The story behind the searing image of Charlottesville's worst day
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Ryan Kelly had been working all day when he heard a car rev its engine and saw a flash of metal speed by. He didn't know what was happening; he didn't think. He did what photojournalists do: pointed his camera and shot.
What he captured on Aug. 12, 2017, was an image that would command the world's attention, win journalism's highest honor and symbolize the worst moment of this university town's worst day: a gathering of white nationalists and the killing of a young woman who came to protest them.
In that microsecond of frozen mayhem, human bodies hang above a car in poses of almost balletic violence, a killing force portrayed as chilling stillness. Glasses and cellphones are suspended midair, bottles spout contrails of water, shoes are flung from splaying legs.
It's a photograph both revelatory and cryptic. The image appears to offer a wrenching glimpse of Heather Heyer's last moments as she was killed. But it's notable for what it hides - others being injured behind the flying bodies. To this day, Kelly knows little about most of the people in the picture, even those captured upside down, their lives in peril. He doesn't know their names or how badly they were injured.
"It's still hard to look at," Kelly said a year later. "So much is contained in that moment."
This is the story of that moment, what led to it and what followed.
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It was shortly after 1 p.m., and the mood among counterprotesters was soaring. A volatile Unite the Right rally had just been declared an illegal assembly by the city's overwhelmed police. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who had descended on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee were dispersing.
"We felt like we had won," said Bill Burke, a thrift store employee who had driven six hours from Ohio to oppose the rally. He was walking with other members of the International Socialist Organization on East Water Street when they converged with other groups of counterprotesters. A celebration broke out.
"I thought of them as the 'happy people,' " said Marissa Blair, now 28, a recent law school grad and paralegal at a Charlottesville law firm. "There were people dressed as clowns and people giving out water and hugs."
Blair was with two friends who also worked at the Miller Law Group, Courtney Commander and Heyer, and while they wanted to protest, they weren't looking for trouble. All morning, they had changed direction whenever they got too near the fights and skirmishes breaking out.
They were put at ease by the watchful presence of Blair's fiance, Marcus Martin, now 27, a tall, athletic landscape worker.
"That's why I was there, to keep an eye on them," Martin said.
Heyer, a 32-year-old committed activist for racial equality, was already dressed in black for her evening shift as a bartender at Cafe Caturra. She had just been preparing to head to work when they ran into the "happy people."
"She decided to hang out a bit longer," Blair said. "It was like victory. Hey, these are our streets."
At that moment, a few blocks away, at least one person was not ready to cede them. A gray Dodge Charger with Ohio plates turned onto Fourth Street SE, heading south.
Down on East Water Street, calls erupted from someone trying to steer the cheerful mob: "Left! Go left!"
Many in the crowd, including the four friends, turned left onto the much-tighter confines of one-lane Fourth Street SE, heading north.
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Kelly had also just turned onto Fourth. It was his last day on the job as one of two staff photographers at the Charlottesville Daily Progress. He was 30 and loved shooting local news and sports. But after four years, he was burned out. The long hours and low pay at a shrinking paper had become too hard on his young marriage; the growing hostility to journalists had worn on his psyche.
"I was ready for a change, no doubt," he said.
He was slated to start a new job in two days as social media manager for a craft brewery in Richmond. He just had this last assignment to get through.
He'd been taking photos of the rally since early that morning. Now, with the joyful crowd coming his way, he thought he would have a moment to relax.
He noticed the gray Dodge backing up on Fourth, away from the crowd, and assumed it was looking for a way around the marchers. The street was supposed to be closed to vehicular traffic that day; an investigation would find that no police were there to block it.
Then he heard the engine, saw the blur of chrome and steel. He lifted his Canon and locked his finger on the button.
Kelly captured more than 100 images in about 24 seconds. The first frames show a 4,000-pound muscle car punching into bodies protected only by sunblock and poster board.
The marchers in the front darted frantically away from the rushing bumper. Those behind them were directly in its path. Some never even saw the car.
"I didn't hear a thing," said Blair, who was shooting a Facebook Live video of the scene that reveal no sign of the charging vehicle then just feet away.
But Martin did. He was checking his phone. "And then I heard tire screeches," he said.
He didn't have time to process the danger, but he reacted instantly, giving a mighty push to Blair's back, propelling her toward a black Toyota Tundra parked to their left.
"I just felt a huge shove, and I was on the ground," Blair recalled.
In Kelly's sequence of photos, her blue cap is visible moving to the right as the Charger barrels into the crowd. In one haunting frame, Heyer's head and glasses are visible near the center of the vehicle, directly in its path, between the ramming car and a white sedan stuck in the intersection. Her eyes seemed locked on those of the driver, identified later by police as 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr.
Heyer was beyond Martin's reach. "I just couldn't get her," he said.
As Commander and Blair lurched out of the way with inches to spare, Martin tried to vault onto the truck, even as the Charger pinned him against the parked vehicle. He got high enough off the ground to save his life, but his legs caught, shattering his left ankle. His head snapped back, flinging his red cap off in a shower of glass and water.
In the crazy energy of the impact, he spun up and backward over the car, falling spine-first beyond the rear bumper. Kelly's lens captured Martin nearly horizontal before he hit the ground, the red-and-white Air Jordans that Blair had given him for Christmas pointed at the sky. Above him, a young man with a tattooed back - whose identity remains a mystery - is upside down in a somersault over the car. Other arms and legs and heads fly akimbo.
Above them all, in the photo that would go around the world, hovered a sign that read simply: "LOVE."
As Blair picked herself off the sidewalk, the Charger backed away, fleeing up the hill in reverse. Before it turned, Martin's red-and-white shoe fell from the crushed front end.
