Memories of fallen comrades live on at rescue company

Preview: `Brotherhood of September 11' poignantly documents life at the elite Bronx firehouse that lost eight men in the New York terrorist attacks.

March 08, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

With all the buzz surrounding the premiere of 9/11 Sunday night on CBS, it might be easy to overlook another film about the attack on the World Trade Center. New York Firefighters: The Brotherhood of September 11 is an exquisitely crafted, touching documentary. Missing it would be a big mistake.

The film, airing at 9 tonight on the Discovery Channel, takes us inside Rescue Company 3, housed in the Bronx, one of five elite units within the New York City Fire Department that respond to building collapses, train derailments, airplane crashes and other major emergencies with the potential for multiple casualties. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center was its greatest test, and eight of the unit's members were killed trying to rescue others on Sept. 11.

Producer-director Peter Schnall filmed inside the firehouse from the first week in October until the end of November, living, eating and sleeping alongside the rescue workers who call it home. Their memories of Sept. 11 are woven into a richly textured tapestry of life as it is lived in a closely knit community that has been devastated by loss - an extended family of co-workers and survivors trying to overcome trauma and grief and go on with life. In that sense, New York Firefighters resonates even beyond Sept. 11, speaking to anyone who has experienced such a loss.

"Our lives have either been going down to the World Trade Center and working on the pile, or going to our brothers' funerals. And it's been like that since Sept. 11," one member of Rescue 3 says.

The film opens with vivid images of the attack and recollections of office workers in the towers. The most moving comes from one young man who recounts being in the stairwell with the men from Rescue 3, who helped him to safety and then charged up the stairs to their own deaths.

But even that just sets the stage for what we feel once the film settles in at the firehouse. One of the first images Schnall has us focus on is the "ride board" for Sept. 11 - a simple, Plexiglas board with a series of names scrawled on it like a lineup.

The names are those of the men from Rescue 3 who rode off to the towers and never returned. It is kept that way as a memorial, and the film shows us the men and survivors behind the names. When Schnall's camera takes us back to the board near the end of the film for one last look, it is heartbreaking.

It's striking how American the names seem: Foley, Blackwell, Gambino, Meisenheimer, Hickey, Regan, Schrang and Spor. It could be members of an Army platoon in Vietnam or World War II.

But wait until you meet some of their family members, who come to clean out dad's locker, or to just talk to his co-workers and other survivors. Hearing the kids is the hardest.

Jackie Shrang, the teen-age daughter of Gerry Shrang, wonders aloud who's going to "walk me down the aisle" at her wedding. Ryan Blackwell, the 13-year-old son of Chris Blackwell, is shown going through his dad's locker and dressing in his dad's rescue gear. He comes to the firehouse almost every day, and the men of Rescue 3 have given Ryan his own locker.

"We're here for the surviving family members," Rescue 3 member Nick Giordano says in the film. "We're here to let them know that they're part of a big family, and it's something we'll never let them forget."

Watch this film, and you'll be unable to forget the board, the names, the incredible sense of community and courage that is on display at Rescue 3.

"People ask you if things are the same," Giordano says. "People have to realize things are never going to be the same. All we can do is hope to get back to some normalcy, reach out and bring in new people, and keep the tradition going."

Premiere

What: New York Firefighters: the Brotherhood of September 11

Where: Discovery Channel

When: 9 tonight

In brief: A touching study of life after death in a New York firehouse.

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