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Last night’s TV: 9/11: Day That Changed The World


Television next week is all about the tenth anniversary of 9/11. In a quick scan of the latest RTE Guide last night, I spotted fourteen programmes related to the attacks which will be shown between now and next Friday, September 9. Over the anniversary weekend itself, who knows? That figure doesn’t include the satellite channels.

There’ll be documentaries about the attacks themselves, about the killing of Osama Bin Laden earlier this year, about the rescue services, about the Irish people affected.

There’s even a programme where five conspiracy theorists (none of them Jim Corr, unfortunately) are brought to New York and Washington, presumably in a bid to rid themselves of their delusions.

It’ll be hard to avoid the anniversary. Even Ireland’s opening rugby world cup match on September 11 may be affected in some way. It’s against the USA; it seems unlikely that there won’t be a minute’s silence for the 2, 976 people from more than 90 countries who died 10 years earlier.

One of RTE’s offerings next week – on Monday – is 9/11: Day That Changed The World which was on ITV last night.

As an account of the day’s events, it will be hard to beat. It featured interviews with almost everybody alive who was involved in dealing with the attacks and their aftermath.

George Bush was an obvious absentee, but he was represented by his wife Laura. Vice-president Dick Cheney was interviewed, as was defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card – the man who broke the news to Bush as he sat in a Florida school room holding a book about a pet goat – showed up. So did the mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani.

There were interviews with secret service staff, intelligence officials, air traffic controllers, the military, fire officers and White House staff.

There was even an interview with the pilot of Air Force One, who flew Bush aimlessly around the skies of America for almost 12 hours before finally depositing him back in Washington.

Backing up their well-edited interviews (hardly anybody was allowed to grandstand, or claim credit for anything) were some very powerful images. Almost every second of that terrible day was captured on video, on cctv or by still photography.

9/11: Day That Changed The World opened with shots of Bush out jogging in Florida at 6.30am on the day of the attacks.

As he skipped happily around the place, the hijackers of four planes, cctv cameras trained on them all, were checking in for their flights.

In New York, helicopters were out filming the city for the morning television weather reports. Tourists were already up and about, making their way towards the Twin Towers, video cameras at the ready.

Familiar as they may be, the shots of passenger planes crashing into the towers still have the power to shock.

But there were other breath-taking images that I didn’t recall seeing before, of a group of people jumping from the towers, one, two, three, four, almost racing each other downwards, crashing into the ground. They knew that certain death awaited, but they also carried the knowledge that it was better to go that way that to roast alive in the burning building.

The panic on the streets of New York was well-captured, particularly after the towers collapsed and lower Manhattan was invaded by a monster made from smoke, ash and debris.

People ran here and there, only vaguely aware of where they were going and why. Ultimately, they looked to their leaders to calm them down and give them hope. In New York the politicians rose to the occasion immediately. In Washington, it took them a little longer.

With Bush up in the air, and Washington under attack from one plane, which flew into the Pentagon, and threatened by another, which ultimately crashed into the ground in Pennsylvania, it fell to Cheney and Rumsfeld to take charge.

Rumsfeld, who was in the Pentagon when the plane smashed into it, went missing for a while as he wandered around outside helping people onto stretchers. Cheney invited his wife Lynne into the initial response meetings.

In the middle of all the panic, the White House received a call telling them that Air Force One was next to be attacked. It was a hoax.

9/11: Day That Changed The World mixed similar snippets of information with judiciously chosen images and sharp interviews. It will be criticised by supporters of President Bush for making him look indecisive and not a little stupid, and by his opponents for not highlighting all the mistakes that were made subsequently over Iraq and the “war on terror”.

In response to the first criticism, the documentary makers can argue that Bush did look completely panicked and helpless as he continued to read the book with the school kids for seven minutes after Card brought him the news.

And in response to the second, they can fairly point out that it wasn’t that kind of documentary. It was focused entirely on a single day in America’s history - it’s very worst, most likely - and told the story with care, intelligence and sensitivity.

If you missed it last night, it’s worth watching, or recording, on Monday.