Channel 11 Cameraman–Granddad Won Pulitzer–Captured Terrible Moment And Never Recovered

It only lasts a few seconds. It’s taken from the window of a Ford Explorer rolling south on the F.D.R.; the lens bounces lightly. The Brooklyn Bridge looms on the lower left. Fixed in the center of the frame is the burning north tower of the World Trade Center.

Then: A shadowy 767 barrels across the sky from the west, dips left and plunges into the south tower. A black and orange mushroom envelops the peak of the building. Debris rains toward the street.

He got the shot.

He is Keith Lopez, 36, a veteran cameraman with WPIX Channel 11. On Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Lopez trudged into work like a lot of other journalists, expecting to cover Mark Green’s victory in the Mayoral Democratic primary. Just after 8:46 a.m., he heard the crackle over the police radio in the WPIX newsroom on 42nd Street.

“A plane has hit the World Trade Center-we need everybody down there,” the dispatcher said.

“You could tell that he was scared,” Mr. Lopez said.

Twenty minutes later, Mr. Lopez, the grandson of a Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer, got it. At first, he didn’t know what he’d captured. Through his lens, Mr. Lopez’s eye was fixed on the north tower. When the south tower burst into flames, he thought he’d seen a bomb explode. Only later, when he paused to rewind the tape-he was worried he’d forgotten to press the record button and missed the explosion-he saw the airplane.

“Oh my goodness,” he said.

Keith Lopez got the shot of a lifetime. And he’s spent every day since wondering if he shouldn’t have.

People in television news take a lot of heat, and deservedly so. Much of TV news, especially the local product, is a melodramatic grotesquerie-a repetitive, hyperbolic opera of bloody crime, kidnapped towheads, breathless public-health warnings, shameless self-promotion. There’s frustratingly little depth or sense of proportion. Before Sept. 11, the big TV-news story was a surge of sharks rampaging around the American coast. It was a classic TV-news story-good film, wide appeal, compelling, scary. A chase. Of course, it wasn’t exactly true , either.

The chase sometimes wore Keith Lopez down. A big guy with strong biceps, a goatee and a stomach that hasn’t succumbed to 7 a.m. danishes, he liked his job. But it wasn’t always satisfying or ambitious. He was part of a herd.

“I have always been somebody creative,” Mr. Lopez said the other night, sipping a Budweiser at a deli in midtown. “I don’t like the hustle and bustle of a crime story, where you just shoot the outside of a house, go talk to the neighbors-’What do you think?’ ‘I’m shocked , I’m shocked .’ You go to do a story, and there are eight camera crews doing the same story, four print guys and six photographers.”

They don’t like talking about it, because it sounds a little self-serving, but Sept. 11 made television journalists feel proud of their profession again, at least temporarily. Weary broadcast-news operations seized on an authority they hadn’t experienced since Cronkite-era Vietnam. Dan Rather cried on Letterman and it felt like a release. News became re-internationalized; executive producers could send correspondents abroad without worrying about the bottom line. At local stations, reporters and news directors felt reaffirmed, and didn’t have to gin up sexy stories for sweeps. No one had to send a reporter in heels to expose an S&M parlor that fall. The news was vital, plentiful and-refreshingly-not embarrassing.

It was, in many ways, the kind of meaningful, important story that Mr. Lopez and his colleagues yearned for. TV journalism is largely an adrenaline business, and when good TV reporters and camera people lay down to sleep, they dream about The Big One-not just covering a big story, but being there right when it happened. On the scene. Firsthand. In the eye.

Mr. Lopez had gotten comfortable with the idea that such a story might not happen to him. Before Sept. 11, one of his proudest moments as a photojournalist was a piece he filmed about a company called Poop B Gone, which traveled around Suffolk County cleaning up dog doo. The piece had a nice sense of humor and featured multiple camera angles, and Mr. Lopez submitted it for an award. “It was very creative,” he said. “How do you shoot poop? Think about it.”

But Poop B Gone wasn’t the reason he got into the business. Mr. Lopez, who grew up in Port Jefferson, Long Island, decided to become a television cameraman in college. He thought he’d become a weatherman, but he decided that working off-camera was less pressure. Out of school, he worked at WLNY TV Channel 55 on Long Island, then freelanced at News 12 in Woodbury. He started freelancing for WPIX, and got himself hired full-time. Next year will be his 10th with Channel 11.

