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9/11 Documentary Maker Speaks To Greenwich High Class About Human Spirit

Documentarian Jules Naudet speaking about 9/11 to a Greenwich High School class Tuesday.
Documentarian Jules Naudet speaking about 9/11 to a Greenwich High School class Tuesday. Photo Credit: Frank MacEachern

GREENWICH, Conn. -- The strength of human spirit in the face of tragedy continues to inspire a documentary filmmaker who was at the World Trade Center with firefighters during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"I saw a moment that was amazing. I saw the resiliency of the human spirit," documentarian Jules Naudet told a Greenwich High School class Tuesday morning. He and his brother, Gedeon, created the famous documentary "9/11."

He spoke to teacher Neal Schopick's AP Psychology class in a two-hour session, taking questions from the 45 students, as well as from school Headmaster Chris Winters and Schopick.

Naudet had attended the school's program on Sept. 13 in remembrance of the World Trade Center attacks. He spoke with Schopick at the ceremony and agreed to return to the class for a more in-depth conversation about his documentary.

Naudet and his brother, Gedeon, had been following young firefighter Tony Benetatos, who was dubbed a "probie" during his probationary period with Engine 7 Ladder Company 1, for weeks before the attack.

On that morning, Benetatos' shift was to end at 9 a.m. and with it the Naudets' filmmaking for the day.

But the firefighters responded to a call at 8:30 a.m., and Jules Naudet jumped in an SUV with fire chief Joseph Pfeifer to record footage while his brother stayed at the station with Benetatos, who was not going on the call because it was so close to the end of his shift.

While milling at the scene of the call about gas, Naudet suddenly heard a loud roar and turned his camera to capture American Airlines Flight 11 as it slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Pfeifer immediately knew that the airplane had been deliberately flown into the North Tower, while Naudet said he was still trying to process what he had seen. Immediately, the firefighters headed to the scene and Naudet accompanied Pfeifer into the North Tower.

During the confusion, firefighters worked to save people in the North Tower. Some knew they were beyond saving because they were trapped with fires raging below them, and they made a final and fatal decision to jump. He said the sound of bodies hitting the ground startled Naudet.

"Every single time you hear that sound a life is gone, and you don't know how to process that," he said. "A sound that means someone has passed away."

Eventually, firefighters left the building because of the increasing danger — and escaped just before the North Tower collapsed.

He jumped in between two vehicles to avoid the debris when he realized someone was on top of him. It was Pfeifer, who had jumped on Naudet to shield him from falling debris, he said.

Naudet also realized that he didn't know where his brother was and believed he was dead. Later, when he returned to the fire station, he discovered that Gédéon was there as was Benetatos.

Naudet said he recorded slightly less than a third of the 343 firefighters who died in the attack as they responded to the scene. The images were later given to their families, he said.

The firefighters who survived have struggled with feelings of loss and grief, he said.

"The trauma is quite profound," he said. Some have turned to substance abuse, some committed suicide and others saw their marriages collapse.

The fire department has worked to improve its work on post -traumatic stress disorder, he said. Before 9/11, counseling often meant just sharing a drink with fellow firefighters after traumatic and troubling experiences. Naudet said he also struggles from time to time when he looks back on that day. He said during a recent visit to the 9/11 Museum he was overcome with emotion when he heard the voice of a firefighter he knew who had died in the attack.

One member of the class was Joe Linehan, whose father Joe Linehan Sr., an executive vice president for a financial services company on the 89th floor of the South Tower, died in the terror attack.

Joe Linehan was 21 months old at the time of the attack. He said it's important to remember the people who died as well as what happened that day. After his classmates left the room, Joe spent some time with Naudet and thanked him for his documentary.

Joe and his fellow students are too young to remember 9/11 first-hand.

"I think it's really important for guys like Jules to do something that really resonate with the younger generation," Joe said.

A fellow student, Emilio Garcia, said he was struck by Naudet's own resilience after hearing of what he saw on that day.

"Just hearing him now it's surprising to me that he is completely fine after everything he has gone through," he said.

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