Video Captures Sept. 11 Horror in Raw Replay

From: Wade T. Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Sat Jan 12 2002 - 15:49:52 GMT

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    Video Captures Sept. 11 Horror in Raw Replay

    By ALAN FEUER

    The videotape is raw.

    It shows the black wedge of an airplane slamming into the north tower of
    the World Trade Center. It shows commanders in the building's lobby
    scrambling to figure out how to send scores of firefighters into the
    burning building.

    It captures the radio transmissions ordering everyone down to the lobby
    after the second plane hits. It shows the gout of dust and rubble as the
    buildings suddenly collapse. It shows the booted foot of a Fire
    Department chaplain who is being carried through smoke and the din of
    screaming. It shows the faces of anxious men only minutes before they
    die.

    A brief clip of the first plane slicing through the north tower was seen
    by millions in the days after Sept. 11, but what has never been publicly
    shown is the rest of the 90-minute videotape. It was made by a French
    filmmaker who happened to be taping a group of firefighters in Lower
    Manhattan. It is a document of disaster from the inside: the impact, the
    rush to the emergency, the frenzied effort to establish a command post,
    the grays and whites and flaming oranges as both towers collapse.

    Copies have made the rounds of city firehouses, and fire officials say
    they plan to use it as an investigative tool. The filmmaker says he
    wants to turn the tape into a documentary and give it to the families of
    the dead. It is anyone's guess whether it will one day be seen by the
    public.

    While there are other tapes of ground zero on that day, none come close
    to capturing the catastrophe at such close range. It is an extraordinary
    view of history at the moment that it happens. It is so immediate, so
    vivid, so graphic, so raw that viewers can almost taste the bitter smoke
    in their throats and feel the grit of concrete on their teeth.

    It begins at the corner of Lispenard and Church Streets, where Jules
    Naudet, the filmmaker making a documentary about the training of a
    probationary firefighter, is taping Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer
    responding to a report of a gas leak under the street. After a meter
    reading is taken, the roar of a plane is heard.

    The camera pans up to follow the path of the plane as it rams the north
    tower. There are expletives and flames and smoke.

    It cuts to Chief Pfeifer in his squad truck, cruising toward the flames.
    He is on the phone and smoke is dribbling down the facade like water.
    The sirens have started already. "It's a big one," the driver says.

    The next 20 minutes or so are given over to confusion, as Mr. Naudet and
    his camera rush into the north tower and capture Chief Pfeifer and his
    superior, Deputy Chief Pete Hayden, setting up a command post. They
    issue orders to their men and desperately work the telephones. An eerie
    calm has filled the lobby as firefighters muster and wait to be
    deployed. Their faces are filled with fear, with the damp anxiety that
    comes before a job.

    The suspense of watching the tape is excruciating because the viewer
    knows exactly what is coming: a loud crash, like a bus running into a
    bridge abutment the second plane. "Tommy!" someone yells. "Tommy!
    Another plane! Another plane!"

    There is so much grit on the camera lens by now that Mr. Naudet has to
    scrub it with a rag.

    There is a call to evacuate: "Everybody down to the lobby! All units
    down to the lobby!"

    Smash. The firefighters jump. Another smash. Smash. Smash. Falling
    bodies or debris?

    The men stare at the ceiling, wary, shaking their heads. Their eyes seem
    moist and bright. The camera pans to the mezzanine where employees,
    calmly bunched together, have started to evacuate in a long, tight line.

    Back to Chief Pfeifer on the phone. A scrap of a nearby conversation:
    Now they're saying the Pentagon's been hit. Chief Pfeifer shouts to
    someone off-screen, "Do you have to dial nine to get out on this thing?"

    Then it happens. The south tower starts falling.

    It sounds like a gunshot. Then a wave crashing on shore. The camera goes
    up the escalator. The lens fades slowly to darkness, dust leaching away
    light. The tape is so hard to make out that there are only voices.

    "Everybody all right? How's the way out of here?" The images seem as if
    they are underwater or seen through a wet shower door. Snow, infrared
    light.

    "We've got to get everybody out! Let's go! We need some light!" Radio
    chatter. Screaming. "Where are we going?" "Sarge." "Hey Pete. Pete."
    "Chief Hayden" "We're lost." "Hey Joe, where are you?" "There's the
    escalator, right there." Top of the escalator. "Mike! Where's the
    escalator? We only got four guys. Mike, I need you. Mike!"

    Daylight. Or the ashen gray of that day's light.

    It is during this scene that a searing image appears: the booted foot of
    a dead man who is being carried by his brothers. The men carrying him
    later said the body was that of the Rev. Mychal Judge, the Fire
    Department chaplain, who perished.

    Mr. Naudet had been with the firefighters on the street that day as he
    had been nearly every day for about three months, chronicling the life
    of a probationary firefighter at the downtown firehouse for Engine
    Company 7 and Ladder Company 1.

    "We just happened to be there," he said in a telephone interview last
    night. "The true heroes are the incredible men who ran into those
    buildings and lost their lives."

    Francis X. Gribbon, a spokesman for the department, said that both fire
    officials and the F.B.I. have a copy of the tape. For the Fire
    Department, it will be part investigative tool and part historical
    artifact.

    "For some it has captured the last brave actions of a number of
    firefighters who went to save others," he said. "For others in the
    department, it will become what we use to try to definitively know who
    was where, and we think it has been helpful. It is very helpful. As
    evidence, it will help us to understand or piece together the activities
    that occurred in tower one, such as those companies reporting in." Mr.
    Gribbon added, "There's nothing else like it."

    Mr. Naudet nearly lost his life himself when the north tower collapsed.
    In the tape, his camera lens goes blank in the storm of dust and wind,
    like a real eye clogged with grit.

    "Chuff! Chuff! Chuff!" He tries to clear his throat. "Mayday! Mayday!"
    someone shouts. "You with me? It's hard to breathe."

    It is dark again on screen and there are far-off yells, voices as if
    coming over water. The camera points straight down and captures a pile
    of ash-covered paper. It looks like the remnants of a blizzard, like a
    clip from a Buffalo weather report.

    "Chuff, chuff. Chuff, chuff."

    Chief Pfeifer lived, as did his superior, Chief Hayden. Capt. Terence
    Hatton, pictured at one point in the tape, is dead. Father Judge is dead
    as well. Lt. Kevin Pfeifer, Chief Pfeifer's brother, is also dead.
    Dozens of the faces in the tape are dead. Among those passing through
    its frames are Port Authority officials crucial in the evacuation and
    other civilians who bravely lent a hand.

    The tape ends as suddenly as it starts. Mr. Naudet is almost choking,
    trying just to breathe. Someone shouts out, "Chief?" The camera stumbles
    through a doorway.

    And then the screen goes blank.

    Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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