"As we always say, 'Expect the unexpected,' but sometimes the unexpected gets you. That's what happened. Nobody expected that."—Firefighter Mickey Conboy, on the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
We still haven't recovered, really. On the day Americans will forever remember as "9/11," the world recoiled in shock as we watched, again and again on videotape, the destruction of Manhattan's World Trade Center by terrorists using passenger jetliners as missiles. In the collapse of the WTC's twin towers, and in the simultaneous attack on the Pentagon and crashlanding of a fourth plane in Pennsylvania, roughly 3,000 lives were extinguished.
To many of us living in other places far removed from the tragedies, the dead were little more than family photos flashed on our TV screens and names read from a seemingly endless roll. But to those who knew and loved those who were murdered, they were husbands and wives, sons and daughters, parents, grandparents and friends.
To the men of FDNY Rescue Company Three and their families, eight of the lost were their own.
Facts of the Case
Firefighters arrive at every duty shift with the unspoken understanding that they may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. Most days, though, no one does. They respond to calls. They return to the station. They eat and sleep and laugh and quarrel. And on the infrequent occasion when a firefighter falls in the line of duty, the loss can usually be ascribed to one of the acknowledged day-to-day dangers of the trade. But as Mickey Conboy observes, no one in the Fire Department of New York could have anticipated the events of 9/11.
The men of Rescue Three do not literally fight fires. Their vehicles are equipped with neither hoses nor water. Instead, Rescue Three carries on its emergency runs specialized tools for extricating people from wreckage—structural, automotive, whatever—and its personnel are extensively trained in life-saving techniques. Where their comrades in hook-and-ladder companies will arrive at a scene determined to battle a blaze, Rescue Three's focus is on aiding the potential victims. On 9/11, eight heroes from Rescue Three followed that focus into the World Trade Center, and became victims themselves.
In this documentary, originally aired on the Discovery cable channel, we meet Rescue Three's survivors: the firefighters who mourn their fallen brothers; the wives whose husbands will never again return home from the firehouse; the children whose fathers will never again coach their basketball games or attend their school celebrations. Mere weeks after the terrorist onslaught, life and the business of saving it continue unabated at Rescue Three, but are haunted by the omnipresent specters of the eight men whose names remain grease-penciled on the duty roster for that fateful day in September.
Through the memories of those left behind, the horrific events of our nation's most ghastly fever dream take on a human face.
The words that repeated themselves over and over in my brain as I watched this documentary: "too soon." Understanding tragedy requires the perspective of history. (A case in point: only in the second half of the 20th century, some five generations after the conflict, did Americans really begin to come to grips with the fallout of the Civil War, thanks to such people as Shelby Foote, James McPherson, Ken Burns, and the men and women of the civil rights movement.) When the cameras enter Rescue Three less than a month after the World Trade Center fell, the firemen and the families are still in shock. They are still attending funerals for those who died. The remains of only two of the eight men lost from Rescue Three have yet been laid to rest. Even as the participants reminisce about the deceased, they do so while still walking that twilight precipice of raw emotions yet unresolved.
As a result, we don't learn much from this film except that the sudden death of loved ones is heartbreaking, and we already knew that, somehow. It's not the filmmakers' fault, and it certainly isn't the fault of those willing to speak candidly about their pain and loss. This is an accurate representation of this moment in their lifetimes. I suspect, however, that if these same people were interviewed today, their reflections would be richer and deeper, and thus more illuminating. As it is, the film feels hollow and ill-defined.
Almost nothing is said about the attack itself, though the interview sequences at Rescue Three are buttressed with now-familiar archival footage shot on-scene as the twin towers imploded. There is little if any conversation about the people who wrought this disaster, or the "war on terrorism" their acts engendered. That's all right—at least the film doesn't degenerate into political polemic—but again, from the perspective of one year later there's an unfinished quality to it all. Director Peter Schnall does what he can, and to his credit he avoids the appearance of opportunistic exploitation (there's no microphone-waving in front of tearful faces—"your husband's dead, how do you feel?"). Schnall treats his subjects with dignity and grace, weaving the vignettes together with narration by actress Stockard Channing (Grease, The West Wing). But because the psychological wounds are still so fresh, there's not much insight to be gained.
The DVD presentation is simple, even stark. The picture and audio quality are what you'd expect from a no-budget, limited-timeframe, made-for-TV documentary shot on video. No extra content is included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Discovery Channel folks should be ashamed of themselves for opening this disc—given its subject matter—with a self-promotional introduction clip that can't be jumped over, exited, or scanned through. If there was ever an occasion to skip the commercial plug, Discovery, I'm pretty sure this DVD was it.
Tough call. As much as I felt for the family members and firefighters who exposed their grief for our edification, this rushed-to-cablecast documentary lacks the visceral, mule-kick-in-the-gut impact of 9/11, the harrowing view from inside the maelstrom captured by Jules and Gedeon Naudet. It would make an interesting artifact if director Schnall revisited these people in a year or two, then again five years hence, in the manner of Michael Apted's Up series of continuing documentaries. I would hope that time will have given these brave men, women, and young people a measure of peace. Indeed, I hope the same for us all.
No human court could render a verdict here. Case dismissed.
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