On the morning of September 11, 2001, the world awoke to the unthinkable. One commercial airplane, then two, had crashed into the World Trade Center. News footage showed the badly damaged towers billowing black smoke into the sky as reporters scrambled to make sense of what was happening. Then the first tower fell, and with it any hope that this was some kind of terrible accident. The United States was under attack. 

Nearly 3,000 people died in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, where heroic passengers overpowered their hijackers.  

What follows are the accounts of ordinary people who chose to pick up video cameras—people didn’t have smartphones in 2001—and record the shocking events that unfolded in Lower Manhattan. In these videos, drawn from the 2021 History Channel special, “9/11: I Was There,” experience the raw emotions of that morning and see how the passage of time allowed these witnesses to reflect on what changed that day, for them as individuals and for the entire country.

David Vogler: One of Many

David Vogler describes his experience on the morning of September 11 as “profoundly unique,” yet not unique at all. He was among the throngs of New Yorkers in Lower Manhattan who saw smoke pouring from the World Trade Center and wandered out into the streets. What he captured on video were regular people, including himself, processing America’s deadliest terrorist attack in real time. When the South Tower collapsed, Vogler describes the “tornado” of “pulverized rock, metal and cement” that devoured Lower Manhattan “like a serpent.”

John Kalymnois: 'Everyone Was in Shock'

For John Kalymnois, his memories of that tragic day are focused on individual people. First, there were the desperate individuals Kalymnois saw waving white flags from the heavily damaged upper floors of the North Tower before falling to their deaths. Then, after the first tower fell and Kalymnois was told to evacuate his building, he remembers the firemen who took refuge in his lobby. “They were in shock,” says Kalymnois of the ash-covered emergency responders. “Everyone was in shock.”

Evan Fairbanks: Faces of Heroes

Evan Fairbanks captured some of the most remarkable and poignant footage of any bystander with a video camera on September 11. With his camera pointed at the smoldering North Tower, Fairbanks caught the moment when the second plane struck the World Trade Center. He also recorded the stoic expressions of a group of firemen walking toward the burning buildings. Sadly, none of those men—members of Squad 288/Hazmat 1 out of Maspeth, Queens—would make it out alive.

Caroline Dries: Depth of Darkness

“A piece of me wishes I never pressed record.” Caroline Dries was just starting her senior year at New York University when she and her roommate were awakened by an explosion at the nearby World Trade Center. The images Dries captured—the bodies falling from the North Tower and the second plane exploding into a fireball as it hit the South Tower—opened her eyes to the “depth of darkness” in the world.

Sam Riegel and Quyen Tran: A Deafening Roar

Sam Riegel and Quyen Tran will never forget the deafening roar of the debris cloud that tore through lower Manhattan following the shocking collapse of the South Tower. “I remember screaming at Sam, but not being able to hear my own voice,” says Tran. The couple huddled with other evacuees in Battery Park, where they watched in stunned silence as the second tower fell.

Alfie Alvarado: Like a Crumbling Statue

“It moved—it literally leaned a little bit, and then I saw it crumble down like sand.” That’s how Alfie Alvarado describes the “surreal” moment when she witnessed the collapse of the South Tower, one of the tallest structures in the world.

Cheryl Dunn: Knocked to the Ground

Cheryl Dunn was filming the chaos in the street outside her Lower Manhattan apartment when a jolt like a “small earthquake” knocked her five feet backward. It was the collapse of the South Tower. When she stood back up, a black wall of smoke and debris came crashing through the apartment windows. “It was like being underwater,” says Dunn.

Max Frankston: Through the Eyes of His Daughter

Max Frankston was able to separate himself emotionally from the unfolding tragedy by watching the destruction of the World Trade Center through his camera lens, until his 5-year-old daughter said something that snapped him back to reality: “It’s not there anymore, the World Trade Center.”

HISTORY Vault: 9/11

Explore HISTORY Channel specials on 9/11, including 'Portraits from Ground Zero,' '102 Minutes That Changed America,' 'America's 9/11 Flag' and more.