You hear it before you see it. A group of fire fighters are milling quietly on a sunlit New York City street. Then you hear the roar. It's a jet, too loud, too low. The camera jerks up to catch a shaft of blue sky pierced by American Airlines Flight 11 as it plunges, javelin-like, into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
When Jules Naudet, 28, set out on Sept. 11, 2001, with the New York fire department's Engine 7, Ladder 1, he was not expecting to record history. In fact, he was not expecting to record a fire. Since May, with his brother Gedeon, 31, Jules had been shooting a documentary about a rookie fire fighter. When a call came to check out a gas odor, Jules, the less experienced cameraman of the pair, tagged along for "camera practice." He ended up shooting inside hell, racing with the fire fighters downtown and into the lobby of the tower, as debris rained outside the broken windows, workers ran for the exits, and the south tower collapsed, turning a sunny morning into a midnight snowstorm of ash.
The unique footage he shot has become the heart of a two-hour CBS special, 9/11, scheduled to air on March 10 at 9 p.m. E.T. But at the CBS studios where they have been rushing since January to edit 180 hours of raw video, the soft-spoken French documentarians say they were hesitant to bring their film to TV. (At one point in 9/11, Jules, watching the news and seeing the second plane crash for the umpteenth time, says numbly, "Enough TV. Time for radio.") They ultimately signed with CBS, on condition that the network be limited to two airings and the Naudets retain ownership of the footage and creative control.
The resulting understated documentary plays more like an independent film than a slick network news special. Says co-producer Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of CBS's 48 Hours: "Everything about it has to be respectful and can't call attention to itself." There are no commercials, thanks to sponsor Nextel. Robert De Niro, a longtime resident of the Tribeca neighborhood near the WTC, provides a brief introduction and closing remarks. The Naudets got the blessings of the fire company--fire fighter James Hanlon co-produced and narrates--and they offered advance tapes to the families of fire fighters who were killed. The Naudets are donating their proceeds, after expenses, to the Uniformed Firefighters Association Scholarship Fund.
Still, the special drew pre-emptive complaints from some victims' families, who feared it would be traumatizing. Even viewers not directly affected by the attacks may wonder what any TV show can have left to tell us, six months, hours of tributes and miles of videotape later. Where, we wonder, as the half-year anniversary approaches, is the border line between remembrance and masochism?
In a rough cut of 9/11 screened for TIME, the chaotic middle section at the WTC is intense. But it's not grisly. In fact, Jules recalls that as soon as he entered the lobby, he saw two people fleeing the building, engulfed in flames, but he chose not to tape them. "I saw that horrible image," he remembers, "and I thought, 'Well, maybe this is censorship, but I don't think anyone should see this.'"