President Biden’s anticipation of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 has been calamitous. Other commemorations are available, though. 9/11: One Day in America is a six-part documentary series, premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this summer, with a tight focus on the experience of people (survivors) on the ground that day. It is told minute by minute, hour by hour, as events unfold, thus avoiding all subsequent geopolitical reference. The extended opening episode, “First Response”, begins on the day, running from early morning to 9.50am; the second, “The South Tower”, picks up the story from 8.48am to 9.50am; the third, “Collapse”, from 9.40am to 10.50am; and so on, relentlessly, almost in real time, for seven hours in total.
Made by National Geographic in collaboration with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and directed by the British-Paraguayan documentary-maker Daniel Bogado (who has worked extensively for Channel 4’s Dispatches), 9/11: One Day in America never allows you to look away. However much you have watched footage of, or read about, the attacks, it forces you to endure the day as never before; to experience it more directly, in greater detail. Few of us over these past 20 years have wanted to revisit these horrors once we had first seen them.
Using more than 951 hours of archival footage, and 54 original interviews with survivors, these two strands are intertwined as closely as possible, sometimes melding as we see the present speaker in footage from 2001, too. It is all first-person, the present tense, not looking forward beyond the moment.
We first see Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer, then a few days past his retirement date but doing a job he loved. He is investigating a routine gas leak a few blocks away from the World Trade Center, early that morning, as American Airlines Flight 11 suddenly roars low overhead, smashing into the North Tower. He rushes there to take command, showing incredible composure both then and now, despite losing his younger brother, another firefighter, that day.
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Captain Jay Jonas remembers the firemen shaking hands, wishing each other good luck: “Of all those guys I was surrounded by, I was the only one who survived, they all died.” Although, as part of its immersive immediacy, the documentary offers almost no retrospective statistics, the fact is that 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters died that day. “They went up when they should have gone back down to save themselves,” says one survivor.
There are those terrible pictures of people clinging to the outside of the building. “I can’t imagine, the choice of burning to death and jumping, knowing you’re dying – poor people,” says the firefighter Ed Fahey. There is an awful sequence where a milling group of firefighters on the ground floor startle as they hear over and over again the tremendous impact of falling bodies, a terrifying sound.
The other attacks that day, on the Pentagon and Flight 93, are briefly covered. But otherwise the focus remains tightly on the World Trade Center – the flames, the dust, the terror – up to the final rescue from the rubble, which was made by the former marine Jason Thomas and the ex-paramedic Chuck Sereika, who had both headed to the site to help. These are strenuously positive stories among so much death – and, breaking its own rules, the documentary now flashes forward to some emotional reunions of the rescuers and the rescued.
In 9/11: One Day in America there is, though, no account at all of the perpetrators, of why and how they acted. They’re referred to only as “hijackers”, save for one scene in which a confused survivor, Daphne Carlisle, says she doesn’t understand what happened or why: “A plane was hijacked? Excuse me? Terrorists? Jesus! In America? I don’t know what to say.” It is perhaps the only time the word “terrorist” is used. The words “Islamic” or “Islamist” do not appear, let alone the name of al-Qaeda. There is no footage of George W Bush or Rudy Giuliani from the day either.
So the editing is exact: it’s that day, in America. The intention is commemorative, honorific, sorrowful, even, finally, a little celebratory of the courage shown. It fulfils this brief admirably. Yet its impact is more complicated. To see this all again, more intensely conveyed than ever before, is also to realise anew the ferocity of the hatred expressed in what is still the worst single act of terrorism ever committed.
“9/11: One Day in America” is being repeat broadcast on National Geographic.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire