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Watching September 11
The new HBO documentary.


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Deroy Murdock

NEW YORK — The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center has been called the most-documented event in history. That may be debatable. But there is no doubt that the profusion of professional and novice cameras, microphones, and notepads in this densely populated media center captured that sunny morning’s carnage from 360 degrees around the Twin Towers.

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A new HBO documentary employs this fact to tell the story of the assault and its aftermath. In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01 relies on audio, video, and still images gleaned from 16 news agencies and 118 regular New Yorkers who happened to be in Lower Manhattan and began recording that day’s bewildering events. The result is an intense, gripping, and emotionally draining reprise of the colossal tragedy. Its scope, detail, and power qualify it as an historical document worthy of repeated screenings for generations to come.

The program includes plenty of former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s memories of how the calamity unfolded.

“September 11 was supposed to be a fairly quiet day for me,” Giuliani recalls. After all, his term would expire in less than four months. Staffers interrupted the mayor’s relaxed breakfast with an old friend to inform him that a plane had hit WTC’s Tower One.

As he and his entourage race downtown, producers Sheila Nevins and John Hoffman and editor Paula Heredia show us what transpires at the World Trade Center. From ground level, across the Brooklyn Bridge, southward from high above 34th Street — indeed from about every conceivable angle — we see the towers ablaze, several people leaping to their deaths and crowds looking up from the sidewalks with tears pouring down their faces.

On the audio track of Mi-Kyung Heller’s home video camera, we hear another man telephone his grandfather about Tower One, already aflame.

“I saw it,” he says, “It could have been a plane, but I think it was a bomb — uh, a missile. This could be World War III.”

Later, Michael Kovalenko responds in sheer disbelief as the second 767 jet hits, indicating with devastating clarity that this is no freak accident. “Oh, my God!” he screams repeatedly, as do several other videographers, verbatim.

“I think that was the point at which I realized that we were into something different than any of us had ever prepared for,” Giuliani says. “I realized I was in some kind of horrible, awful, horrific human experience.”

Recognizing the grave risk of even more death from above, then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik decides the city’s airspace needs to be sealed. “We have to call for air support,” he concludes. “Is there a number to do that?” It’s jarring to hear a man who led a 40,000-strong police force confront such a crisis with no road map.

Of course, Kerik and the rest of Team Giuliani soldier forth admirably. Even as he is covered in pulverized asbestos, Giuliani’s quiet confidence shines through like a lighthouse beacon when a dazed pedestrian asks him what to do. “You should walk north,” Giuliani replies with firm reassurance, signaling uptown with his left hand.

Viewers would be well-advised to keep their Kleenex handy. The visuals and commentary offer terribly mournful and chilling reminders of the pure fright that erupted from Ground Zero. Just try to keep your eyes dry as you hear a sobbing woman leave this voice mail message: “Sean, it’s me. I just want to let you know I love you, and I’m stuck in this building in New York.”

Beth Petrone — Giuliani’s then-executive assistant and one of several high-level mayoral aides who appear on the program — remembers watching the towers collapse and thinking that her husband was trapped inside. Indeed, FDNY Captain Terry Hatton was killed. After the giant, gray debris cloud swept like a high-speed Blob onto City Hall, Patrone says, “I grabbed the dust from the ground thinking that he was in the dust.”

We also watch New Yorkers instantly spring into action to search for survivors and start the cleanup. A reporter asks one of many volunteers headed toward Ground Zero, “What’s the job in there?” A stout man in a T-shirt answers: “Whatever it is. To save somebody. One person saved is a life saved.”

In Memoriam includes stirring music by American composers including Aaron Copland, Bernard Herrmann, and Charles Ives. The soundtrack features Leonard Slatkin conducting the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan.

While this film presents a first-rate macro look at September 11, HBO also deserves praise for exploring that day’s repercussions at the micro level. Earlier this month, it aired Telling Nicholas, another documentary that premiered at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. It closely examines a Staten Island family that shields a seven-year-old boy from the news that his mother is missing — and presumed dead — at the World Trade Center. Watching Nicholas’s father, finally resigned to his bride’s fate, reveal her demise to their son is one of the saddest and most deeply moving moments on the small screen, this or any other season.

There is ample opportunity to weep through both of these productions. In Memoriam closes with scenes from funerals and memorial services for those who were murdered at the World Trade Center, from heroes of the FDNY and NYPD to those who al Qaeda sentenced to death simply for showing up to work at the towers’ equity trading floors or the kitchen of Windows on the World.

At a September 28 ceremony for the 295 innocents killed at the Marsh & McLennan Companies’ offices in Tower One, Giuliani suggests that we all just go ahead and cry. “The tears have to make you stronger,” he says. “Every time you cry, you have to remember that we’re right, and they’re wrong.”

In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01 premieres on HBO on Sunday, May 26, 2002 from 9:00-10:05 p.m. Eastern time. It re-airs Tuesday, May 28 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

Additional information and opportunities for on-line interaction are available at hbo.com.



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