PORTLAND, Maine — When I walked into the newsroom that morning, I knew something was wrong.
Normally, it was so quiet I called it the morgue. The sleepy Maine daily paper I worked for was an afternoon broadsheet. At 9 a.m., editors were usually staring at their screens, silent lips mouthing the day’s copy, looking for typos. Reporters who’d written early morning stories would be having a breather and a cup of coffee.
That Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was different.
Everyone was talking at once. Reporters were on their phones, editors shouting. It took a few minutes to understand what was happening. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center’s north tower in New York City. Our front page was getting scrapped and redesigned.
The rest of that day is a blur in my memory as the reporting staff began to grapple with covering the national tragedy on a local level. Figuring out what it meant, and how it affected readers in our community wasn’t easy. Every angle seemed sideways and oblique to the real news unfolding hundreds of miles to the south.
It was frustrating and I struggled — a lot.
Smoke and dust still hung in the air more than a week after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. [Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN]
Now, 20 years later, I’m still a local journalist in Maine, struggling to cover national tragedy. This time, instead of murderous terror attacks, it’s a rampaging virus. It hasn’t gotten any easier, not even a little.
Back then, as a photojournalist, I wanted to shoot the action, instead of just the local reaction. I begged my bosses to send me to New York. I was convinced I could find a local angle there.
They refused, saying our job was to cover Maine.
Instead of racing south that morning, myself and reporter Chris Cousins (who I followed to the Bangor Daily News some years later) went to the local Sears. We figured we might find people gathered around a wall of television sets, watching the horror unfold.
But when we got to the store, it turned out that they could only show a closed circuit loop of demonstration videos showcasing their wares. All we found was a single employee doing battle with a pair of rabbit ear antennas.
Chris and I moved on to plan B.
We raced across the street to a large hotel. The bar was still closed but management had opened one of the rooms so staff could see the video coverage. My photo that morning ended up being the backs of their heads, with the burning towers flickering on the screen.
The paper printed it that day on the jump.
That afternoon, I was standing by one of our sidewalk newspaper boxes in Bath. The smoking towers and huge headlines were on page one.
A family came strolling up the street and glanced at the box. They did a double take then ran over and kneeled in front of the news, bursting into tears. They were on vacation and hadn’t had the radio or television on all day.
They were from New York.
Crowds gathered, staring and taking pictures in the days after the tragedy. [Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN]
I photographed them crying, hugging each other on the sidewalk. I later won an award for the pictures of grief.
I still felt like it wasn’t enough.
I’d been a staff photojournalist for just 18 months. At 30, I was old for a rookie. But I was hungry.
The first person in my family to go to college, I’d clawed my way through many other jobs to get where I was: Warehouse, ed-tech, tour guide, flower delivery man and landscape laborer.
I’d finally found my profession, my calling, instead of just a job. I had passion and — I thought at the time — a desire to make it to the “big time.”
I worked the next 10 days straight through. When I finally got a day off, I drove all night to New York City.
Thousands of candles burned in Union Square in the days after 9/11. [Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN]
Parking near Union Square in the predawn hours, I smelled the smoke, saw the dust and scattered papers for myself. Candles, flowers and missing person posters were everywhere. As the day started in earnest, it was clear I was just one of thousands of people being drawn to the place of tragedy, trying to make sense of what happened.
I wandered around all day, documenting what I saw on five rolls of black-and-white film. Most of the images here have never been seen before.
Peace protestors gathered in the square urging calm instead of war. A man with a guitar sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” over and over again. Other people just wept and prayed.
That night, I drove home, exhausted but also satisfied. I’d seen it for myself. Back in Maine, the pictures were useless. I’d found no local angle and just put them away.
Police and civilians alike wore face masks near Ground Zero. [Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN]
Two decades on, I’m still in Maine and never did make the “big time.” I don’t even know what that means anymore. I’ve carved out a meaningful career, right here in the state I know best. It just kind of happened and I don’t regret staying.
But that doesn’t mean I still don’t get frustrated. I do — all the time.
This pandemic has been maddening to cover. Every day I see dramatic, moving photos from national and international locations: Exhausted doctors, grieving family members and patients, toiling to breathe.
I’ve covered nothing like that. Most of my pictures have been people standing on their porches, looking sad. I’m not sure I’ve made a single meaningful photo throughout the whole mess. Maine’s corporate hospitals haven’t granted access to a single journalist.
All those stories will never get told in pictures — which are the things that stick in people’s heads.
Instead, I’m still poking at the sideways, oblique stories, just like I did after 9/11. It’s as difficult now as it was 20 years ago.
I’m not giving up, though. I intend to keep chronicling Maine, its people and their connection to world and national events, as best I can.
It’s never going to get any easier but I’m OK with that.