1/25 25 Most Powerful Photos1 A photo taken on September 11, 2001 by the New York City Police Department as the North Tower collapses, engulfing lower Manhattan in smoke and ash. (Photo: AP Photo/NYPD, Det. Greg Semendinger) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 2/25 25 Most Powerful Photos The South Tower of the World Trade Center explodes in flames after being hit by the hijacked airliner now universally known as "the second plane," United Airlines Flight 175, September 11, 2001. This photo -- with its black smoke; the shocking, brilliant, colossal flames; the cloudless sky; the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge flying the American flag -- captures so much of the story of the day that, if one were to create a composite picture to illustrate the idea of "9/11," the result might look very much like this astonishing shot. (Photo: STR/Reuters /Landov) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 3/25 25 Most Powerful Photos1 Rescue workers carry mortally injured New York City Fire Department chaplain Mychal Judge from the wreckage after he was killed by falling debris while administering last rites to another victim. A Roman Catholic priest, a recovering alcoholic, a gay man, and -- as an FDNY chaplain a spiritual adviser and trusted friend to countless firefighters through the years -- "Father Mike" was the first recorded victim of the September 11 attacks. Photographer Shannon Stapleton's picture, which burns with immediacy and yet somehow feels composed, almost painterly, captures much of the day's intense incongruities in one sombre frame: the intimacy of witnessing a single death in the midst of a monumental catastrophe; brilliant sunlight shining on the chaplain's lifeless hands; devastated first responders shrugging off exhaustion, racing to the aid of helpless victims. Here is the best, and the very worst, of that day. (Photo: SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters /Landov ) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 4/25 25 Most Powerful Photos Getty photographer Spencer Platt's picture of a crowd in Lower Manhattan watching the twin towers burn captures, in one instant, the profound disbelief that held sway in the city and around the world -- a disbelief that inevitably turned to mingled rage, grief, and fear as the scale and the nature of the attack on the country gradually became clear. Here, in a sense, is a portrait of the terrorists' true target: young and old, men and women, civilians of countless races and, no doubt, countless creeds who were, mysteriously, spared, only to bear witness. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 5/25 25 Most Powerful Photos In a scene repeated with terrifying frequency as flames engulfed the top of the towers, a man falls (or leaps, as was evidently the case with many victims) to his death from the World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11 photographer Richard Drew, in the midst of another assignment, got the call to drop everything and head to the World Trade Center. As soon as he arrived downtown he began shooting; later in the day, as he processed what he had shot, he was especially struck by this photo -- and with reason. One of the most recognizable pictures made on 9/11, the image from a purely photographic perspective is breathtaking: the miniscule human form caught against the massive, abstract background of the towers is so obviously helpless, and doomed, that we're tempted to reach out our hands to try and cradle the tiny anonymous figure. And while Drew himself refuses to conjecture about the man's identity ("I prefer to think of him as a sort of Unknown Soldier," he told LIFE.com), it's impossible not to put ourselves in the falling man's place -- with all the dread and empathy that that sort of transference commands. (Photo: AP Photo/Richard Drew) 6/25 25 Most Powerful Photos In an image that reflects the Dantesque surreality of 9/11, witnesses watch flames spew from one of the several buildings -- in addition to the Twin Towers -- damaged or destroyed in lower Manhattan. Mario Tama's photograph has a vertiginous feel that recalls the swirl of emotions that we endured on 9/11 and, in a sense, in the years since. In layer upon layer, the image reflects the ordinariness of the day -- pedestrians, bicyclists, trees, street signs -- jarringly juxtaposed against an inferno. As details emerge (the police in the distance, the masks on people's faces, debris in the street), the image evolves from a portrait of mere disaster to a chronicle of a singular, era-defining cataclysm. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 7/25 25 Most Powerful Photos Stunned, frightened Marcy Borders, 28, is covered in dust as she takes refuge in an office building after one of the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Borders was caught outside on the street as the cloud of smoke and dust enveloped the area, and raced into the building seeking shelter -- a building into which freelance photographer Stan Honda had also fled. "She was sort of this ghostly figure," Honda told LIFE.com, "covered in grey-white dust, and I thought that this was an amazing thing to see, that this would make an important picture of what was happening out there." Of all the images from 9/11, Honda's picture is perhaps the most immediate representation of the collective and individual shock felt by those who were actually there, in lower Manhattan, when the