It’s hard to believe 9-11 happened twenty years ago today. How much has America changed since then? How much has the world changed since then?
Look at us now.
Of course, on that bright Tuesday morning we had no way of predicting what was about to unfold. People went to work and school, got on planes, ate breakfast.
Then, in a blink, life as we knew it was different.
Some panicked. Others watched in shock and horror. Still others, especially in New York City, grabbed their camcorders. That’s what the 2008 documentary, 102 Minutes That Changed America is about. The film is solely made up of found footage shot by eyewitnesses, most of which had never been shown until 102‘s premiere on the History Channel. It does feature some graphic footage, but its main angle is how people who were there saw the day.
102 is crowded with details. It’s structured based on the time of the morning when the film was shot, always noting each film’s distance from the World Trade Center, always with a minimum of framing and very little commentary beyond bystanders talking and audio-only news reports. We first see footage taken by Caroline Dries, an NYU student who was just waking up in her thirty-second floor dorm room to see the first plane hit the first tower. She films the towers while on the phone with her mom.
We also see confusion in the streets and hear scattered news reports, with people standing looking up in shock and disbelief at the TV screens in Time Square. Fire trucks squeal by. There’s a lot of speculation and confusion.
Once the the second tower is hit, no one in the film doubts that terrorism is the reason. No one knew if more buildings would be hit, so offices and hotels around the World Trade Center were evacuated.
Some of the footage zooms incredibly close to the Twin Towers, to the point that we can make out faces and whether or not a victim is a man or a woman. A few people wave white flags in a vain effort to call for help.
After the second tower is hit, life in the city completely stops except for the frantic calls from inside the tower and dispatches from first responders and emergency personnel. A farmer’s market stands deserted, plastic bags flapping in the breeze. Elevator music wafts from somewhere. Through it all, the clock ticks and sirens blare.
And no one suspects that the towers will fall. They were designed to withstand everything. Everything except for tons of ignited fuel carried in by two commercial jetliners.
When the towers come down, confusion and horror shoot to a whole new level. New Yorker Alfie Alvarado compared it to a sandcastle collapsing. People barrel through the ash. No one can see anything. Smoke rushes by a second floor apartment window like a wave, with bystanders on the street fruitlessly running to stay ahead of it.
Meanwhile, a family a few miles northeast of the towers are at home in their apartment, and when the first tower falls, the mother tells her daughter to go in the other room and watch TV, trying to keep things as calm and normal as possible.
But nothing is normal. Emergency personnel gasp for air, running through ash-filled streets. A few firefighters duck into World Trade 7, feeling their way though deep, dark clouds. An older woman crosses herself. A faceless male voice talks about how he slept late because of Monday night football and was fifteen minutes from being in one of the towers. College students panic about staying in their dorm rooms. In Times Square, a lady’s pocket radio blares news about the plane that hit the Pentagon. Flight 93 isn’t mentioned, probably because people in New York may not have known about it at the time the Towers were hit.
The immediacy of the subject matter brings an awful surreality to the footage. We see giant Bebe ads displayed on the side of a brick building, as well as a poster of Faith Hill’s Breathe album at a bus stop. A water hose washes away layers of ash on a rooftop terrace, revealing red tile underneath. It’s particularly terrible when one considers that those ashes contained human remains.
No effort was made to pretty up this film. Things get bouncy. The camera is carried up apartment building stairs. The picture can look dark and smoky, lit only by florescent lights, if that. Sometimes a camera will point at someone’s armpit or get stuck on the floor or on the ground at odd angles. After the towers fall, lenses are covered in ash as their carriers run away from the clouds of dust. Only one time does a hand reach out and wipe the ash away from the camera.
Why would someone choose to film an event like 9-11? It seems to be the natural inclination of human beings to find ways to detach so their brains can still function. Yet the camera can’t shield the holder from everything. John Kalymnios watched the attack from a nearby office building, and we hear him reacting to the people hanging out the windows. When the first tower falls, he turns his face away in horror, pulling the camera with him.
Besides the compelling footage and the heartbreaking emotion, what really punctuates 102 Minutes That Changed America is how conscious Americans were of the day’s historic significance. A particularly ironic line from a local news anchor hits like a knockout punch:
“It is Tuesday morning, the eleventh of September, and you will not forget this date.”
This is one of two articles you’re going to see on Taking Up Room about the 9-11 tragedy–an upcoming Reading Rarity post will look at it from a different angle. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow for the Against the Crowd Blogathon…
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