9/11: “I Was There”, as recounted by an Indian photojournalist of renown and simplicity

11th September 2021

11th September 2021

Kamal Sharma, looking into the camera, on that eventful day

One is not sure if Kamal Sharma (right corner in image) understood the enormity of what he had just witnessed. In the early hours of 9/11, he had turned up to capture the twin towers dominating the Manhattan skyline in New York and a few hours later, he was being told on his bed that a plane has crashed into the iconic towers. 

Kamal, known to sporting fraternity for decades, a photojournalist who is respected by the who’s who of cricketing world, had been in the United States with his family to cover a nondescript cricket tournament and had stayed back to cover the US Open which had finished on September 9. Yet, before returning home to India, he took up a random assignment to shoot the Manhattan skyline. 

"I hung around in the area till midnight as I wanted to take pictures of the twin towers and the Brooklyn bridge together from the other side of Hudson. I did not know then that I was capturing in my lens the last pictures of the iconic structure," Kamal recounted the day still vivid in his memory. 

"I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when my brother-in-law broke the news to me the next morning that an aeroplane had crashed into one of the towers. Believing it to be an accident, I rushed with him for Manhattan to take pictures of the shocking tragedy.”

Kamal, who was staying with his sister’s home in Queens, persuaded his brother-in-law to take him to the scene of tragedy. 

"While we were still on our way, we heard on the radio that another aeroplane had crashed into the other tower and it was not an accident but a coordinated terror attack," Sharma recalled.

All hell had broken loose. People were running heater skelter. A huge mass of humanity was emerging from the Manhattan, running away from the site of tragedy. Kamal asked the cops present if he could go to the site as a photojournalist but was politely turned away. 

Kamal was not the one to be dissuaded. He asked his brother-in-law to wade into the oncoming humanity, inching towards the site from where the people were fleeing. It was difficult to needle through that crowd, there was the additional fear of cops but Kamal told his brother-in-law: “We would look straight, ignore warnings if any, and reach the disaster site, god willing.”

So they pushed on, and on, and luck favoured the brave. 

"I heard people say that at least 5,000 people had been killed in the tragedy. I felt numb when I thought of the scale of the devastation but my fingers went on clicking pictures of the razed structures and the chaos on the streets of Manhattan with people running for life," he relives the horrific moment. 

It’s been 20 years since the moment. The event changed history, for worse. US followed with attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, and subsequently tragedies of Syria, Yemen, Libya etc have unfolded. Terrorism had come home to roost. Refugees in millions are strewn across the world. Our planet has become a bowl of hatred, suspicion and uncertainty.