Documenting the tragedy

The DVD version of 9/11 is a historic keepsake

Last summer, brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet had an admirable idea for a documentary. They teamed with NYC firefighter James Hanlon to direct the story of a 21-year-old, up-and-coming fireman going through his probationary period at the Engine 7, Ladder 1 firefighting house in Lower Manhattan.

For months, the brothers were unable to catch a major fire on film, and their “probie” subject grew impatient about not seeing any action. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, during a routine call to check for gas leaks less than a mile away from the World Trade Center, the documentary would get a radically changed subject.

9/11: The Filmmakers’ Commemorative DVD Edition is a startling record of the World Trade Center tragedy. Many of us have seen the only footage of that first plane smashing into Tower 1 of the WTC. As 9/11 reveals, the cameraman who captured that image rode with firefighters to the towers, and was inside Tower 1, camera rolling, when Tower 2 was struck by another plane and eventually collapsed.

The man who caught the only footage of that first plane was Jules Naudet, a novice cameraman practicing his focusing and framing as firefighters worked on their routine gas leak call. When the loud roar of an airplane was heard overhead, not a common occurrence in the heart of Manhattan, Jules turned his camera skyward and caught the historic, horrible image.

Naudet continued to film as Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer and company raced to the towers, some of the first firefighters to arrive at the scene. It’s an eerie moment when they enter Tower 1, discovering that flaming jet fuel had raced down its elevator shafts, incinerating people and blowing out windows in the lobby.

What is so striking about 9/11 is seeing the relative calm the firefighters and cameramen manage to maintain amongst themselves. They work like steel-nerved pros through the second plane crash and subsequent collapse of the towers. They somehow remain levelheaded as the bodies of jumping WTC employees strike the ground, creating an unmistakable, horrific sound. Yes, fear is evident in their eyes, but panic appears to be out of the question.

Having spent two-thirds of my life 20 miles away from NYC and the Twin Towers, I am in awe of the firefighters’ abilities to conduct their rescue mission. They stood at the base of those buildings, looked skyward to see the tragedy unfolding more than a thousand feet above, and then headed upstairs to help people.

No television image, no photograph can capture the immensity of those buildings, intimidating structures when they were standing unharmed, absolutely terrifying after being struck by airplanes. I used to ride my bicycle between those towers, stare upward at them, and nearly fall over from dizziness. I can’t imagine what must’ve been going through those brave people’s heads, but we do know they ran into those buildings no matter how scared they might’ve been. Unbelievable.

The film captures the final images of Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain who was administering last rites to casualties at the towers. It’s a terrible sight to see Judge, clearly frightened beyond all belief, nervously pacing in the lobby. Judge would die of heart failure when racing to a staircase as Tower 2 fell. It would be Naudet’s camera light that would assist in the recovery of his body.

Large portions of the documentary consist of Naudet’s camera filming without him paying much attention to the images being captured. When Tower 1 collapses, he is just a block away. We hear Naudet struggle for breath in a debris cloud, and see clearly legible office papers pressing against his lens. We also discover his body is being protectively shrouded by Chief Pfeifer.

In all, 343 firefighters would perish in and around the towers, including Chief Pfeifer’s firefighter brother, Mike. Naudet’s camera has captured many of those men, including Mike Pfeifer, on film for the last time. Remarkably, no one from Ladder 1 died, despite being some of the first men on the scene.

The DVD edition of 9/11 differs a bit from the CBS broadcast of last March. Robert De Niro doesn’t host, as he did on television, and there’s a special interview section containing further commentary from the firemen.

These interviews are mesmerizing, as the firefighters, colorful New York vernaculars in full force, give uninterrupted descriptions of their experiences. I’ll never forget one firefighter’s description of a tower collapsing as he tried to escape on foot, one major thought going through his head: “How the frick am I going to outrun the World Trade Center?” Somehow, and remarkably so, he did just that.

9/11 is a frightening account of history as it happened. More importantly, it stands as an eternal memorial to what those incredible firefighters did on that terrible day.