NEW YORK – The firefighters’ movements are calm as they arrive at the burning north tower of the World Trade Center. Their eyes grow wide as the magnitude of their mission becomes clear. Then come the thumps – one after another – and a voice saying that people are jumping.
The horrific noises continue as the videotape shot by two French filmmakers keeps rolling: A drone followed by a sudden bang accompanies the image of a second plane slamming into the south tower and later, a white noise builds to a crescendo as that tower collapses and people run for cover.
The tape by brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet is an extraordinary account of courage and dread, of composure under pressure and of the cataclysmic moments that, for many of the men captured on it, were their last.
It has made the rounds of New York firehouses since Sept. 11 and was recently reviewed by The Associated Press. CBS plans to air footage on March 10 to commemorate the six-month anniversary of the attacks.
“When I sat down to watch this video, I was very apprehensive,” said John Vigiano, a retired firefighter whose sons, firefighter John and police Det. Joseph, died in the attacks. “But when I was finished watching it, the overwhelming emotion I had was pride. There was never a sign of panic in anybody.”
The fire department is using the tape as an investigative tool, but it also contains historical significance and great personal meaning, spokesman Francis Gribbon said.
Rights to the tape belong to the Naudets, who have worked closely with the department on its use.
“They’ve been very sensitive to the families and the fact that they’ve had this footage of a significant number of people who perished that day,” Gribbon said.
The brothers were shooting a documentary about the life of a probationary firefighter, as they had been doing for many weeks, when the attacks began.
The opening shot has been seen by millions.
The camera, taping firefighters checking a gas leak in lower Manhattan, pans up and captures the first plane slamming into the north tower.
Most of the footage was shot by Jules, who accompanied firefighters to the north tower where they set up their first command center.
What happens over the next two hours has not been seen by the public.
As Jules and firefighters race to the scene, someone asks, “What kind of plane was that?” Joe Pfeifer, chief of Battalion 1, answers: “That looked like American Airlines. That looked like a direct attack.”
Top fire officials gather to coordinate their strategy in the lobby as the tower’s occupants, seen as silhouettes on the mezzanine level above, stream out of the building.
Pfeifer tells a firefighter: “Don’t go any higher than 70.”Members of Rescue 1, a specialty rescue unit, can be seen heading toward the stairwells to walk up the tower as thousands of people head down. No one from that unit made it out alive that day.
Then the south tower is hit.
Startled, firefighters rush to the windows to look outside. More debris falls. “Mayday! Mayday!” blares over the radios. The thumps continue and sirens wail.
Fire Chaplain Rev. Mychal Judge, dressed in full firefighting gear with his white collar peeking out, paces the floor. Firefighters watch him, as if seeking reassurance.
Judge would be dead within the hour.
The call comes over the radio: “Everybody come out now. All units in Tower 1 (the north tower), get out now.”
Pfeifer struggles with his radio, trying to get a clear signal. Radio problems plagued the department that day, firefighters later reported. A Port Authority officer frantically presses buttons on the elevator switchboard. “Is anyone in the car?” he asks over and over.
And then it happens.
With a roaring “ssshhh,” the south tower collapses. Everyone in the north tower runs for cover and the tape goes blank.