On the street, it was pandemonium. Blair quickly caught sight of Commander, limping but upright. She looked for her fiance.
"Marcus! Marcus!" she screamed above the shouts and cries, the phone in her hand still recording video. She spotted his red cap, covered in blood. Her voice grew quieter, more plaintive. "Marcus?"
It took agonizing minutes for someone to approach her, ask her name and drag her toward a doorway where Martin had been asking for her. He was in pain, wincing as they cut the remaining shoe from his left leg, but he was alive.
"Where's Heather?" he asked.
A few yards away, Burke, the socialist from Ohio, had regained consciousness against a hard curb. He didn't remember the impact, but he had a blinding pain in his head and something large under his shoulders and backpack. It was a woman. He struggled to move.
He heard a voice say, "You need to hold your head together." Helpful hands guided his fingers to a gash in his head. Other voices, urgent ones, asked if Burke could shift to the side. A former EMT, he became aware of the tense flurry of attention the woman beside him was getting.
"My body rocked with each chest compression they did on her," he said. "I began counting with them. I wanted to help, but I couldn't even open my eyes."
Months later, even as he struggles with lingering memory and cognitive issues from his brain injury, Burke feels guilt over any role he might have played in Heyer's death. "I worry that I fell on her. I just get this feeling that it was my fault."
Susan Bro, Heyer's mother, was spending that Saturday at a friend's house miles outside Charlottesville. They had just finished salads from McDonald's when her phone rang.
"Marissa was at the hospital, and they were looking for Heather's next of kin," she said. She yelled for her friend to drive her to the emergency room. "I called my parents," she remembered, "and said: 'You better pray. Something's wrong.' "
Kelly had chased the retreating car for a block. When it was out of sight, he finally looked at the screen on his camera, quickly reviewing what he had photographed. He could see now what he hadn't processed in real time.
"Wow, there are bodies flying," he thought. Within a few minutes, he and his editor - who was also covering the rally - were sitting on a bench with a laptop, amazed at one picture in particular.
"That's when it really hit me we needed to get this out into the world," Kelly said. "I knew that was the image."
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In the year since Aug. 12, few people have looked at that image more intently than Heyer's mother. She pores over it, and all the photos and videos she has collected from those brief, eternal seconds on Fourth Street SE, finally buying more cloud storage to accommodate them. It comforts her, she said, to know as much as she can about her daughter's last moments.
"That's my girl, looking right at him," she said a few days before the anniversary of Heyer's killing. On her tablet is one of Kelly's frames. On it is Heyer's forehead and glasses just visible in the path of the car.
Bro has adopted her daughter's passion for racial justice, running the Heather Heyer Foundation from an office in Heyer's former law firm. She says she plans to write a book about her daughter, their relationship and carrying on Heyer's legacy of standing up for what's right.
She visits Fourth Street often, sometimes having dinner in her car next to the shrine of flowers and chalk tributes that still cover the sidewalk. She was there a few days before the anniversary of the rally with Martin and Blair. Except she's not Blair anymore. Her name is now Marissa Martin.
Marissa and Marcus married in May. Bro came and released a box of butterflies. Kelly was hired by the New York Times to shoot the photographs.
Marcus, who escaped the ramming with a fractured ankle, scrapes and bruises, goes to court every time he can to watch the proceedings against Fields, the alleged Nazi sympathizer who will stand trial on charges of first-degree murder and who also faces a federal hate-crime charge that could carry the death penalty.
Marcus has started to play basketball again. He even found his shoe; someone had placed it on Heyer's shrine, and now he keeps it in a box with the one the EMTs cut off. Marissa recently landed a job she loves, negotiating contracts for an international investment company. In many ways, it's been a good year for them.
"It really has," Marissa said, smiling. She paused, looking at the newly installed street sign that reads Heather Heyer Way. "But emotionally we're still working on it. I still don't really like this road."
Marcus shook his head. "He was right there," he said, pointing at the center of the lane. Then he pointed at the spot where he shoved one of the women he was protecting out of danger but couldn't reach another.
"Miss Susan," he started to say to Bro. But they'd said it all before.
"You are such a sweet couple," she told them. "It's still raw, and you're trying to build a life out of love."
Marcus, too, has scrutinized every pixel of the photo, including what he believes is a blurred glimpse of Heyer's face as she's thrown backward. His prominence in the center of the frame, he knows, means he will long be known as the guy flying over the car.
The picture ran on myriad TV news broadcasts and was on the Aug. 13 front pages of newspapers in dozens of cities, including The Washington Post. Few reports about Charlottesville fail to include the image.
Kelly started his job at Ardent Craft Ales less than 48 hours after he took the shot. The break from journalism, he said, helped him gain some soothing distance from the trauma of his last day as a full-time photojournalist. But the image continued to shape his year. Twitter trolls accused him of doctoring the photo. He worried how Heyer's family would feel about it until he met Bro at Marissa and Marcus's wedding, and she assured him that she appreciated his images and the understanding they gave her.
From his peers, the picture brought nothing but acclaim.
On April 16, he and his wife were flying home from Amsterdam, where he had accepted an award for the photo. "We landed, I turned on my phone, and it was just swamped with texts and tweets and calls," Kelly said.
He had won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news photography, an accolade that leaves him both proud and pensive.
"I've also been very aware that it came at the expense of the death of Heather Heyer, of dozens of other people being injured, of Charlottesville being torn apart," Kelly said, sitting amid the kegs and barrels of his new life. "I think about that every day."
This article was written by Steve Hendrix, a reporter for The Washington Post.