Picture Made on 9/11 Takes a Toll on Photographer By SEAN D. HAMILL
SHANKSVILLE, Pa. , Sept. 7 — Valencia M. McClatchey thought she was doing the right thing when she gave the F.B.I. a copy of her photo of the mushroom cloud that rose over the hill outside her home after United Flight 93 crashed in a field here on Sept. 11, 2001.
And, after it became apparent that hers was the only known picture of that ominous, gray cloud — and the first shot after Flight 93 crashed — she thought she was still doing the right thing when she gave copies to people who asked for them, and let newspapers and television stations use it.
But fame for the photo has had an unexpected cost for the photographer.
“Every time I’ve done any stories it goes online and all these conspiracy theorists start up and they call me and harass me,” said Mrs. McClatchey, 51, who runs her own real estate company.
In numerous online postings, critics have ripped apart every element of the photo, and Mrs. McClatchey’s life. They accuse her of faking the photo, of profiteering from it and of being part of a conspiracy to cover up the fact that Flight 93 was shot down by the government.
They claim the mushroom cloud is from an ordnance blast, not a jet crashing; the cloud is the wrong color for burning jet fuel; the cloud is too small and in the wrong position.
They’ve posted her personal e-mail, phone numbers and street address online. One Canadian “9/11 debunker” surreptitiously taped a phone conversation with her, quizzing her about the photo, and then uploaded it to his Web site.
“It’s just gotten so bad, I’m just fed up with it,” Mrs. McClatchey said. “This thing has become too much of a distraction in my life. I have a husband and a new business to deal with, too.”
The F.B.I., the Smithsonian Institution — which used the photo in an exhibition on Sept. 11 — and the National Park Service’s Flight 93 National Memorial — which has used the photo in pamphlets — all consider the photo legitimate.
“We have no reason to doubt it,” said Bill Crowley, an agent who is a spokesman for the Pittsburgh F.B.I. office, which oversaw evidence collection in Shanksville.
Along with the rest of the nation, Mrs. McClatchey was watching the coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington when she was shaken from her couch by a ground-shaking blast just over a mile away. She grabbed her new digital camera and took just one picture from her front porch.
It is a simple photo, showing a sloping green farm field, with a brilliant red barn in the foreground. Hovering above the barn in a brilliant blue sky is an ominous, dark gray mushroom cloud. Mrs. McClatchey named the photo “The End of Serenity.”
Barbara Black, acting site manager for the Flight 93 memorial, said, “What makes the image so powerful is that it’s this serene scene in Pennsylvania, this typical red barn, green trees, and then this terrible cloud above it that changed our life here forever.”
At the temporary memorial site, Flight 93 “ambassadors,” local residents who volunteer to tell visitors what happened here, always start the story by showing people Mrs. McClatchey’s photo.
From the beginning, Mrs. McClatchey said, she tried to use the photograph to help remember the 40 passengers on Flight 93. She sells copies to people and lets them choose whether $18 of the $20 fee goes to the Flight 93 National Memorial or the Heroic Choices organization (formerly the Todd Beamer Foundation).
To ensure that she controlled distribution of the photograph, in January 2002 she copyrighted it. To “protect the integrity of the photo,” Mrs. McClatchey said, she filed suit in 2005 against The Associated Press, saying that it violated her copyright by distributing the photo to its clients as part of a story. The lawsuit is pending.
One of Mrs. McClatchey’s neighbors here defended her against the allegations of the people he called the “Internet crazies.”
The McClatcheys “are as good neighbors as you could possibly have,” said Robert Musser, who owns the red barn that is so prominent in Mrs. McClatchey’s photo.
To accommodate visitors who will show up on Sept. 11 to recreate the picture, and who eventually find their way to the Mussers’ 94-year-old barn, they’ve tried to spruce it up this past week, adding a touch of paint. They plan to spend thousands in the near future to shore up the foundation on one side so the barn will endure for years to come.
“Here this barn could fall down, and it’s in the picture that’s so famous,” said Mr. Musser’s wife, Phyllis. “We have to do something.”