FORT SMITH, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — While most Americans watched the events of September 11, 2001, unfold on live television, Carmen Taylor saw it happen right above her.
The Fort Smith woman wasn’t even supposed to be in New York City that day.
Previous travel plans she and her husband had fell through, so she decided she would tag along with a friend to the Big Apple and sightsee while her friend attended conferences.
Carmen said she was in Battery Park that morning.
She remembered a moment she shared with a couple while she stood in line to get on the ferry that would take her around the Statue of Liberty.
The couple told her they were visiting their nephew who worked in the North World Trade Center Tower and when they pointed to the 110-story building, Carmen said she saw sparks coming out of it.
They joked about what they saw, as at that time they all thought maybe someone had blown up a copier machine.
Security in Battery Park quickly cleared the area and shuffled everyone onto the ferry.
Carmen said the Upper New York Bay went from crystal clear like glass to almost white capping. She had to hold herself in place to avoid falling onto people on either side of her.
As she looked around she noticed husbands held their wives and buried their faces, but she didn’t know why.
When Carmen looked back up at the sky, she noticed a low-flying plane heading for the skyline. She assumed it was either a news plane or a plane to help with whatever had happened to the North Tower.
“Help is coming,” or so Carmen thought.
She wanted to snap a picture of the plane directly in front of the Twin Towers so she braced herself on the ferry bench so she could have her hands free.
She wrapped the neck strap of her camera around her wrist, held it up and took two photos.
“I snap it just as it is right in front, but instead of passing, it goes right in. I wait because my camera can’t do anything and as soon as it’s recorded. I snap another picture, and then I remember just setting my camera down and just watching,” Carmen said.
On her digital camera, a photo of the moment before United Airlines Flight 175 flew through the South Tower and the moment of impact.
Shocked at what she just witnessed, Carmen just sat there. It wasn’t until a person came up to her and told her everyone had already exited the ferry that she got up and got off.
Back in Battery Park, a group was gathered and Carmen heard people asking what happened. She said, “I don’t know, but I’ve got a picture of it.”
Carmen held her Sony digital camera out to show what she had just captured.
“Someone said ‘oh my god, that’s a big jet plane. There’s hundreds of people on that,'” Carmen said.
It was then she realized our country was attacked.
A man named Doug walked over to Carmen and told her she needed to hold onto her camera, worried someone would try to steal it.
He then brought her to his office so she could send the photos to her hometown news station in Arkansas.
She was adamant her family needed to see what happened, not knowing them and the world already knew. Carmen also needed to make sure her friend who she traveled with was okay. They had a plan that if anything went wrong, they’d just meet at the hotel room.
It sounds easy enough, but it wasn’t.
Because of all the commotion around where the towers collapsed, the only way to get there was to go through New Jersey, then go back into the city.
As she walked through the thick, dark smoke she thought, “what am I breathing?, What is this? I said it’s everything and everybody that was up in the towers and up in those airplanes, that’s what’s raining down on us.”
Once in New Jersey she looked back at the New York City skyline and was sickened by what she saw.
As she made the trek back into NYC, she recalled what lined the streets.
“There were rows and rows of ambulances all ready to be picking up survivors that were wounded that had come out of the towers. Of course that didn’t happen,” Carmen said.
She arrived at the hotel room to find her friend, a couple of other women, and an answering machine full of messages from wire services around the world that wanted to buy her photos.
The Associated Press called while she was in the room and asked her to meet since the deadline for worldwide distribution was near.
She agreed and a man from the global organization rode his bike to the hotel where he met her.
Carmen told him, “these two pictures must stay together and if you won’t take this one along with that one, I won’t let you have that one.” She was adamant about this because of the story the two pictures told.
“It split time into before and after,” Carmen said.
The man agreed and took a picture of Carmen as she held her digital camera and showed one of her pictures.
Carmen said within an hour, “they were seen around the world, everywhere.”
While for some the photos gave a glimpse into the day our nation saw evil, they haven’t been well received by everyone who has seen them. Carmen said conspiracists have made death threats against her.
“Somebody put online that there should be an arrest warrant out for me as a terrorist and a murderer.” Carmen continued, “I think in a lot of ways maybe it was easier to believe it wasn’t real than to believe it really happened.”
Despite some backlash, her two pictures have won awards and even been nominated for others.
What’s most rewarding for Carmen has been her ability to tell her testimony about that day in NYC.
Since 2003, Carmen has visited Arkansas classrooms where she shares her story with students as part of a program she calls, ‘September 11th Students Talk About It.’
“I’m not a teacher, but I can come in as a witness to an event,” Carmen said.
She gives students the ability to ask questions about Sept. 11, 2001, and look through 9/11-related material she has gathered together over the last several years.
In return, she has received hundreds, if not thousands, of letters about students who thanked her and affirmed.
“I want not only the events of 9/11 but any historical event, anything, to be understood and looked at,” Carmen said.