The parting shot

 

Bill Biggart loved trees. The 54-year-old photographer bought trees and shrubs for friends and relatives as birthday presents to plant in their gardens. He planted trees on Weehawken Street behind his riverside Manhattan studio and spent so much time watering and tending them that the transvestites who frequented the area thought he worked for Greenpeace. He and his wife Wendy Doremus at one time planned to buy 150 acres of land in Ireland and plant it with trees to leave to their two children, Peter (14) and Kate (17), and to Bill's son William (32) from his first marriage, whom they called "Little Bill".

"He was so proud to be Irish," said Wendy, as she showed me the spacious loft they converted into a home on Broadway and 18th street, and the cleverly-designed roof garden above, complete with benches, paths and a number of trees including birch, maple and a Bosnian pine.

"He grew up with all the stories, and he loved his grandmother, Elizabeth Whelan. They celebrated St Patrick's Day like they probably don't in Ireland, and his mother Mary Noone would bake soda bread." In 1985, the couple spent 10 weeks in Ireland, looking for his relatives and old family homes, and in 1997 they spent two weeks holidaying outside Ennis.

As the second oldest of a boisterous Irish-American family of 12 from Long Island with roots in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, Bill Biggart used to say, "I don't have friends - I've got family".

He raised William Jr from infancy after his first wife, a model, went out for a packet of cigarettes one day and didn't bother going home, and he became the most senior member of the family after his older brother, Thomas, died in 1999, aged 53. A brother and sister died in a house fire when he was three. He calculated the average life span of all his family members and figured out that "every day he was beating the odds".

Biggart, who was born in Berlin where his father was stationed as a US soldier after the second World War, learned he could get an Irish passport if a grandparent was born on the island of Ireland, and he was received his passport with the harp emblem on St Patrick's Day, 1990. This was particularly useful when he went abroad occasionally to work as a photo-journalist. His regular business was commercial photography and he was a mainstay of Impact Visuals, an independent picture agency that provided photographs for New York's alternative press and went broke earlier this year.

But he had secured a working-press card in 1985 and had travelled as a freelance photographer to the Middle East, covering the first intifada, and Northern Ireland. Biggart's life seemed bound up with divided cities: Berlin, Jerusalem, Belfast.

He liked to use a 35mm lens, ideal for close-up pictures, while other photographers might have preferred telephotos. Among the thousands of prints in his riverside studio are several of Gerry Adams and of Belfast kids taken during a visit to Northern Ireland in 1989 to cover the 20th anniversary of the British Army arriving on the streets of Northern Ireland. He got a black eye in Belfast, said Wendy, but she isn't sure which side did it.

On September 11th, when the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Centre, it was second nature for Biggart to grab his cameras and start walking the two miles to the site, snapping pictures as he went. He made his way through Greenwich Village and along West Street to where dozens of fire trucks were parked. A few minutes later, Wendy Doremus, anxious and curious, took her Instamatic and also headed in the direction of the burning towers.

She was a few blocks away when the first tower fell and she called her husband on her mobile telephone.

"Bill, this is an attack, one of the towers collapsed and the Pentagon's been hit," she said, adding that she was going to go to his studio, a mile and a half north of the towers. He replied: "I'm OK, I'm with the firemen. I'll meet you in 20 minutes." As Wendy headed towards the studio, she heard a booming sound and turned round in time to take a shot of the second tower collapsing onto West Side highway.

Bill Biggart never made it to the studio. He didn't beat the odds that day. He was killed instantly when the second tower collapsed, the only journalist to die in the disaster. Wendy waited for him in the studio for a few hours, trying in vain to get him on the mobile phone, growing more concerned as time went by. "I kept trying to call but I never got through after that first call," she said. She went home to be with her daughter Kate who was getting ready to go to Spain on a one-year programme. Their son Peter was attending his first day at eighth grade that day.

Early the next morning, she headed for a trauma centre where relatives of the missing were gathering, desperately hoping that he had just been injured and had been taken to a hospital. It was the start of four days of frantic searching for information about her husband. "I took his press pass with his photograph to all the news agencies, as they usually travel in a pack," she said. "I went to camera crews. I went to the firehouses, handing out his picture."

At 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, she got a call to go to the medical examiner's office. Biggart's body had been pulled from the debris and identified from his fingerprints.

Wendy Doremus got back all Biggart's belongings, including his wallet with $26, his scorched press card, two film cameras and a digital camera. The lenses had been smashed, spoiling some of the last images he captured, but seven rolls of film were recovered and the microdisc in the back of his Canon D30 digital camera was intact. She gave the disc to Biggart's friend Chip East who was able to get the images up on his computer screen.

The last image was time-stamped at 9.28 a.m. The camera clock had not been corrected for daylight saving time so it was actually 10.28 a.m., the precise time that the second tower fell. "What was remarkable was how calm everyone looked in the last pictures he took," she said. There was no panic among the firemen on debris-strewn West Street where he took the last pictures. They did not know that death was imminent.

Wendy Doremus has been in contact with the Irish consulate in New York to see if she can get an Irish passport now, for herself but especially for their children. Not being Irish-American, she may have to apply for a discretionary decision by the Department of Justice. In the weeks following September 11th, she and Kate played a kind of game trying to guess where her dad really was, in Afghanistan maybe, perhaps becoming the only photographer to get a picture of Osama bin Laden. He loved sailing and their son William said, "When I saw the second plane hit, all I was hoping was that my father didn't go down (to the World Trade Centre); I thought, 'God, I just hope he's out sailing'."

Wendy is thankful that her husband's body was found when so many others remain missing. "What little solace I had was that I could get closure, for myself, and for the kids," she said.