He says he was 100 yards from the entrance of the World Trade Center when he saw an explosion on the top of the burning tower, and then thought he saw the south-west corner building starting to move. “I was transfixed for a moment, then shaken out of my torpor by the fireman yelling at me,” he says recalling with some emotion the day his city and his life was forever changed.
Asnin, now 48 and a highly-regarded Manhattan photographer, had arrived at the WTC site soon after the first tower had collapsed, assigned by the Corbis photography agency to cover the event for Time magazine. He remembers every moment in vivid detail and even as he tells his story tears come to his eyes and his voice catches.
“I was with my assistant, Kevin Johnson, and as we started running I could immediately feel a tremendous wind at my back. Later other people talked about the noise, but I don’t remember any sound at all. I remember it as a silent movie.
“I knew I had to get under something and saw two fire trucks in the gloom. I slid under the first one and thought I saw Kevin going under the second truck.
“Almost immediately a fire-fighter slid under the truck and pushed me further in. I could feel my back being buffeted. Then it became difficult to breathe. There was no air so I tried to crawl out from under the truck and the fireman stopped me. He said: ‘Hold on, man, we’re going to make it.’ He was really calm.
The firefighter crawled out and pulled Asnin from under the truck. The air was thick with debris, so thick that the two men, despite being face-to-face, could not see one another. They were both spitting and coughing, their lungs filled with the dust and debris of the collapsed tower.
“Then slowly a little light appeared from across the West Side Highway, as if the sun was peeking through a hole in the cloud. A friend of mine calls it the Messiah’s Light, a beam of light from God. It was very cinematic.”Asnin began searching for his assistant Kevin but in the gloom and chaos finding an individual was impossible. He did stumble into a fellow civilian who he noticed was holding a bottle of water. He asked for a sip and the man said: “I’ve been blinded, I need help.”
“So, I took the guy in my arms and started heading north with him – I’d remembered that when I’d arrived down there I’d seen a large Poland Spring Water truck parked there. When we arrived cops were handing out water containers and I helped wash this guy’s eyes out. Gradually he began to see again.”
At around this time Asnin noticed that the only people heading south towards the smouldering remains of the twin towers were firefighters. The police officers were shouting at the few civilians in the area to head north and a rumour began to circulate that the aircraft commandeered by the terrorists had chemical weapons abroad and that there was an immediate threat of radiation poisoning in the downtown area.
“Then I saw a whole group of cops running from Stuyvesant High School shouting ‘get out of here, it’s going to blow.’ I’d been warned by the fire-fighters that there might be explosions from gas mains, so I followed the cops’ advice and kept running north.”
Still without news of his assistant, Asnin had a chance encounter with a journalist from the local television station New York One, who convinced him to make an appeal on air.
“So they put me on New York One live and I tell my story. The fear, the confusion, the whole story and I say that I’m looking for my assistant who is missing. They played that clip all day.”
By the time Asnin reached his home on the Upper West Side, about three miles from the collapsed towers, his agency had had a call from Kevin Johnson, who reported he had survived and was fine. It was after 2pm.
As Asnin relives the narrative of that extraordinary morning, he pauses and again his eyes cloud over. “I think the most important about my story is my decision to leave Ground Zero that day without knowing where Kevin was. I left him behind and that was a decision I made. The therapists tell me that I did it because I wanted to get back to my family but I know different.
“That showed weak character and it is something I have since discussed with Kevin and with my children. That is the difference between me and the firefighters that day, and it is something I will have to live with all my life. That was weak character. I should never have left before I knew what had happened to him.”
With that tears fill Mark Asnin’s eyes.