Joe Woolhead, the Poet-Photographer of Ground Zero

It took some convincing to get Mr. Woolhead to take the job. “I guess I’m really reflective by nature,” Mr.

Yeats in a hard-hat. (Timothy Schenck)

It took some convincing to get Mr. Woolhead to take the job. “I guess I’m really reflective by nature,” Mr. Woolhead said. “When I came back to the site, it brought back all the memories from the time I spent down at ground zero. But I knew I had a job to do, and I didn’t continue to dwell on the past.”

On the morning of September 11, while eating breakfast and getting ready for class, he heard the news of the attacks on the radio. For reasons he cannot fully explain, he immediately grabbed his Cannon and rushed to the F-Train, ducking into a bodega to buy 10 rolls of 99-cent Lucky brand film first. “It has a really beautiful quality, actually,” Mr. Woolhead said.

He rode the subway from his apartment in Jackson Heights all the way to Canal Street, as far as it would go. “Easter 1916” was reverberating in his head, “changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born,” as well as the last line of “The Second Coming.” Thousands of people were streaming by, fleeing the flames. Mr. Woolhead walked against the tide. He had reached the corner of Franklin and West Broadway when the south tower began to collapse.

Click, click, click, click, click, click.

He got off six quick shots of the World Trade Center in free fall before diving into a hotel lobby. “It was just a wave of destruction,” Mr. Woolhead said. After about 15 minutes, he decided to head back out. A maid gave him a wet handkerchief to tie around his face, and Mr. Woolhead recalls feeling like a protester at an anti-globalization riot.

It was utterly quiet out, the atmosphere had turned to gray smoke. He made his way around to Battery Park City, where Mr. Woolhead connected with a professional photographer. They cut through the World Financial Center, only to be confronted by “utter chaos.”

He wandered the wreckage for hours before one too many close calls with the police or national guard, whom he feared would take his film, even destroy his equipment. He left and filed his pictures to the French Sipa Press. One wound up on the inside cover of BusinessWeek, his first published photo.

Mr. Woolhead went home and slept for almost the entire never day, but on September 13 he returned. Along with a New York Post photographer, he quietly sidled up to a contingent of FBI agents, passing through the rings of security with them, apparently unnoticed. A homeless man gave him a hazmat suit, which helped protect him from too much scrutiny and provided a convenient place to stash his camera. He spent the next two days, barely sleeping, feverishly sneaking his camera out for shots of police cordons, workers tearing through the rubble. When he came upon the makeshift morgue inside the World Financial Center on the evening of the 14th, he decided it was time to leave. The only time he returned to the site before he began reporting for work was on the first anniversary.

“I wanted to be a witness,” Mr. Woolhead said. “I didn’t realize I was going to be a witness to something so catastrophic. I expected firefighters rescuing people from a fire, not two buildings collapsed into total rubble. I still can’t believe I was there.”

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC

Joe Woolhead, the Poet-Photographer of Ground Zero