Survival stories on a dark day in history

A new documentary honors the stories and memories of 9/11 survivors

This is an unplanned issue of Story Cauldron, brought upon after watching a very moving documentary about 9/11 as told through the stories of the survivors.

History is made up of stories. And 9/11 is an important part of our history. Everyone who remembers that day has their own story—whether that’s from being in New York or Washington DC when it happened, from losing someone that day, or from witnessing the events from a distance and trying to understand what it meant to our communities and our country.

9/11: One Day in America is a brand-new documentary created by 72 Films with National Geographic, and made in partnership with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York. It’s a six-part series on National Geographic and Hulu that tells the stories of some of the survivors of 9/11.

I decided to write this post because I binged the entire series on Friday night, just before sitting down to write this. And after, I wanted to share it with others.

First, it made me think about my own memories of the World Trade Center and 9/11.

I was in Austin working in my job as an academic advisor on the morning of 9/11. When I found out what had happened shortly after the first plane hit the tower, I went into my department office and proceeded to watch the events unfold on a tiny black & white television with a number of my colleagues. The news was scrambling to figure out what was going on, so no one knew why it had happened until the second plane hit even as we were watching the coverage (no one saw live video of it as far as I know). From my little window into the day’s events, I remember being overwhelmed by fear and empathy for all the people who had been wounded or killed. Even from a distance, it was almost too much.

For the rest of the day, we told many of our students and colleagues what had happened (this was before the era of smartphones or streaming video). Many people we encountered had friends and family in Manhattan and were desperately trying to reach them, and all we could do was support and assist them the best we could.

For me, I didn’t know anyone in the Twin Towers, but I had been there once in 1982 as a teenager, and fondly remembered the whoosh of the elevator that made my ears pop, and how scared I was to go up to the glass. It was surreal to think those buildings were just… gone, along with countless people, for even then it was hard to imagine they could have evacuated everyone in time.

Being so far removed, at a time when TV news was infuriatingly narrow in focus, it was difficult to understand what it had been like that day for everyone who experienced it.

A lot of those holes were filled by watching the documentary.

It’s not about “what happened.” Unlike most of the previous 9/11 documentaries and memorials, there was remarkably little footage from news networks or commentary from reporters (other than one who was on the ground for the majority of the day). The documentary does show film of the planes hitting the buildings, as well as footage of the towers’ collapse and aftermath, but all of that serves as setting and context, not as the story itself.

What set this documentary apart, and made it worth my time, was that it offers an unsanitized view of what happened on September 11, 2001. It focuses on stories told by people who experienced 9/11 firsthand. Most of it is terrifying and tragic, but there are also stories of hope, of love, of men becoming literal blood brothers as they bonded over the experience.

Some of the stories focus on the efforts of the NYFD and other first responders, but just as many stories are those about ordinary people in the wrong place a the wrong time.

There’s the attorney who watched pieces of one of the towers fall past his hotel window, with his only concern being to save his court files. Then there’s the cook who worked at a restaurant in the WTC and was in a walk-in refrigerator when it all went down, and he emerged unable to explain what had just happened around him.

There are also the accidental heroes, such as the former paramedic and recovering addict who went down to the scene just so he could tell his sister that he had done something to help and ended up helping rescue a Port Authority police officer.

So many stories. Two firefighter brothers who thought the other had died that day and ran into each other in the aftermath—and another brother who wasn’t as lucky. Coworkers and strangers who helped each other through the experience. People who were trapped in the rubble but managed to survive the collapse of the towers.

There were some other moments, things caught on video, that will likely stay with me forever. I won’t go into details here, but if you do watch it, be prepared for a few moments of horror—and many tears.

All in all, it’s a moving tribute to those who died and those who survived horrendous trauma. It surfaces much of the confusion, guilt, pain, and terror that people experienced that day so that it will never be forgotten.

If you were looking for a way to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it’s definitely worth a watch. And to everyone to lost someone that day, my thoughts are with you on this difficult day.

In the comments, you’re welcome to share your own stories about 9/11. And if you lost anyone due to the events of 9/11 (on that day or after) I’d be honored if you would share their name and a memory of them.

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