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Hiding From What He Didn't See

Photographer Mark Phillips shies away from answering his phone. He won't tell people where he lives. And though he shot what has become one of the most widely published pictures of the day, he's afraid to develop the rest of his film.

It's all because of The Picture. The photo--the first frame of hundreds he shot that Tuesday--shows a plume of black smoke rising from the towers after the second plane hit. But there's something else. Just above the buildings' roof line, people have noticed what seems to be a face in the smoke. It's the visage of the devil, some insist, complete with beard and horns. Or Osama bin Laden. Or the collective scream of thousands of lost souls. Others swear it's the face of God.

Phillips, who has been a professional photographer for 23 years, says he didn't see the image that day--he just bang, bang, bang shot photos on two different cameras from the roof of his Brooklyn apartment and transmitted the pictures immediately to Associated Press. The picture editors didn't see anything either when they moved the photos on the wire about a half-hour later. It wasn't until people started calling in, asking if the photo was real, that they noticed the face.

Then the phone calls and e-mail started from people convinced that Phillips was the messenger of the devil, or somehow chosen by God. There were those who wanted to share their experiences of the day, or relate their own religious revelations. There were skeptics who wanted to discredit him, believers who wanted him to believe.

Phillips admits he was stunned when he finally saw the face. But he knows as well as anyone who has idly picked out images in the clouds that people who can discern the Virgin Mary in the burn marks on a tortilla can as easily find Armageddon in a column of smoke. "I'm not going to interpret it," he says. "People see what they want to see, and it's up to them to decide for themselves."

In the first week, he received thousands of e-mails, and his Web site registered 2 million hits. He instructed his staff to tell anyone who came to the office that he was not there, fearing fanatics or pilgrims or those who just wanted to talk.

But the worst were the people who questioned his integrity, insisting that he had manipulated the photographs. "First of all, ethically, I would never doctor a photo," Phillips says. "I have a 23-year reputation in this industry that I would never throw away. Secondly, there simply wouldn't have been time to do it."

Phillips has covered human tragedy before. In 1986, from the roadside at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he captured the Challenger space shuttle explosion. His perch was about three miles away from the space shuttle--about the same distance as his apartment roof from the World Trade Center. On Sept. 11, he was close enough for singed scraps of stationery from the towers' offices to drift across the harbor to his Brooklyn roof deck."

Like everyone else who witnessed the surreal events, Phillips must deal with the shock, the grief of losing friends, and the terrible task of explaining it all to his daughter, who is not yet 3 years old. "I thought she was too young to understand. But we were watching the news, and suddenly she covered her eyes and said, 'Daddy, I can't see this.'"

The Picture just makes it worse. "I thought it was going to go away because America's attention span is pretty short. But the way people are putting a religious aspect on this, it's not going to go away soon. It's a heavy burden to carry right now."
-- Maggie Farley