FEATURE OCTOBER 2001-Videography Magazine
Report From Ground Zero
A Videographer's Personal Account of working after the WTC Attack
by Walter Graff
On Monday, September 10, I thought I was looking ahead at an easy week of shooting interviews in my native New York City for an upcoming A&E Biography show. Then, Tuesday the 11th came around, and the Pearl Harbor of our time brought the world to a standstill. We immediately cancelled shooting and I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the news and crying. I didn't realize how much working through some of my sadness on Tuesday would help get me through the days that followed.
When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I immediately put the news on to see where things stood. I remember thinking how lucky I was that I didn't work in news and have to go downtown to "ground zero" to shoot the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. Then the telephone rang. It was executives from America's Most Wanted, calling to see if I could produce a segment for that Saturday's show on the heroes of the disaster. Indeed, putting together a piece commemorating the rescue workers was a strong incentive. So I decided then that I would be venturing downtown afterall.
I turned right to practical matters. I knew my equipment had to be portable; I didn't know how long I was going to be out, what I was going to be shooting, or where I was going to be allowed to shoot. I decided on what I considered a standard package for a piece like this. My Ikegami HLV55 Betacam was necessary, of course, as was an audio mixer with a boom and at least one lav. (I was able to get an audio person for the job on short notice.) I decided to wear a waist pack for tapes and batteries (four tapes, two Anton Bauer bricks, and one half brick). I also packed a Frezzolini light and snap-on Chimera just in case. Fifty pounds later I was ready for almost anything. Or so I thought.
During my cab ride downtown, I realized I had a job to do and needed to put my feelings in check. Since I had spent the day before releasing some of my emotions, I was better prepared to focus on the task at hand. My AMW contact in Washington told me that the reporter for my story was on his way up from Atlanta, but that he might not arrive until Thursday. That meant I had to cover things on my own and figure out how to fit him in later. As I neared lower Manhattan I got out of the cab and visited a few firehouses to see how the firefighters were doing.
Even across the street from Rescue One it was clear that something was very wrong. Flowers were piled up in front of the house. A sign reading "To our heroes" in colored markers was taped above a makeshift memorial. Just inside were three firefighters. I spoke to them for a some time about their terrible losses (two of their men were missing when the towers collapsed). As a producer out to capture a story on tape, I was torn between trying to get them on camera and respecting their right to mourn privately. When I asked them if they'd talk about their heroic brothers on tape and they declined, I realized there was nothing more to tape. Speaking to those firefighters, however, was good preparation for what I was going to face over the next few days while talking to other rescuers. I then visited a few other firehouses and a police station to learn more about the heroes of the hour. Everywhere I went the same emptiness surrounded me. It was clear that everyone had lost a friend in the disaster. I would later learn that I had lost three.
The Belly of the Beast
There was nothing more for me to do but head down to the "belly of the beast." My biggest problem would be getting near the site since New York was essentially in a state of martial law. AMW hadn't had the chance to send me I.D. or press credentials; how was a guy with nothing more than a video camera going to get to ground zero? My determination and familiarity with police lingo (during my school years I worked in a suburban police force) would be of great help. I also knew that most police think of America's Most Wanted as an ally in their fight against crime, and hoped that that might influence them to let me in. I found another cab and asked him to take me to 14th street-the farthest south that vehicles were allowed. I walked the remaining mile to the site.
After working my way through a maze of detours and check points, I got to the area near the Hudson River where press was allowed to enter. At this point, there were no people or vehicles on the streets; only police and city workers. I spoke candidly with a few of the commanding officers about the job I was on and my lack of credentials, and they allowed me to enter. As I walked south on West Street I could almost believe that the cloud of smoke rising from the site was just blocking the towers from my view. I wish that had been the case.
After finagling my way out of the press corral, I continued on my search for rescue workers to speak with. I couldn't help but think of the phrase "life imitates art" as I walked the streets. Police officers, firefighers, EMS crew, and construction workers were swarming around me-I felt like I was on a movie set and at any moment the director was going to yell cut. I walked over to Greenwich Street and headed south. I could smell the disaster at this point. It was that smell reminiscent of any building fire-sweet and quite distinct. I had made one mistake in my rush to get downtown-I had no mask to shield my mouth from whatever was drifting through the air.
