Original air date: March 10th, 2002
Running time: 130 minutes
Directors: Jules Naudet, Gedeon Naudet, James Hanlon
Producers: Richard Barber, Mike Maloy, Bruce Spiegel, Mead Stone
Cast: Jules Naudet, Gedeon Naudet, James Hanlon, Tony Benetatos
In the years before September 11th 2011, people would talk about where they were and what they were doing the day President Kennedy was shot and killed, when the Berlin wall came down or when Princess Diana died. Today, it’s the moment when they heard about the World Trade Center towers.
I remember it vividly. I was living in Berlin and it was a day I had all to myself. I’d just prepared lunch and turned on the TV, at first I thought I was watching a movie, I didn’t realise it was CNN. The first plane had already flown in the World Trade Center’s North Tower, the building was billowing with smoke and flames and soon it became clear this was not an afternoon movie.
It seemed like a terrible accident and I thought of the people trapped inside, the lives that were immediately engulfed by the force of the plane and the fireball that immediately followed it. I couldn’t comprehend it at all – the gaping hole at the side of the building said it all – and then it happened again. It was shocking and never before or since then I reacted with such horror at what I saw on the screen – the South Tower had now been struck from the opposite direction by another plane.
As the events continued to unfold it would be a long time before what was happening sank in. In my apartment block, the sound of the daily hustle and bustle of tenants, children and workers was replaced by the collective sound of news stations. America was under attack and the world watched as the live images were beamed into our homes, offices, schools, bars and hotels.
Right there in the midst of it were a pair of filmmakers. Jules and Gedeon Naudet, two brothers from France who were filming a documentary on Tony Benetatos, a probationary fire-fighter for the New York City Fire Department who was assigned to Ladder 1 on Duane Street. They’d already been filming with Benetatos for some time, documenting his experiences as he earned his dues with the team, but the longer they waited for a fire to come along and put him to work, the more anxious they got that it would be a big one.
For them, September 11th started off like any other day. While out filming Chief Joseph Pfeifer checking for gas leaks on Church Street and Lispenard Street, Jules, like everyone else in the area, heard something above him and looked up with his camera to see American Airlines Flight 11 gunning its engine and flying into the North Tower. That’s when it stopped being a day like any other.
Jules was with Battalion 1, the first responders to the scene, and armed with his camera he documented everything he possibly could. He was in the North Tower when the second plane flew into South Tower. From inside the lobby he witnessed the horror of people on the upper floors leaping to their deaths. In the footage he shot we hear the horrifying sound of bodies hitting the ground – but he doesn’t show it. He also doesn’t show the burn victims who were in the lobby or when flaming gasoline from the jet engine poured down the elevator shaft.
His filming is sensitive, but still harrowing under extreme conditions. His is the only known footage inside the World Trade Center as the attack took place.
Meanwhile, his brother Gedeon is back at the fire house with Benetatos who’s been left manning the phones while his fellow fighters attend the scene. As they see the North Tower collapse into a pile of dust, he fears the worst. Benetatos can’t wait any longer; he suits up and heads out.
Many time I’ve tried to imagine myself in this situation. Would I survive? Would I help others? How would I get out? Where would I run? How bad was it up there in those burning towers for people to decide it’s better to jump to their deaths? Some people held hands as they leapt together. Although I’ve only witnessed it on screen, the experience of the towers collapsing still fills me with grief, shock and a kind of panic and revulsion at the same time. Life can be gone so quickly and so violently. The power of the Naudet brothers’ footage doesn’t rest easy in my thoughts. It lingers like the remnants of that thick ash cloud we see descending on the area with the collapse.
James Hanlon’s narration is moving and heartfelt, and as those who made it out recount their experiences, we get a strong sense of just what these guys had to go through on that day to save as many lives as they could.
One by one the fire-fighters return and Gedeon waits for news on Benetatos and his brother Jules. Their film doesn’t end there though. They return to the scene for the clean-up and rescue operation which is just as harrowing. The relentless search for survivors in the rubble of what’s left from the towers was just as dangerous as the moment they fled the initial collapse, but their determination to find at least one survivor shows why they’re regarded as New York’s finest in the city’s darkest hours.
9/11 is an extraordinary account of what took place as it happened. Unlike many of the documentaries I’ve seen on the subject, which are usually politically motivated or exploitive of the events, what the brothers managed to capture is testament not only to their love for filmmaking as a medium to document history, but also their love for each other and respect for the New York City Fire Department.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .