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Photographer's Fateful Decision Leads Him to Capture the Unthinkable

"That was probably the first still photo that was seen by any magazine; everyone was still down there said Cumins. Unlike many of the photographs taken that day which were snapped from east of Manhattan, Cumins shot his from the west, resulting in a hazy, silhouetted image. The effect is haunting said Cumins.

In American Photo Magazine, where Cumins's photo won best of the year, documentary photographer Steve McCurry wrote: The starkness of it really reduces the elements to their most basic and fundamental... The moment's there the composition is there and the fact that it's a silhouette reduces it to the essentials - skyline smoke and the impending crash."

The photograph also won the National Press Photographer's Association Picture of the Year in the Attack on America Category. It currently hangs at the 9/11 Tribute Center in lower Manhattan and is part of the permanent exhibit. It will be part of the fixed '9/11 Gallery' exhibit at the Newseum in Washington DC scheduled to open at the end of this year.

Today Cumins knows exactly how long the light stays red at the bottom of the hill near his house where he decided to turn around six years ago. In the year following the attack Cumins was still trying to piece the story together. He retrieved a recording of the radio report he had heard that fateful morning in 2001. What he had failed to hear then was that he made his decision to turn around that morning at exactly 8: 58 a.m. The second plane hit the towers at 9: 03 a.m.

"That gave me 4.5 minutes to put the car in front of the building go to the elevator run down run back go out to the terrace put the film in and lens on the camera and shoot Cumins said. Had I stopped to put the TV on or to call someone or do anything or had I had the radio on when I left my parking spot most likely I would not have taken that picture."

Though known now for the photograph he took on September 11 Cumins has worked as a photographer for almost 40 years largely for the Jewish community. Cumins 59 got his start as a student in Miami photographing for AP and local Jewish federations. Just after graduating he was hired to help "put the Central New Jersey Federation on the map and since then has worked as the official photographer for United Jewish Communities and its predecessors. I didn't really know what a federation meant but I've certainly learned in the last 38 years and I have met some incredible people along the way said Cumins, who is currently a freelance photographer.

Cumins has photographed every major peace treaty since 1979; he's been to Israel 175 times, and around the world almost as many; he has worked with every Israeli prime minister and he recently traveled with Senator Hillary Clinton on her first trip to Israel since she took office.

But it was this one photograph taken from the balcony of his apartment that would define Cumins's career more than anything else.

With everything I've done in the Jewish community this will be the one thing they write in my obituary said Cumins.

I always felt it was pretty ironic that I was the one photographer who made this overall image. Here I am a photographer of the 'Jewish world' community a photographer of Israel-Mideast peace treaties one who has worked with politicians around the world...and here the circumstances of the day put me in that place in position. How ironic that has always been to me Cumins contemplated.

Asked what he has done on September 11 in the years since the attack, the photographer choked up.

The first couple of years I stood on my balcony Cumins said, holding back tears. Now I don't know I try to make the day just go."