacks and show support for survivors. This photo was taken at a vigil in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2002.
5. Woman writes a message of remembrance.
Just before the tenth anniversary of the attacks, a woman writes a message on the wall of remembrance near the site of the World Trade Center. Hundreds of messages written in multiples languages across the wall honor and remember those who were killed.
6. The Statue of Liberty overlooks the Tribute in Light.
First displayed in 2002, six months after the 9/11 attacks, the Tribute in Light, made up of 88 searchlight beams, has become one of the most recognizable memorials of the 9/11 victims, projected every year on the anniversary of the attacks. In this photo of the Statue of Liberty quietly looking on, Lady Liberty herself pays solemn tribute to those lost.
Interested in how you can help 9/11 survivors and their families? Learn how here.