Stationed in WPIX’s Long Island bureau, Mr. Lopez covered some big stories: the Colin Ferguson trial, the aftermath of T.W.A. Flight 800, John Rocker’s first trip to Shea Stadium after his boneheaded remarks. He prided himself on caring about stories a little more than the usual pro. When he covered trials, he didn’t just stand outside and wait to encircle the lawyers and defendants when they walked out of the courtroom. He’d put his camera down and go inside and listen to the trial.

“I kind of get myself involved in my stories. I don’t just take pictures,” he said.

The business was in Mr. Lopez’s blood. His grandfather, Andrew Lopez, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for a series of photographs of a Cuban officer receiving last rites before being executed by Castro revolutionaries. This was probably not something Mr. Lopez reflected upon when he was capturing Poop B Gone. But Keith Lopez remembered something his grandfather said once about the chase: “If it’s big enough, you will get there. There’s no need to rush.”

But both grandfather and grandson knew that those events were few and far between. Though it claims a premium on “breaking news” and “live coverage,” television journalism is almost always postmortem-a homicide, a car wreck, a mud slide. Plane crashes especially.

“I’m used to covering stories after they happened,” Mr. Lopez said.

On the other hand, getting a great piece of film-”Getting the shot”-required luck. It felt perverted to say it, but on Sept. 11, Mr. Lopez was lucky. There was skill and a certain amount of instinct involved, sure, but he can look back to dozens of flukish decisions that morning that, if made a different way, would have resulted in his not getting the shot of the plane crashing into the tower. If he and his reporter that day, Pauline Liu, hadn’t taken the F.D.R., they wouldn’t have had the angle. If they hadn’t stopped once on the highway to film the burning north tower, he’d have been under the Brooklyn Bridge when the plane swooped in. If Ms. Liu hadn’t offered to drive, he wouldn’t have been able to sit on the passenger side and position himself. If that cop hadn’t asked them to move along …

He got the shot.

Mr. Lopez was not the only photojournalist to record United Airlines Flight 175 smashing into the south tower. There are dozens of other images, from other angles. All of them are mesmerizing, horrible in their own way. Mr. Lopez’s angle, however, is unique, as is the sound. As the plane reaches the tower, there is an audible sound-a whoosh of warm September air right before it pierces the steel.

“I was told that it’s because the hijacker was revving the engine, because he was starting to rise up a little bit,” Mr. Lopez said. “He was revving to get as fast as he could.”

It’s a piece of film, and then it isn’t. Few photojournalists get to experience it, but it’s a strange satisfaction to capture tragedy as it unfolds. On one hand, you did your job: You got the shot. You are a pro.

On the other hand, you are a human being.

“You’re watching thousands of people who have no choice about whether they’re going to live or die,” Mr. Lopez said.

The image stuck with him the rest of that day. After the towers collapsed and some of his camera-carrying colleagues dodged a tornado of ash and debris, Mr. Lopez spent the remainder of the day filming, traveling around the city, dropping in on vacant firehouses. It stuck with him that first night on the ride back to his house in Rockville Centre, when he looked into the rear-view and only saw that cloud downtown. It stuck with him when he talked about that day with his wife, Randi, and when he saw his daughters, ages 5 and 2, too young to care that Dad got the shot.

But mostly it stuck with him when he was alone. It still does.

“Every single day,” Mr. Lopez said. “I look at the tape sometimes, hoping that it will make me feel better. I have it back at my house, and sometimes I just slow it down, sometimes just to …. “

He didn’t complete the sentence.

Sept. 11 may have been a day that brought meaning again to frustrated TV journalists, but after one year, the effects of the day seem mostly personal. The profession itself has largely gone back to its shrill, cartoony self-slick packages, celebrity pap, inflated dramas. Shark-attack victims have been replaced as nightly protagonists by the poor parents of kidnapped children. There is compassion here and there and even some residual international news, but it feels guiltily dabbed on, not a priority. Even when the networks revisit Sept. 11, it seems they’re doing it on Sept. 10, 2001 terms-loud, brash, overcooked.

For Mr. Lopez, Sept. 11 now feels entirely personal. Getting the shot has not changed his life professionally. It’s not the kind of accomplishment one gets a high-five for, or even a big-time promotion. Mr. Lopez said he won’t even put the shot on his reel of best work.

It will outlive him, though. Just like those photographs from Cuba outlived his grandfather. It’s a small consolation.

It was the kind of moment that journalists hope for, and he did exactly what he was supposed to do, and it doesn’t feel very good.

“It’s just so dark,” Keith Lopez said. “You always want to be a part of the story. But since that day, I have thought a lot about it. And I’ve thought that it might have been better for me to have never been down there.”