NEAL CONAN, host:
It's been more than eight years since the indelible day when hijackers flew airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City. Last week, though, we got to see what happened from a different angle, striking aerial photos of the Twin Towers on fire, then collapsing, and then the noxious cloud that spread through and above Lower Manhattan.
The pictures were released to the public for the first time last week after a Freedom of Information Act request by ABC News. They were taken from a New York City Police Department helicopter by detective Greg Semendinger. He's now retired and joins us by phone from his home on Long Island in New York.
And Greg Semendinger, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. GREG SEMENDINGER (Retired Detective, NYPD): Hello, Neal. How are you? Thank you for having me on your show.
CONAN: I'm good, thanks. And I wonder, did you realize what you were taking shots of that morning?
Mr. SEMENDINGER: Not really, the camera was kind of an afterthought. Our primary mission, anytime that we're up in the helicopter, is to assist the units on the ground, to provide communications and to tell them from above what's going on.
That day, we had got a call that a private plane had hit the - one of the twin towers. And I went outside - we were based at Floyd Bennett Field to look at it. And I knew it was something a lot bigger than a small plane.
CONAN: Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island, yeah.
Mr. SEMENDINGER: Myself and my partner, Jim Cicone(ph), we jumped into the helicopter because we were assigned a patrol helicopter that day, and we responded up there. We there in about seven minutes. And primarily our job was to look to see if anybody made it to the roofs. We're doing a pattern back and forth, trying to stay out of the smoke, but also have a good view of the North Tower. The South Tower was completely engulfed in smoke. And if anybody was up there, we never saw them. We could never see the South Tower. But the North Tower, if anybody made it, we would've called in one of the bigger helicopters and they would have tried to, in effect, to rescue.
CONAN: And you're not a professional photographer, but I understand you bring your cameras everywhere you go.
Mr. SEMENDINGER: I usually have a camera with me. I do a lot of flying in private planes on the outside. I'm constantly taking pictures of friends of mine and other aircraft. At work, when I was in the aviation unit, the camera was just part of my equipment bag, just like the map or the headset or anything else. Little did I know that I'd be taking pictures that day of something, you know, this momentous.
CONAN: History. Your pictures are now part of the historical record. They're going to frame part of the way we see this incident from now on.
Mr. SEMENDINGER: Well, I'm just very fortunate. I was lucky that I was - that I had the job that I had, and I was fortunate to be in the position to be able to take these pictures. I'm glad that they're finally out. The rest of the world should see them. And it provides a total perspective of what happened that day.
CONAN: And were you thinking, as you're taking these pictures, I have to frame it this way, I need this - my lens set this way, or are you thinking, oh, my God, I can't believe what I'm seeing?
Mr. SEMENDINGER: Well, the camera was ready. You know, the batteries are always to snuff. It was a digital camera, which I took most of my pictures with. And the camera was ready. It's just instinctive. Little did I know that I would be getting such a historic event. I didn't even think of it in that perspective.
CONAN: And as you were looking about the rest of your job, what were you able to accomplish that day?
Mr. SEMENDINGER: Well, the whole time that I was there, which was a total of about three hours, it was mainly to try and see people if they made it to the roof. You know, you're constantly hoping that somebody makes it up there, and then I would call in the other helicopter. But, sadly to say it, it didn't happen.
CONAN: We did see a lot of people on the ground, in other photographers' pictures and TV pictures, and sadly people jumping out of the buildings. Did you see that?
Mr. SEMENDINGER: Well, we saw debris flying from the building, and I didn't know it was actually people that was jumping until we were told on the radio. The ground units were told to watch out and to be careful if people were coming from the building. But it still didn't have the impact until I saw the newsreel photographs after the whole event was over.
CONAN: Well, Greg Semendinger, thank you very much for doing your part to record history for us.
Mr. SEMENDINGER: Well, I just happened to be very fortunate. I'm glad I was capable of doing it and to share the photos with everybody else.
CONAN: Greg Semendinger, a retired New York City Police Department detective. And he joined us today by phone from his home on Long Island. Tomorrow, an update from Vancouver on the excitement and the heartbreak of the Olympic Games. Be with us for that.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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