Andover teacher shares photos of 9/11, aftermath

09/10/2011 12:00 AM

02/29/2012 1:34 PM

Freelance photographer Cary Conover stood on the rooftop of his five-story apartment building in New York City, his camera clicking away as he focused on the smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center's north tower about a mile away.

"My first thought was, 'Wow, will they be able to fix that tower?' " said Conover, a Wichita native.

His mind raced as he clicked away. A small plane? No, that's a really big hole. Must have been a big plane, but why?

Suddenly, an orange fireball exploded in his camera's viewfinder. A second plane had hit the south tower.

The first sounds he heard were people screaming from surrounding rooftops.

"They were seeing the same thing I was," Conover said.

Seconds later he heard the explosion.

"The loudest, worst of sounds ever," he said. Car alarms were set off, adding to the din and confusion in Lower Manhattan that morning on Sept. 11, 2001.

Later, after developing his film, he would see a small speck off to the left in one of his shots of the stricken north tower.

It was the second plane.

Conover, 37, spent 10 years as a freelance photographer in New York City before taking a part-time job last winter at Andover High School teaching photography.

Friday, he shared with his class some pictures he took of the twin towers years before 9/11, as well as those on the day of the terrorist attack and the days following.

Conover told his students how history unfolded before his eyes and his camera.

As he discussed the picture that included the approaching second plane, Conover said, "That taught me about the power of the camera. It will capture reality without bias. At the time, I had no idea it was there."

His students — most of whom were in their early grade-school years a decade ago — responded to his presentation with looks of awe.

Conover's shot of an engine falling off the second plane, like a shooting star, particularly grabbed the attention of senior Ian Hoskinson.

"It was eye-opening," Hoskinson said after seeing the pictures. "I was so young at the time, I didn't get the gravity of it."

'It's like I blacked out'

On that Sept. 11 morning, Conover had been alerted that something was happening by others who knew he made his living taking pictures. The first alert came from a neighbor, his face still covered in shaving cream, knocking on his door.

"Cary, you have to go up on the roof," he said. "A plane has hit the towers."

Conover grabbed his camera and rushed to the rooftop to see what was happening.

A 1992 graduate of Southeast High School, he had spent nine years working for newspapers, including his time at Kansas State University.

His instincts to cover the news kicked in moments after the second plane struck. He knew he had to get as close to the scene as possible, so he rushed out of his building and into the streets.

"But I can't recall the exact path I took," he said. "It's like I blacked out part of that day. I can't recall where I was because I was in such shock."

He was within four or five blocks of the flaming towers when police began telling him and pedestrians to turn around.

Conover joined thousands of others crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.

"It felt like it was a fire drill," he said. "It was under control, orderly."

But about 200 yards into his crossing, the south tower collapsed, creating a noise that sent a ripple of panic through those on the bridge. Conover tried to protect himself from the clouds of dust by covering his mouth and nose with his shirt.

He fumbled with his camera and began taking pictures of their reactions while barely able to control his own emotions.

"I was sort of freaking out," Conover said.

He turned around and began walking back across the bridge, against the foot traffic and toward Manhattan.

"I didn't want to spend the day in Brooklyn," he said.

He wanted to get back to doing his job. Once back on the Manhattan side, he turned toward uptown and began working his way toward his apartment on the Lower East Side.

Cellphone networks were jammed. People were lined up seven deep at pay phones.

As he continued toward his apartment, people began screaming again.

"My first thought was that the Empire State Building had been hit," Conover said.

It was the north tower collapsing.

He was soon back in the apartment, trying to absorb what had happened. He had been in the streets for about 90 minutes.

By 7 a.m. on Sept. 12, Conover returned to the streets. Normally packed and hectic, the streets were deserted.

But he continued his work, taking pictures of compelling street scenes, such as a man sitting alone at a gas station with his head down.

A 'real honor'

Time has moved on. Conover and his wife, Yvonne, had their first child, Julian, about a year ago. He was born in a hospital three blocks from ground zero.

Having a family also was a driving reason to give up the unpredictable life of a freelance photographer in New York City and move home to Wichita to teach.

He doesn't just teach the technical side, though.

"It's really much more about these kids having photography accompanying their lives," Conover said. "It can come wherever you go, be part of your personality."

As it has his life. His freelance career continues, although his subjects now are more likely to be weddings and the like.

But his 9/11 experience will always be a focal point of that career.

"I don't want to say I'm glad I was there," Conover said, "but I am glad I was there to document it. To be able to do that, it was a real honor.

"It was almost like you were helping the situation by documenting."

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