towers fell. (Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 8/25 25 Most Powerful Photos Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 (L) flies toward the World Trade Center twin towers shortly before slamming into the south tower (L) as the north tower burns following an earlier attack by a hijacked airliner in New York City September 11, 2001. The stunning aerial assaults on the huge commercial complex where more than 40,000 people worked on an ordinary day were part of a coordinated attack aimed at the nation's financial heart. They destroyed one of America's most dramatic symbols of power and financial strength and left New York reeling. (REUTERS/STR New) 9/25 25 Most Powerful Photos An unidentified New York City fireman walks away from Ground Zero after the collapse of the towers. Photographer Anthony Correia told LIFE.com of this picture: "He just looked so exhausted, so beat up." Correia knelt down and took his shot as the man walked by. "I acknowledged him, and he acknowledged me. But he never stopped." The steady gaze, meanwhile, of this lone firefighter allows us a window into the experience of literally thousands of rescue workers and first responders. I was in there, his eyes seem to say. Be thankful that you can't imagine what I saw. (Photo: Anthony Correia/Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 10/25 25 Most Powerful Photos Lilliputian figures -- firefighters stark against the grayish white dust that blanketed so much of lower Manhattan -- walk a path cleared of rubble near the base of the destroyed south tower in the days after the attacks. Aside from the still-staggering scale of the destruction, however, what truly astonishes in Peter Morgan's picture is the suggestion -- as one senses amid Roman ruins, for example, or in ash-entombed figures from Pompey -- of an entire civilization's wreckage. There is an ancient feel to the photograph that sparks a lingering question: Is this the literal end of the figurative "American Century"? (Photo: PETER MORGAN/Reuters /Landov ) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 11/25 25 Most Powerful Photos On 9/11, the New York City Police Department lost 23 officers. The Port Authority police lost 37. The FDNY's dead numbered 343. Here, firefighter Tony James cries while attending the funeral service for New York Fire Department chaplain Mychal Judge at New York's St. Francis of Assisi Church, September 15, 2001. Photographer Joe Raedle, who attended and photographed funerals for weeks after September 11, told LIFE.com of this shot: "Anytime you see a fireman or a symbol of strength breaking down like that, it resonates." In fact, Raedle's photograph, with its ghostly echoes of James' salute surrounding his tear-streaked face, speaks to how millions of people around the world felt in the days and weeks after the attacks: namely, that strength was what we all needed most, and that it was the one thing that was hardest to find. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images ) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 12/25 25 Most Powerful Photos President George W. Bush was informed by his chief of staff Andrew Card of the attacks on the World Trade Center during a school reading event in Sarasota, Florida. Ten years later, one of the kids who was there in that class, Chantal Guerrero, told Time magazine that to this day she's grateful that Bush -- obviously profoundly upset about something that Card had told him -- maintained his composure and stayed with the students until the book they were reading, The Pet Goat, was finished. "I think the President was trying to keep us from finding out," Guerrero said, "so we all wouldn't freak out." Whether or not the president was trying to keep calm before a group of schoolchildren, in Paul Richards' unforgettable picture, his eyes tell the tale: here, right now, is where so much of what followed on the heels of 9/11 was put in motion. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the hunt for Saddam and for bin Laden; the still-unknown ramifications of the sweeping and controversial Patriot Act; even, arguably, today's revolutions in the Middle East -- many of the signal events of the past decade began here, with a whisper in a tense, unprepared president's ear. (Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 13/25 25 Most Powerful Photos A satellite image of lower Manhattan shows smoke and ash rising from the site of the World Trade Center at 11:43 AM on September 12, 2001. The fires at Ground Zero continued to burn for 99 days after the attack -- a bleak reminder, day and night, of the thousands who lost their lives, and the countless millions more who lived, but whose lives were forever transformed. (Photo: Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 14/25 25 Most Powerful Photos This image (another by Stan Honda) is an exemplar of a strange, wrenching sight witnessed by innumerable people in New York on the morning of September 11: A survivor, layered in eerie, white dust, trudging away from the cataclysm. The man, Edward Fine, was an owner of an investment and public relations firm; he was on the 78th floor of 1 World Trade Center when it was hit. