9/11 Documentaries: Awful and Fascinating in Equal Measures

Everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001.

Most people were huddled round TV sets watching the unbelievable events unfold in front of them; the first major historical event to take place in the era of 24 hour news.

I, on the other hand, was on a plane flying to New York from Glasgow.


The attack on the World Trade Centre probably only took place within about 30 minutes of us taking off, but rather than just turn the plane around, we kept going – completely unaware of what was going on. A few hours into the flight though, the message came over the intercom from the Captain that we were making an unscheduled landing in St. Johns, Newfoundland.

Nothing seemed off, but the assumption was that were must have been something wrong with the plane, and so – upon landing – we gave the pilot a polite round of applause to congratulate him for getting us down safely. It occurred to me that even though I hadn’t heard of St. Johns before, it must have been a pretty busy hub because there were loads of planes from all over the world parked in the airport.

Then things became clear…ish.

The pilot came through to the rather cramped compartment of the Continental 757 looking white as a sheet and said “Uh…folks…we’ve landed here because the States have come under some pretty serious terrorist attack today. New York has been badly hit. The towers are down”.

Now that obviously created a sense of panic and shock among the passengers of the plane, although at the age of 18 I wasn’t really aware of the significance of the Twin Towers or what they represented (other than a tag team including Akeem and the Big Boss Man), but what I was made aware of was that we were going to have to wait on the plane until all the passengers on the planes that had arrived before us were processed.

Bear in mind this was a small plane, back in the day before MP3 players, iPads or – in the case of this plane – screens behind the seats. There was one TV showing Shrek on a loop and it was broken. Great.

So there we sat, not really knowing what was going on, on a cramped plane without anything to eat for what ended up being about 16 hours.

To make matters worse, as St. Johns wasn’t that big, when we got off the plane at long last we found out that all the hotels were taken and so – following a brief detour to an Ice Hockey Arena where we saw footage of the second plane going into the South Tower on a loop on the scoreboard – we ended up having to spend the week sleeping on the floor of a Conference centre, sleeping on army surplus stretchers and without a change of clothes or even washing facilities.

Not the most fun week of my life, and that was topped off by the plane being unable to take off again once we finally got back on board.

Cue another 15 hours spent on the plane with no food or drinks, no air conditioning (as it was broken) and an armed policeman patrolling the aisle to stop anyone trying to get back off (hey, there were angry Glaswegians on board and they were pissed off) while we waited for a replacement plane to pick us up. At least they called out for pizza for us though.

Anyway, we got into New York at about 4am and then booked on a flight straight out again and back home.

Now, that’s not me declaring a ‘woe is me’ tale, because despite the trying circumstances, the people of Newfoundland were terrific, as they aided our little refugee camp with a constant supply of free food and drink, and after 5 days we were finally allowed out of the place to see the local sights. A holiday though, it was not.

But what I’ve always felt is that despite having that anecdote and being ‘part of what happened’ in a very tenuous way, I’ve always been envious of the people who got to see what was going on as it was going on. That might sound odd, but being told everything that happened after it happened mostly likely didn’t have the impact of seeing these society-changing events unfold on TV.

And so, because of that, I’ve always been amazed by the documentaries that are shown at this time of year.

The best ones I’ve seen are probably the part factual/part drama one done by the BBC called 9/11: The Twin Towers and the one by the camera crew who were following the fire service that day and picked up so much of what happened.

This week though, I’ve watched three that I hadn’t seen before…

  • 9/11: The Firemen’s Story
  • 9/11: Emergency Room
  • 9/11: Miracle Survivor

All three tell the story of what happened that day from different perspectives; the Firemen involved, the Doctors at a small nearby hospital, and from a guy who survived the collapse of the tower by ‘air surfing’ down over 20 floors.

Each offers a unique and informative view of events, and are amazing to watch.

The thing about documentaries like this are that they are ‘real’. We watch documentaries about important moments in the history of our society, like the two World Wars or the Assassination of Kennedy, but to me these are aren’t as complete or authentic as the 9/11 ones. The 9/11 ones are still raw, told by people with more than hazy recollections, boosted by the level of on-the-spot video evidence that we just don’t have for any other major historical event.

They are stories from ordinary people who were not prepared for those horrible events, and everyone has a different story to tell – each as harrowing as the last. You watch them speak and see the hurt in their eyes and in their voices as they tell the story of what they saw and how those around them perished or suffered. You feel their pain. It’s both awful and fascinating in equal measures.

Usually my reviews are about whether a piece of fiction or a game is worth your time, but whether you should watch these isn’t even in question. This is history; this is who we are. And they are worthy of anyone’s time. I really just wrote this to make that point.

I’m not particularly interested in dramatisations like that horrendous Nicholas Cage film, nor do I care for the ‘what ifs’ of conspiracy theories.

To me, you don’t get a more gripping or significant tale of human interest than from the people who were in and around the World Trade Centre that day, and we should continue to be amazed at the level of detail such a horrible and major day in our history was covered in.

And hope that nothing similar ever happens again.


5 Responses to 9/11 Documentaries: Awful and Fascinating in Equal Measures

  1. Lord Antares says:

    Why didn’t they just let you continue onwards to Glasgow? And after all you went through, they brought you back to the chaos in New York?

    Wow, I had no idea.

  2. sgmilne says:

    Other way around. I was flying out to New York and the first plane hit about 30 minutes into the outward journey, but rather than turn around and fly back to Glasgow they carried on and stopped in Newfoundland, then wouldn’t let us fly back to Glasgow from there. We had no choice but to continue on to New York then fly back to Glasgow

  3. Zaphod says:

    It strikes me that you had a pretty awful time on that flight. I am surprised that it was all so badly handled.
    I agree with you about the Nicholas Cage movie. It is truly dreadful.

  4. […] 9/11 Documentaries: Awful and Fascinating in Equal Measures […]

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