Looking back 20 years, to the waves of Sept. 11 tragedy, Joseph Pfeifer tries to focus on the positive.
This was a day (shown here) when his fellow firefighters did what they always do, he said. They rushed in, found people, saved lives. They did “ordinary things – but at an extraordinary time in history.”
Pfeifer, 65, retired three years ago as assistant chief of the New York City Fire Department. Now he appears often in “9/11: One Day in America,” which arrives Aug. 29-31 on the National Geographic Channel, ami a surge of 20th-anniversary documentaries.
“The moment the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, my life changed forever,” Pfeifer told the Television Critics Association.
At the time, he led Battalion 1, in Manhattan. The first chief to arrive at the World Trade Center, he set up command in the North Tower and began sending people up the stairs for rescues. That day, 344 firefighters – including his brother – would die.
But as he sees the film now, he spots the positive. “What I look for on that day are signs of hope …. You saw people together (and) stories of people caring for one another.”
Ron DiFrancesco – believed to be the last person to escape the South Tower – agreed, and compared that day to the current, fractured times.
“I think this documentary helps,” he said, “if it brings people back to the days of 9/11. (We can) look back on how good people were, right after that event, and maybe we can get there once again.”
There are a lot of stories to tell, producer Caroline Marsden said. “We went through almost 1,000 hours of film. We were working on it for about three years (and) interviewed about 54 people” on-camera, plus constant phone interviews.
The focus, producer Dan Lindsay said, was on “the people who were there and their personal stories.”
One was Jason Thomas, who had recently finished his time in the Marines. When he saw the events on TV, he put on his uniform and headed to the site. Joined by another Marine and a former emergency medical technician, he rescued a man from deep in the rubble.
Thomas has visited the 9/11 memorial. “It was beyond overwhelming,” he said, “when you look at the life that was lost, … the enormous amount of names.”
For Pfeifer, the first name that comes to mind is his brother, Kevin, who was unmarried. “We were his family, my kids and my sister’s kids were his family. My daughter now lives in the house he owned.”
Pfeifer spent the rest of his career focusing on the aftermath, setting up new training and procedures.
“One of the changes we made in New York City and throughout the country is that we needed to work together – fire, police, medical folks,” he said. “And we spent the last 20 years doing that.”
He was especially struck by last year’s linking of firefighters and medical people. “It was the moment where 9/11 met the pandemic and we saw a new generation of heroes. So while we feel things are falling apart, we have to look at … this sense of being together.”
– “9/11: One Day in America,” National Geographic. 9-10:30 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 29), rerunning at 11:30; 9-10:46 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, rerunning at 12:46 a.m.
– “NYC Epicenters 9/11 Through 2021 and a Half” is a Spike Lee documentary, tracing the history of New York, from the World Trade Center attacks and on through the pandemic. It debuted last Sunday on HBO and continues at 8 p.m. Aug. 29, Sept. 5 and Sept. 11.
– “Generation 9/ll,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 31) on PBS, traces seven of the 105 people who were born after their fathers died in the 9/11 attacks.
– “One Day in America” will rerun Sept. 10-11, alongside many other films those days on CBS, PBS, History, Discovery, Showtime and more.