9/11 - The Documentary
911 Memorial, cbs.com
"We hope that hearing the stories of these brave men and how they have struggled to deal with that day will inspire other survivors to carry on." Jules and Gedeon Naudet and James Hanlon, 9/11 documentary filmmakers, participants in history
On the eve of the 5th Anniversary of 9/11, the Big Three television networks gave us Something to Talk About. But only CBS had something truly meaningful to say.
At our house, we had no interest in ABC's Clinton-bashing paean to ultra-conservatism, The Path to 9/11. And we hadn't checked the listings to find alternatives. We didn't know CBS was again airing the extraordinary award-winning real life documentary 9/11.
So we tuned in to the football game of the week, if not month, if not history. NBC had gotten Sunday football back and opened with a sure-fire winner: Manning VS Manning. Two brothers--Eli and Peyton Manning--on different NFL teams would be facing each other as opposing quarterbacks for the first time in recorded memory.
It might have been a hellova game. But we didn't see it.
During a commercial, our son flipped around, came to CBS and whew, instant irony: two other brothers caught in a dramatic situation. But so dramatically different it made your blood freeze. Jules and Gedeon Naudet--French filmmakers who were making a documentary about a probie firefighter for Engine 7, Ladder 1, FDNY--had their cameras rolling on 9/11/01. And took us with them on their chilling journey.
We'd seen it before when it was aired 6 months after 9/11 and again on the one year anniversary. But still we sat there, silent, barely breathing, reliving the greatest tragedy of the century.If you don't know about 9/11, A Portrait of Heroism, you should. If you haven't seen it, you must. It's a stunning inside account, on film and in person of what happened in and around the World Trade Center that horrible day. It was filmed live and in real time inside the Engine 7 firehouse, inside the lobby of Tower 1, around the buildings as they fell and throughout the surrounding streets.
One of the filmmakers, Jules, captured the only known live video of the first plane striking Tower 1. The firefighters of Engine 7 were among the first to arrive on the scene. Jules remained inside Tower 1 at the FDNY command post, filming, until Tower 2 collapsed. Then he provided light from his camera to help all the firefighters still in Tower 1 make their desperate escape to safety.
Many of the documentary's scenes are ghastly. The area around the Towers resembles a nuclear winter ... ash, debris, papers, unimaginable flotsam swirling through the air, coating everything and everyone. Confusion, disbelief, helplessness, terror. And death.
The filmmakers tell us they saw no purpose in adding more gruesome images to our collective horror by showing the worst of the worst ... what one stricken firefighter describes this way: "It was raining bodies."
But with the camera rolling inside the lobby of Tower 1, every few seconds you hear a sickening crash and watch the firefighters flinch as another body hits the ground. One stunned firefighter said, "It's impossible to imagine what was so bad up there that the best alternative was to jump."
Of course the film doesn't focus on death, it simply captures the reality of our national nightmare that day and the days to follow. We see the living as they flee, help each other, mourn together, strive to bring order to such overwhelming chaos.
We watch as firefighters, police and construction workers drive themselves for days, weeks--what would become months--in twelve-hour shifts, digging through enormous piles of rubble and debris, searching for lives to save. And inevitably, searching for bodies to recover.
Throughout the film, individual firefighters--and the filmmakers themselves--share their feelings and experiences with us. They fight back tears. Or they cry. They show us their anger. And their pain. They are stunningly candid. Interviewed 3 years later, one said (as best as I recall), "It was either the army or the fire department. I didn't want to take lives, I'd rather save them, so it was the FDNY for me. Now, I'm not so sure. If I could, I'd kill the people who did this."
It's so important to honor those who perished. But it's equally important to remember that though almost 3000 ordinary and extraordinary people lost their lives on 9/11, more than 20,000 people in the Twin Towers survived. In the film we see many of them being led to safety by brave firefighters and police.
Five years later, the survivors still deal daily with the horror they witnessed, and lived through. They mourn their loved ones and comrades. And they ask, over and over, Why me? Why was I spared?
There's no answer to that question. But there's enormous understanding to be gained from hearing their stories and watching the real life story of the horror and heroism of 9/11.
And incredibly, the filmmakers and the firefighters of Engine 7, Ladder 1, FDNY are, to a man, alive to tell the tale.
You can meet them here.