In the summer of 2001, professional videographer Lou Angeli was hired by the New York City Fire Department to shoot footage that would become required training video for hundreds of firefighters.
The focus of that training? How to get fire and safety equipment in and out of the World Trade Center more efficiently.
So on the morning of Sept. 11, it only made sense that the Delaware resident would get a call.
“And the battalion chief who was on the other end of the phone said, ‘Lou, you need to get up here and shoot this. We have a big high-rise fire going on.'”
That phone call was made just moments after the first plane went into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, well before anybody really knew what was going on, and before it became clear that America was under attack. Angeli, at the time a volunteer firefighter with the Kennett Fire Company in Kennett Square, Pa.(and now the Talleyville fire company), was on his way.
“So I grabbed both my firefighting equipment and my camera and went up the Jersey Turnpike.”
By the time Angeli arrived in New York City, of course, the world had changed. A second plane had hit the World Trade Center, and both towers had collapsed.
With a camera in one hand and a shovel in the other, Angeli had a dual role in those first hours and days that followed the attack. Because he was a fireman, Angeli had access to Ground Zero that most journalists did not have. His remarkable camera work captured the mood among rescuers. But his first and most important job upon entering the chaos in Lower Manhattan was to help save lives.
“There were a lot of people just under the rubble a little bit, a foot maybe, they were easy to pull out,” he said. “And, so, I think we did maybe 10 of those and then we came to our first dead firefighter and our emotions changed quite a bit. We were pretty jubilant that we were actually pulling out people who were alive. But once we reached the dead firefighter, and a lot of the guys I was with knew him, the mood changed.”
Angeli was at Ground Zero for 16 days. He says the toughest part for him was when the search and rescue operation became a search and recovery. And since the destruction was so complete, finding anything that would identify the fallen was nearly impossible.
“It was just total devastation. Absolute total devastation,” he said. “And the body parts that we were finding were no bigger than a thumbnail. And the only reason why we know they were body parts is because the dogs we were with would scent it.
“And once we filled a stretcher with pieces of a body they covered it with a flag as if they were taking a single body out. It was very difficult to do that part of it because, gosh, we were mixing people up who never knew each other.”
A decade later, Angeli says he still thinks about Ground Zero every day. What he remembers most is the overwhelming feeling of patriotism and how the worst of times can bring out the best in people.
“In retrospect, I think the most important thing that I learned coming out of there was that the human spirit can’t be crushed. Even though the buildings came down and crushed the bodies, the human spirit can’t be crushed and that level of humanity persisted throughout the nine months that people were there working to find people.”
These days Angeli is still a volunteer firefighter and still wielding a camera. In fact, he’s producing a live 9/11 special for Chinese television. But those 16 days at “the pile” have taken a toll. He has suffered through post traumatic stress disorder and has had persistent health problems. He hopes the anniversary of the attacks, with its reuniting with old colleagues and seeing the progress being made at Ground Zero, will start a new era.
“Hopefully it’ll become a more positive experience so that when I think of Ground Zero I’ll think of this 10th Anniversary and not the day it happened.”