As I walked further on, a sea of tired, dust covered men and women streamed from the epicenter. It reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode I saw once called "The Passerby" about a women who waits as somber, emotionless men from the Civil War walk past her into the distance. I realized that if I wanted to talk to heroes, they were all around me. I approached people to ask them some questions. Most couldn't talk. It's not that they didn't want to talk, they just couldn't. Emotions had swelled to a point where their brains were on overload.
I have shot thousands of interviews while standing behind the lens. I knew as a producer that I had to make complete eye contact while speaking to these emotionally drained people. I felt it important that my shooting didn't damper my need to connect. I took the lens off my viewfinder, which allowed me to see the shot out of the corner of my eye. After checking my initial set-up, I made sure I made full contact with whomever I spoke to. It made a big difference in what people said to me and how they said it. I stayed there until early evening, then made the trek back home. Thursday found me looking for more stories of heroism. I was more prepared-I had masks and a lens cleaner. The day before I had found that the dust in the air was clinging to my lens. I came to realize just how dangerous it was here. On one occasion, a sea of workers suddenly began running towards me from the site. Someone shouted that they hit a gas line. Another time there was an eerie silence near the site. I heard people asking each other what was going on. No one knew for sure, but this is when I realized that I should have brought my pocket AM/FM radio so that I could find out what was going on around me. Sometimes, although you're right there, you don't necessarily know what is happening. In the end, I learned that someone had thought they heard knocking and asked that all the equipment be shut off. It was a false alarm.
Edit in the Rough
Around midday, I was told that my edit time was 7:00 that evening. Here I stood with a story in the rough, and no reporter to round it all out. At 6 p.m., I got a call from the reporter who said he made it to the airport and would meet me at the edit. I shot as much as I could and headed for the edit. After I had explained the angle I had created for the story, we wrote wraps that due to the circumstances would be mostly voiceover. The reporter wanted to do some sort of stand-up at the site. I mentioned to him there would be a problem. I had shot a day piece and at this hour any stand-up could only be a night shot. It wouldn't work. We decided to edit through the night and first thing in the morning we would go up on the roof to do a stand-up using the smoke in the distance as a backdrop. That didn't work out since the next morning the remnants of a tropical storm rolled through. It was daylight, but it was raining and what I had on tape was all under sunny conditions. We scratched our heads for a while and decided to get back to editing. We would deal with it later. By 2 p.m., the rain had stopped and the skies were beginning to clear.
After seeing how our story was developing in the edit we realized that our stand-up needed to be not at ground zero but at a firehouse. I knew from my earlier investigation that a firehouse two blocks away had lost eleven men. We walked over and spoke to the men in the house. Prior to this moment I had had a job to do and the emotions had not effected me. Standing in front of a memorial for eleven missing fireman-a montage of candid shots of these brave men with their families and cards drawn by local children-was too much for me. I took a moment to shed some tears. I hugged a fireman who also couldn't hold back his sorrow. Now I was ready to continue. The firehouse was a block away from the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel (which takes commuters to New Jersey) where I think every truck in New York state was there causing all sorts of audio problems. It took more takes than usual to complete the stand-up. Finally we hit one and rushed back to the edit to lay in our final shots. By 4 p.m. on Friday, I had a window opening at 7:30 to get our stuff fed down to Washington.
By 6:30 p.m., the only thing we were waiting for was some stock footage from FOX TV to fill in some gaps. At about that same time, the tape arrived. The stress got worse by 7:15 as we still had a sequence of b-roll shots to insert in our piece. We needed time to dump our piece to tape so it could be sent to Washington. We finished our edit with six minutes to spare. This gave us enough time to dump our 5:18 piece to tape and walk it across the hall. We made it.
I had been up 63 hours straight. I had experienced the full range of human emotion during those three days. It's strange how the adrenaline works. I had been up for a long time but didn't feel tired, though emotionally I was spent. I remember my cab ride home. It was a bit surreal. We drove past New Yorkers who were joining the rest of the country in a candlelight vigil. For New Yorkers that meant standing in front of their apartments and in the street holding candles. At this point, there was nothing more for me to feel. There were just two thoughts going through my mind: getting some sleep, and hoping it would be a very long time before I had to go downtown again.
Copyright 2013 by Walter Graff. This article may be circulated and shared as long as the following reference is made: 'This article appears courtesy of Walter Graff- http://www.waltergraff.com'
Please don't hesitate to send me an e-mail if you have any questions or comments please e-mail me at Walter@waltergraff.com