9/11: Then and now - 20 years later

THEN: The remains of the World Trade Center stand amid the debris following the terrorist attack, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Alexandre Fuchs/AP)
NOW: Traffic heads south on West Street past National September 11 Memorial & Museum on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

A lot can happen in two decades. Friends, feelings, possessions come and go, like blips on the timeline of life. 
But tragedy endures all.

It’s why each August and September – as summer fades into fall – photographer Gordon Donovan finds himself in familiar places, taking pictures of the area where terrorists slammed hijacked jetliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I do it because I love the city, the history of the city, and how we’re not going to be put down,” the native New Yorker says. Growing up on Staten Island, Donovan could see the towers – once the tallest in the world – as they were constructed from across the harbor more than 50 years ago.

In the two decades since the attack, Donovan has purposely taken pictures from the exact positions where photojournalists captured heartrending images on that awful day. He says the then-and-now project attests to the city’s strength, preserves history for others, and honors the courageous journalists who took the original 9/11 images. 

“It’s fascinating to see how it has changed over the years, because it was just this big pile of rubble the first time I went down there, about a week afterward,” said Donovan, then a graphic artist at CBS News. He was at work on the Upper West Side the morning of the attack.

Today, a memorial and museum honor the nearly 3,000 people killed. “Now, you can’t even recognize what happened,” Donovan said. “What they’ve done down there is beautiful and just revitalized the whole area after such a tragedy and brought it back to life.”

Photos from this year, unfortunately, bear a somber footnote due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The absence of tourists and workers, and people wearing masks was an eerie reminder of 2001,” he said.

Drag the slider across each pair of images to see changes in the New York City landscape.

Looking downtown from Rockefeller Center

THEN: The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Marty Lederhandler/AP)
NOW: One World Trade Center is seen towering above the landscape in lower Manhattan behind the Empire State Building, Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Trinity Church Steeple

THEN: Smoke spews from a tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 after two hijacked airplanes hit the twin towers in a terrorist attack on New York City. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NOW: Before 9/11, the original World Trade Center towers could be seen from the Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, Sept. 8, 2020. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

The Brooklyn Pier

THEN: The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Marty Lederhandler/AP)
NOW: Tourists wait for the ferry at Pier 1 near the Brooklyn Bridge Park across the New York City skyline on the East River on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Fulton Street

THEN: People run from the collapse of one of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett/AP)
NOW: Twenty years after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, a modern subway hub and mall on Fulton Street connects to the World Trade Center, Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Engine on Murray Street

THEN: A piece of debris, possibly from one of the crashed airliners, is roped off by investigators near the World Trade Center site in New York, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: AP)
NOW: A man walks his dog past a building where one of the plane engines landed on the corner of Church and Murray Streets several blocks away from the World Trade Center site on Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Across the East River

THEN: Smoke billows from the towers of the World Trade Center in New York, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Jim Collins/AP)
NOW: The New York City skyline is seen from under the Brooklyn Bridge on the East River on Sept. 8, 2020. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Workers covered in debris

THEN: People struggle through debris near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Gulnara Samoilova/AP)
NOW: Pedestrians make their way along Fulton Street next to St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Across the Brooklyn Bridge

THEN: Women wearing dust masks flee from Manhattan to Brooklyn on the Brooklyn Bridge following the collapse of both World Trade Center towers, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)
NOW: People cross the Brooklyn Bridge on a beautiful day in New York City on Sept. 3, 2021. The dangers here are photographing with tourists and fellow New Yorkers buzzing by on bicycles. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Garage Entrance on Beekman

THEN: Pedestrians on Beekman St. flee the area of the collapsed World Trade Center in lower Manhattan following a terrorist attack on the New York landmark, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Amy Sancetta/AP)
NOW: Customers wait for their vehicles at a parking garage on Beekman Street in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Fulton and Nassau Streets

THEN: People run from the collapse of the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett/AP)
NOW: People weave through construction on the sidewalks along Fulton Street near Nassau Street on Sept. 7, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

World Financial Center

THEN: People evacuate the World Financial Center after it was hit by two planes Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NOW: Pedestrians walk through the courtyard just outside of Brookfield Place (originally known as the World Financial Center) in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Cortlandt Street Subway

THEN: A destroyed subway station near Ground Zero on the evening of Sept. 12, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)
NOW: Traffic along Church Street passes the Cortlandt Street subway station on Sept. 3, 2021, across the street from Three World Trade Center. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Damaged fire engine on Vesey Street

THEN: A destroyed fire engine on Sept. 14, 2001 near ground zero after the September 11 attacks. (Photo: Stuart Ramson/AP)
NOW: People walk along the Federal Building on Vesey Street with ongoing construction in the background at the World Trade Center, Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

McDonalds on Broadway

THEN: Broadway is covered in debris on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)
NOW: McDonald’s is open and serving breakfast via mobile on lower Broadway on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

The Ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge

THEN: People walk across Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn following the collapse of both World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)
NOW: People exit the Brooklyn Bridge walking towards lower Manhattan on Sept. 7, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Fire engine covered in debris

THEN: A fire engine is covered in dust and debris near the site of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Bernadette Tuazon/AP)
NOW: Debris has been cleared on Greenwich and Rector Streets as people enjoy a summer day in New York City on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Firefighters on Cortlandt Street

THEN: With the skeleton of the World Trade Center twin towers in the background, New York City firefighters work amid debris on Cortlandt Street after the terrorist attacks in this photo taken Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)
NOW: People walk along the tiled wall on Cortlandt Street across from the World Trade Center site on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Guardsmen on Church Street

THEN: National guardsmen march past the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers in New York, Sept. 13, 2001. (Photo: Stephen Chernin/AP)
NOW: People walk past the Millenium Hilton on Church Street across from the Oculus on Sept. 3, 2021 (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Vesey Street covered in debris

THEN: A firefighter walks amid the rubble near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Peter Morgan/Reuters)
NOW: People walk along the Federal Building on Vesey Street with One World Trade Center in the background, Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Two World Trade Center facade

THEN: The remains of the facade of 2 World Trade Center is all that stands after a terrorist attack on Sept. 12, 2001, in New York. (Photo: Nick Fanelli/AP)
NOW: People cross Church Street across from Four World Trade Center and its shopping centers on Sept. 7, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan) 

West Street and Albany Street

THEN: A destroyed vehicles on Sept. 12, 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. (Photo: AP)
NOW: West Street looking downtown across from the World Trade Center site on Sept. 7, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Rector and Washington Streets

THEN: Dust and debris cover the ground and cloud the air near the site of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Bernadette Tuazon/AP)
NOW: Seven World Trade Center is seen from the intersection of Rector and Washington Streets on Sept. 7, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan) 

WTC Street subway station

THEN: A destroyed subway station near Ground Zero on the evening of Sept. 12, 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)
NOW: The downtown entrance of WTC Cortlandt Subway 1 train station that reopened in 2018 in New York City on Sept. 3, 2021.  (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Brooks Brothers covered in rubble

THEN: A destroyed Brooks Brothers store near Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001 after the terrorist attack. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)
NOW: People exit the Amazon store on Church St. in New York City, Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan) 

Greenwich Street and Park Place

THEN: New York Police Department officers on patrol near the World Trade Center site in New York City. At center is the collapsed 7 World Trade Center on Sept. 13, 2001. (Photo: James Estrin/AFP/Getty Images)
NOW: The Oculus and World Trade Center site is seen in the background as pedestrians walk the streets of Lower Manhattan on Sept. 7, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan) 

The South Tower

THEN: Remains of the facade of Two World Trade Center are all that stands on the World Trade Center site, Sept. 12, 2001. (Photo: AP)
NOW: Visitors gather to pay tribute to the victims of 9/11 attacks near one of two reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Broadway looking down Cortlandt Street

THEN: The skeleton of one of the twin towers is seen as emergency personal keep the area secure on Sept. 19, 2001. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)
NOW: Pedestrians walk across Broadway at the intersection of Cortlandt Street just down the street from the World Trade Center site in New York City, Sept. 7, 2020. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Brookfield Place

THEN: Broken windows in the vaulted roof of the Winter Garden, left, and the smashed facade of World Financial Center following the collapse of the World Trade Center, Sept. 27, 2001. (Photo: Bri Rodriguez/FEMA)
NOW: Pedestrians cross West Side to Brookfield Place across from the World Trade Center Memorial site and One World Trade Center on Sept. 7, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

The North Tower

THEN: Firefighters pour water on the still smoldering wreckage at Ground Zero where the remains of New York's World Trade Center stand, Sept. 27, 2001. (Photo: Kathy Willens/AP)
NOW: A view of Lower Manhattan from one of two reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum where the original One World Trade Center once stood, on Sept. 3, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

The Sphere at the World Trade Center

THEN: Fritz Koenig’s “The Sphere,” a 25-ton sculpture that once graced the plaza at the World Trade Center, lies in the wreckage following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. (Photo: Shawn Baldwin/AP)
NOW: "The Sphere" rests at its new home across from the World Trade Center buildings and National September 11 Memorial & Museum on Aug. 25, 2020. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Ground Zero

THEN: Firefighters pour water on the still smoldering wreckage at Ground Zero where the remains of New York's World Trade Center stood on Sept. 27, 2001. (Photo: Kathy Willens/AP)
NOW: A view of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum grounds and One World Trade Center looming in the background on Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo: Gordon Donovan)

Selected Works

9/11: Then and now - 20 years laterInteractive Photography

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Ballpark RoadtripsInteractive Photography

Ukraine PlayersInteractive Graphics