Driving to work one morning late last summer, I exited the Belt Parkway, heading north on Rockaway Parkway, and noticed an immense plume of black smoke in the distance. Initially, I assumed it was a huge fire somewhere in mid-Brooklyn.
After buying my morning bagel and coffee, I switched the car radio from a classic rock to a news station. Like millions of rush hour commuters that Tuesday, it was the first time I heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center.
I immediately assumed a small private plane veered off course and accidentally crashed into the breathtaking architectural marvel, similar to what happened at the Empire State Building more than 55 years ago.
I arrived at the office shortly before 9 a.m. My editor already had a radio tuned to an all-news station. No sooner did we begin discussing the event when a newscaster reported that another plane crashed into the second tower.
I suddenly realized these were not mishaps and began to dwell on what was heretofore unthinkable — those aircraft deliberately flew into the Twin Towers.
The date—184 days ago—was September 11, 2001.
Last Sunday evening, CBS aired "9/11," a compelling two-hour special that showed never-before-seen footage of what it was like inside Tower 1 for the dozens of firefighters and emergency personnel, who were preparing to rescue victims 80 floors above.
The program is riveting and powerful. It is gripping without being gruesome, which it might have been in the hands of profit-minded Hollywood producers. It focuses on bravery, sacrifice and fear, fittingly devoid of scripted melodramatic emotions.
James Hanlon, a New York City firefighter, and brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet, two French-born filmmakers, produced and directed the special. Last spring, with Hanlon’s help and guidance, the filmmakers began shooting a documentary about a battalion of "New York’s Bravest" located just blocks from the World Trade Center.
The core of the special is exclusive footage shot inside the North Tower as all hell was breaking loose — before and after the first tower collapsed. The finished product is a unique document created and presented with a noble purpose, not for profit. It is, nevertheless, inadvertently dramatic without being explicit or exploitative.
No writers, directors, producers or actors will ever be able to recreate what happened six months ago more realistically than the powerful images in "9/11."
There are no scenes of bloodied bodies or seriously injured victims to lure the curiously morbid. There’s no need for grisly recreations that would probably be the objective of some slick moviemaker. As the camera pans the faces of those fleeing the area surrounding the falling towers then focuses on the determined, yet shocked gazes of men accustomed to the horrors of tragedy, no screenplay is necessary to describe what is plainly obvious.
The film is not disrespectful to the victims or insensitive to their loved ones. For thousands directly affected by the events six months ago, as well as for those who subsequently became traumatized by them or may be vulnerable to such horrors, it may never be a discerning viewing choice.
Minor gripes erupted preceding the broadcast when some victims’ relatives called the timing of the broadcast premature. New Jersey’s 2 U.S. senators and other Garden State politicians — none of whom had seen the program — championed those objections. CBS assured them "there would be nothing gory or violent...or show pictures of individuals suffering or dying."
When would be the "right time" for the relatives and friends of the dead and missing to see such footage? For some, unfortunately, it may never arrive. Like the gaping hole referred to as Ground Zero, the loved ones of the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks have sustained an open wound that only time can heal.
Nonetheless, "9/11" earmarks a significant historical event that deserves to be viewed now and for generations to come. What began as a straightforward glimpse at a group of uncommonly fearless men, who put their lives in jeopardy daily to save others, unwittingly became a stunning, vivid chronicle that recalls the horror, heroism and haunting images of one of the worst chapters in this nation’s history.