To coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the History Channel showed the documentary 102 Minutes That Changed America, which unfolded in “real time,” using footage taken, mainly by amateurs, as the terrible events in New York on that day unfolded (some of the videos are here).
The video and audio was brilliantly edited together, with no commentary apart from a clock that silently recorded the time. Because it was all stitched together from recordings made at the time by ordinary New Yorkers, it gave a sense of being there that was almost impossible to watch at times.
Two women filmed the first Tower on fire, from their apartment window. At the time, they didn’t know a plane had crashed into it, or at least, not been deliberately crashed into it. It looked like a terrible accident. One of them said she thought she saw people falling. “It might have been paper,” the other said, trying to convince herself (I’m paraphrasing – this wasn’t a programme where you would stop and take notes). Then the camera lurched away and the women screamed. The second plane had hit. We didn’t see it, but we’ve seen that image on news reports a hundred times in the last ten years. Somehow the screams of disbelief and shock, the sheer panic that made that woman drop her camera, were more powerful. The worst part, for me, was knowing that worse was to come. The people watching had no idea that the Towers would collapse. There was still hope the firefighters would reach people in time.
There’s no word to adequately describe the bravery of those firefighters. Even when the first Tower had collapsed on itself as neatly as a pack of cards and they knew that hundreds of their comrades must be dead, there were hundreds more gearing up and ready to go into the second Tower. There was audio of a commander on the ground asking for the names of the units present, and the list of names he got in reply went on and on.
Cameras lingered over stunned and disbelieving faces. A priest turned up, and a camera crew asked him how he would help the survivors. “I’ve got to find them first,” he said, and when he did find them he stood as helpless and lost as they were.
So many faces, so many voices – often we didn’t see whose voices they were. People called out for loved ones. Someone staggered through the powdery dirt left everywhere when the Towers collapsed and sobbed wordlessly. A man shuffled through the debris, clutching briefcases bulging with his work. Only minutes before, he was doubtless thinking about the day’s work, meetings, deadlines. Now his bags left a trail in the dirt as he dragged them behind him. He asked the person holding the camera if they knew where everybody was going.
A couple filmed the first Tower on fire from their window. As the camera showed the plume of smoke flare from the building, we heard a child’s voice asking what was going on. Go back to your room, baby, the adults told him. Watch TV. Later on, as the Towers collapsed and the child asked again what was happening, they told him to go back to his room and lie down. They didn’t tell him to watch TV.