In May 2001, my brother, Gedeon, and I, along with our friend James Hanlon, a New York City fireman, began filming a documentary at FDNY's Engine 7, Ladder 1. The purpose of the film was to chronicle the nine-month probationary period of twenty-one-year-old Tony Benetatos, a recent graduate of the Fire Academy who had been assigned to this firehouse in lower Manhattan.
We spent the summer following Tony and capturing life at the firehouse. But as fall approached, we realized that we were missing a crucial element to a documentary about firefighters: a fire. You see, Tony never seemed to be on duty when his company was called to a fire.
That changed on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The day started out as any other at the firehouse. Guys started coming in around 8:00 a.m. to relieve those who had been working the night before. At 8:30 a.m., a call came in about a possible gas leak at the corner of Lispenard and Church streets, a few blocks away from the firehouse. I rode in the battalion car, as I usually did, filming the chief.
As the units were gathering around the suspected gas leak, we heard a roaring sound that got closer and louder. I remember looking up and seeing an American Airlines jet pass between two buildings. I immediately pointed the camera to where the plane was headed. Two seconds later the jet crashed into Tower 1, the north tower of the World Trade Center.
The firefighters rushed to their trucks and departed for the Trade Center, which was about fifteen blocks away. I jumped into the battalion car and continued filming as Chief Joseph Pfeifer gave the initial report of the collision. We arrived at Tower 1 in less than three minutes.
From the very beginning the devastation was apparent. Smoke was pouring out of the tower, and evidently jet fuel had run down the elevator shaft, creating a fireball in the lobby. People were severely burned and all the windows had been blown out. As the minutes passed, hundreds of firefighters from across the city reported to the command post, which was set up in the lobby, and were sent up to evacuate people in the tower. There was a mood of confidence in the lobby. I can recall looking at firefighters and seeing a determination and eagerness to do their job. In my mind, there was never any doubt that they would quell the fire, and being with members of the best fire department in the world, I wasn't afraid.
Suddenly we heard an explosion coming from outside, and as I turned to look out the windows, I saw flaming debris falling in the courtyard and then heard a radio call announcing that Tower 2 had been hit by another plane. Any thought that this was simply a terrible accident vanished: New York was under attack.
That is when the horrible crashing sounds started and never stopped. People trapped on the upper floors, cornered by fire and smoke, jumped from the tower and landed outside the lobby in a loud crash. At first I thought that the bodies were pieces of the building, but then a firefighter next to me said, "We got jumpers." Every thirty seconds that same crashing sound would resonate throughout the lobby. It is probably the thing that will stay with me always, the realization that every time I heard this sound, it was a life that was gone.
At about 10:00 a.m., as I was filming the chiefs in the lobby coordinating the rescue, we heard a loud crushing noise coming from above us. Everyone started to run. We thought the tower was coming down on us. After running fifty feet into an adjacent room, I fell to the floor, waiting and hoping for a quick and painless death. A few seconds passed and the noise faded, replaced by a cloud of dust. Although we didn't realize it at the time, Tower 2 had collapsed.
I turned on the light on top of my camera and went back to filming. But something was different. Before I was filming because I wanted to document what was happening. Now I was filming to put distance between myself and the horrible scene that I was witnessing through my camera lens.
I remember filming Chief Pfeifer as he gave the evacuation order to all units in Tower 1. For him, it was a precaution: We didn't know what had happened to Tower 2, and Pfeifer just wanted everyone out to regroup and assess the situation. As we were trying to get out of the tower, we came across the body of the Fire Department chaplain, Father
Mychal Judge, who had been killed by falling debris. Four firefighters carried him out of the building. It took us about twenty minutes to find a safe way to exit.
Since we didn't know that Tower 2 had collapsed, we never thought the same could happen to Tower 1. But at 10:28 a.m., at the corner of West and Vesey streets, just 400 feet away, the north tower started to come down. We ran for our lives. I lay down in the street and felt someone jump on top of me as the cloud of dust and debris enveloped me for the second time. After a few minutes, the person on top of me got up and told me to follow him. It was the voice of Chief Pfeifer.