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□ Nothing is more frightening or fascinating than seeing a photographer’s final images in the face of certain death. Some victims were aware the end was near and perhaps wanted to leave a final memento before their lives were cut short. Others were unaware they were staring at death through their camera viewfinder. Genuine ‘last pictures’ are extremely rare, and many fakes circulate the internet.
I double checked all my pictures for authenticity’s sake. So here they are, the five best “final pictures” that actually happened.
Robert Landsburg – Mount St. Helens, Washington – May 18, 1980
Just after 8:30am, photographer Robert Landsburg and thousands of others in Washington state were jolted by a modest earthquake. Sightseers who had come to document the recent activity at Mount St. Helens immediately set their eyes on the smoldering volcano. The slopes of the mountain appeared to ripple as thousands of tiny rockslides cascaded down its slopes. Then, moments after the shaking ceased, the entire north side of Mount St. Helens gave way. The largest landslide in recorded history plummeted downward in apparent slow-motion to the spectators standing miles away. The massive rockfall exposed compressed magma built up within the volcano, and seconds later a massive cloud of ash exploded northward at a pace approaching the speed of sound. A loud roar was heard hundreds of miles away, yet the explosion shot silently above people in the inundation zone.
Landsburg, who was at his campsite seven miles west of the summit, photographed the pyroclastic cloud as it hugged the forest floor and thundered towards him. Aware of his fate, he placed his camera and wallet in a bag and lay atop it to protect its contents. Less than three minutes later, the wall of burning ash swept over him. Landsburg was killed, but his last efforts prevented his final pictures from being incinerated. The film roll was damaged, but nevertheless survived to tell the story of Landsburg’s last moments.
Wayne Hunter – Henryville, Indiana – March 3, 2012
On March 3rd, 2012, an outbreak of powerful early season tornadoes swept through Indiana and Kentucky. In the town of Henryville, Wayne Hunter and his wife took out their cameras and filmed the western sky as a violent tornado roared towards their home.
“Man that’s a big one,” Hunter can he head saying of the hazy funnel. “I’m hoping it goes to the north of us because it looks like it’s heading right towards us.”
The couple watched from their living room window as the tornado drew closer. Moving up to 70mph, the tornado was exceptionally fast-moving and traversed the 13 miles between New Pekin and Henryville in just 12 minutes. When the tornado was only a few hundred yards away, the couple scrambled for shelter. Wayne covered his wife as they huddled in an interior bathroom. Mrs. Hunter later said that she heard a horrific roar and felt her ears pop, and then everything went black. She awoke thirty feet away from the empty block foundation that was once her home. Nearby lay the body of her husband, who had sacrificed his own life to protect hers.
John and Jackie Knill – Khao Lak, Thailand – December 26, 2004
During the early morning hours of Boxing Day in 2004, a massive 9.3 earthquake ruptured the earth’s crust just west of Sumatra. Within minutes, a tsunami over 100ft in height crashed into the western shoreline of Aceh, Indonesia. The massive wave wrapped around the northern tip of Sumatra and surged through the city of Banda Aceh as a dark, muddy flood thick with debris. More than 150,000 people were killed in northern Sumatra, and the tsunami was just beginning its trek through the Indian Ocean.
Two hours later, no one was aware anything had happened 300 miles to the east in the popular Thai resort town of Khao Lak. Canadian tourists John and Jackie Knill were enjoying the early morning sunshine at the Andaman Beach Resort beside thousands of others. Far away, beneath the perfect sky, a large wave appeared and broke into a thin white line that wrapped across the entire horizon. Unaware that underwater topography off the coast of Khao Lak was particularly well suited for the formation of large tsunami, the couple snapped pictures while snorkelers explored the unusually low tide. The true size of the wave was hard to ascertain from the beach as it rolled forward at 30mph. By the time the couple snapped their last picture, it was too late. Unlike normal waves, tsunami waves grow larger as they approach land and carry the entire ocean behind them at terrific speeds.
The bodies of the husband and wife were identified among the thousands that lay floating in the ocean afterwards. Their camera was discovered by a Seattle man who later delivered the pictures to the deceased couple’s son.
Richard Henderson – El Reno, Oklahoma – May 31, 2013
One of the most important tornadoes in recent history touched down in a sparsely populated area west of Oklahoma City on the afternoon of May 31, 2013. The large, nebulous cloud base was photographed by dozens of storm chasers as it swirled slowly to the southeast, ripping apart rural farmsteads near the town of El Reno. As the tornado roared farther from the I-40, news vehicles and photographers pulled off the freeway and travelled down the perfect grid of county roads near the El Reno Regional Airport. Amateur storm chaser Richard Henderson, a truck driver and father of two, snapped a photograph of the multi-vortex storm with his cellphone and sent the image to a friend at 6:05pm.
As the tornado approached Highway 81 it entered a period of rapid intensification. The storm’s snake-like tendrils suddenly merged into one massive funnel that quickly expanded to two miles in width. Richard Henderson was near the intersection of Choctaw Avenue and SW 15th Street when the tornado engulfed him. Debris loudly impacted the sides of his vehicle as the thunderous storm passed over. Still on the phone with a friend, Richard exclaimed – “that’s the sound of debris hitting my pickup.” Seconds later, the line went dead.
Richard was found dead that evening in his destroyed vehicle. A local resident driving away from the storm was also killed at the same intersection. In total, the El Reno tornado caused eight fatalities, all of them in vehicles. Half of the dead were storm chasers, including long-time professional Tim Samaras. The tornado was a grim reminder of the powerful and oftentimes unpredictable nature of violent tornadoes.
Bill Biggart – Manhattan, New York City – September 11, 2001
The death of Bill Biggart was not the result of a natural disaster, but the surreal scenes he captured in his final roll of film were equally as frightening and all encompassing. A passionate photographer, Biggart rushed to ground zero minutes after the first plane impacted the North Tower on September 11th. His early pictures show gray waterfalls of smoke pouring from the World Trade Center towers as dazed pedestrians crowd police barricades. Biggart photographed the grey storm cloud of debris that engulfed the city streets as the South Tower collapsed. Seemingly unaware the North Tower would soon suffer the same fate, the fearless photographer took his last picture of the devastated Marriot Hotel on West Street. Seconds later, the North Tower gave way in a mushroom cloud of dust above him. Of all the images taken on September 11th, Biggart’s have become some of the most well-known due to his frightening proximity to the destruction.