As the events at the Pentagon unfolded on 9/11, a series of photographs were taken by Daryl Donley that recorded the initial moments immediately after the plane impact into the western side of the Pentagon. After taking the photographs he dropped his film off for developing and later called a friend at Gannett (a major newspaper publisher) and informed her of his story and that he had taken photos.
Gannett bought Donley's photos and made them available to papers across the country. "I never saw them in print, so I have no idea who used them," Donley said. In April 2002, he learned from a reporter that one of his photos was published in Life 2002 Album: The Year in Pictures (which contains pictures from 2001). Additionally, others photographs of his were published in Paris Match and in the Daily Mail in London, and the Library of Congress has several of his pictures in its permanent collection. No other photos are believed to have been taken within the same time frame as Donley's.
In the 9/11 literature and websites, Donley's photographs have appeared many times without attribution and without context. For example, in some places his last photos in chronological order are said to be the first photos. To provide the context and a more complete record, he created a website to mark the 10th Anniversary of the September 11th attack on the Pentagon. At that time, most of the photographs had not been available to the public. Reduced quality images are included in this article to provide a catalogue of the photos. Higher resolution photographs on Donley's 911pentagonphotos.com website can be seen by clicking on "Gallery" and then "September 11th Gallery."
The purpose of this article is to place those initial photographs in context using the words of the photographer himself. Hopefully this will help provide a basis for a more accurate discussion of the events at the Pentagon. The following text is taken largely from Donley's Information/About Us section.
Daryl Donley's editorial, production, and documentary photography has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, national and international magazines, and books, including Life's 2002 edition of The Year in Pictures covering the events of September 11, 2001. The Discovery Channel featured Donley's photographs in the documentary, Attack on the Pentagon. Additionally, Donley's September 11th photographs have been exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution and appear in the permanent collections of the Newseum and the Library of Congress. One of his photos is on display at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.
The photographer's account of the morning of September 11, 2001:
"I had been driving to work for about 45 minutes in unusually bad bumper to bumper traffic. While I was stopped in traffic, in front of the Pentagon, I heard a loud sound get very loud extremely fast. I ducked down in my car as quickly as I could. I followed the sound as it traveled over me. I looked up to see the entire plane next to my car, through my passenger window a short distance away. I watched the plane fly into the Pentagon. I heard the crunching sound of the plane disintegrating as it slammed into the building at ground level. I screamed as loudly as I possibly could. The plane disappeared into the building as a massive fireball erupted, engulfing one side of the Pentagon; I felt the heat.
I got out of my car. Traffic was completely stopped at that time. Military Police on the north and south end of the roadway in front of the Pentagon were holding traffic in place. I paced back and forth across the road a few times in complete disbelief. I saw one man in the stopped traffic calmly speaking on his cell phone standing next to his car. Another woman near him was screaming hysterically out of control in her vehicle.
As I was pacing, I realized I had all my camera equipment in my car since I was planning on photographing an event later in the day. Initially I dismissed picking up my camera in the midst of something so traumatic and raw but ultimately decided what was happening in front of me needed to be documented.
I went to my car. Although my hands were shaking like leaves in a stiff wind, I managed to load film in my camera and, after a few failed attempts, successfully loaded a new battery. I was photographing within a couple of minutes of the plane crash. As a lifelong photographer, once I engaged with the camera, my instincts took over and I asked myself, 'what will tell the story of this instant?' I continued until the Military Police decided to clear the road.
Even then, as I drove away, I continued to photograph in the very slow stop and go traffic. It took me about another hour and a half until I crossed Roosevelt Bridge and was able to park and get out of my car."
In retrospect, I believe these photographs did capture the moment and they succeeded in telling the story of the initial moments of horror after a large airplane crashed into the Pentagon."
Daryl Donley Gallery
The following 25 images record the events from about two minutes after the plane impact for some unspecified period of time. Larger images of the following photographs can be viewed in the Gallery section of 911pentagonphotos.com.
Below, intermixed with Donley's photographs are three satellite images of the Pentagon. These have additional lines that identify where the first 21 photos were taken and the approximate line of sight. Because Donley had all of his camera equipment with him in his car, he was able to use both zoom and wide angle lenses. All the photos were taken from the vicinity of his vehicle.
The most iconic image is that of a fireball that was captured in image 14. Donley recounts that prior to taking the photograph, he was looking through the viewfinder of his camera when he saw the fireball beginning to erupt. He said, "Through the viewfinder, I could see a circle in front of me." He recounted thinking that there would be four "chunks" of time to click the photo. He waited for the right moment. He waited until the fireball expanded and then took the photograph. He clicked on what he referred to as "the third chunk of time." He said, "Unless you were looking through the viewfinder when it began, there would be no time to bring the camera up to photograph it." He said, "The original fireball following the impact was 3 to 4 times as high as the Pentagon. This fireball was about 40 feet wide based on its size vs the size of the Pentagon. It was definitely an explosion."
The second most iconic image is photograph #23 which was taken from his car's rear-view mirror. According to Donley, "To me, this photograph tells the story of 9/11 like no other... a lost person walking, disoriented and confused with the Pentagon burning in the background. This was 'America' on 9/11." Supporting the iconic status of this photograph, this is Donley's only image that is on display at the 9/11 Museum.