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 15/25 25 Most Powerful Photos Like a scene from an uneasy dream, Doug Kanter's picture of a man standing amid the seemingly endless World Trade Center rubble, calling out for survivors, brings to mind the sense so many of us shared on 9/11 and in the days and weeks after: What, in the face of such annihilation, can one person do? "I was on autopilot after the first tower fell," Kanter told LIFE.com. After briefly taking shelter, he stepped outside into streets that "were pretty much deserted, and that's when the person in the picture emerged. He looked like he might be a maintenance worker, had a fire extinguisher in his hand, and was calling out to see if anyone could hear him, saying they should make noise, and people would come and help." Not long after Kanter took this photo, a police office hustled him away from the spot. Minutes later, the second tower collapsed. (Photo: DOUG KANTER/AFP/Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 16/25 25 Most Powerful Photos Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center and explodes at 9:03 a.m. on September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) 17/25 25 Most Powerful Photos This image, made by Bergen Record photographer Thomas E. Franklin on the day of the attacks, eerily calls to mind one of American history's most iconic pictures: Joe Rosenthal's 1945 photograph of five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima. (Photo: 2001 The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) Thomas E. Franklin) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 18/25 25 Most Powerful Photos A New York City fireman calls for ten more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble in this evocative photograph by U.S. Navy Photographer's Mate 1st Class Preston Keres. In the months and years since 9/11, the word "heroes" has been tossed around so much that, in some respects, it's been made meaningless. But no sensible human being would argue that the work performed at Ground Zero by countless first responders -- police, EMTs, firefighters, and unheralded, anonymous volunteers who scrambled on to "the pile" seeking survivors -- was anything less than heroic. It's an observation made a thousand times before, and yet it still bears repeating: as hundreds of thousands of panicked New Yorkers and tourists fled to safety and shelter, running away from the devastation, first responders were racing into the unimaginable slaughter and destruction. This photo -- and its call for "ten more" -- remains a distilled reminder of their bravery and sacrifice. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Preston Keres) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 19/25 25 Most Powerful Photos Jennifer S. Altman, a freelance photographer, took this picture of the towers ablaze, and far, far below them, one woman wearing an expression of pure horror. Five years later, Altman was invited to the home of the woman in red, Rose Parascandola, who had been working at an online-trading company on the 51st floor of WTC 1 on September 11. "She said that I really captured how she felt. She had seen it in the paper, and that it meant a lot to her." For Altman, it was a meaningful photo, as well. "It was a turning point in my career. All my skills came together at once in a professional way. But it also made me very aware of my life; I don't take things for granted." (Photo: Jennifer S. Altman/WireImage) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 20/25 25 Most Powerful Photos (Photo: DOUG KANTER/AFP/Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 21/25 1 Looking West Over St. Paul's, Lower Manhattan. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 22/25 25 Most Powerful Photos The north tower of New York's World Trade Center collapses after being struck by hijacked American Airlines Flt. 11, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo Richard Drew) 23/25 25 Most Powerful Photos A man covered in dust walks in the street near the site of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, in this file photo taken early September 11, 2001. This year's anniversary of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington will echo the first one, with silence for the moments the planes struck and when the buildings fell, and the reading of 2,792 victims' names. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton-Files HB) For the full photo collection, go to LIFE.com 24/25 25 Most Powerful Photos A rescue helicopter surveys damage to the Pentagon as firefighters battle flames after an airplane crashed into the U.S. military Headquarters outside of Washington in an apparent terrorist attack, September 11, 2001. (REUTERS/Larry Downing LSD/HB) 25/25 25 Most Powerful Photos (Photo: Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora/Getty Images)
Thirteen years after 9/11, an unsettling number of images from Ground Zero and its environs remain seared in our collective memory -- unsurprising, perhaps, given the scope and scale of the destruction. But the fact that the deadliest, most visually arresting attacks occurred in New York City also meant that many of the world's best photographers were, in effect, already on the scene when the terrorists struck. In hopes of lending coherence to our shared, turbulent recollections,
LIFE.com presents the 25 most stirring, visceral photographs from that day, featuring pictures from the likes of James Nachtwey, Joe Raedle, Spencer Platt, Mario Tama, and other celebrated photojournalists (and one intrepid amateur). These are the pictures we remember: wrenching, indelible photographs that tell the tale of a still-resonant late summer day that changed everything.