'9/11' Portrait of Greatness

Firefighter James Hanlon co-produced and directed the documentary "9/11," and every time he viewed the raw footage from inside the World Trade Center he looked in vain for the legendary comrade who always caused a stir upon arriving at the scene.

Hanlon did see Deputy Chief Ray Downey on the tape, standing by the command post, as smart and calm as ever, pointing out the danger of exiting directly onto West St.

Hanlon also saw Capt. Terry Hatton, arriving with Rescue 1 through a shattered window in the lobby, as always ready to do whatever was required, and then some.

A moment New Yorkers will never forget
There was Lt. Kevin Pfeifer, looking over at his brother, Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer, before heading up to guide other firefighters to safety at the cost of his own life.

And there was Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge, his lips moving in silent prayer as the boom of falling bodies resounded through the lobby.

And there was Firefighter Joe Angelini, rock steady at 63 years old, the biggest little guy in the world. Angelini was one of two guys who always made Hanlon feel safer when he saw them at a job.

The other was Capt. Patrick Brown, the legend who was nowhere to be seen in the footage. Hanlon spotted one member of Brown's company, but got not so much as a glimpse of the gallant captain himself.

"I was sure I would see him," Hanlon says. "I looked at every frame."

An Early Lesson

Hanlon had first encountered Brown in a hospital corridor back on May 7, 1994. Hanlon was then a probationary firefighter. He was assigned that day to stand honor guard outside the room where Capt. John Drennan was in his 40th biblical day of struggling to survive the terrible burns he had suffered in a fire on Watt St.

In the late afternoon, Drennan finally died. Brown had been by the wife's side from the start and he was with her when she emerged from saying a final goodbye to her husband.

Vina Drennan paused to speak to Hanlon and the other probie posted at the door.

"She said: 'My husband went to work every day and he was happy. He loved this job. Love this job, too. It's the greatest job in the world,'" Hanlon recalls.

As Vina Drennan went to call her children, Brown brought the two probies into the room and up to the fallen captain's bedside.

"He said, 'Put your hand on this man,' and we put a hand on him," Hanlon remembers. "He said, 'This is a great man. You might never meet a man this great again.'"

Brown asked the probies if they prayed.

"It was, like, 'We do now, Paddy,'" Hanlon remembers.

Brown and the probies blessed themselves and said a Hail Mary. Brown touched Drennan's face.

"He said, 'Remember this,'" Hanlon says.

At the funeral, Chaplain Judge assured the mourners filling St. Patrick's Cathedral that "Capt. Drennan's spirit will go on and you will go on."

Hanlon continued on and he was among those who responded to a fire on the 24th floor of Waterside Plaza last April. He was in an elevator, preparing to head up, when Brown hopped aboard.

"I just remember saying, 'He's here. It's going to be fine. It's going to be all right,'" Hanlon recalls.

Up they went to a firsthand lesson on how hellish a fire in even a single apartment can be in a high-rise. Brown afterward departed with his Ladder 3, Hanlon with Ladder 1.

Small Film Turns Big

In May, Hanlon began making a documentary with two French filmmakers, the brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet. Their idea was to film the first months of probie Firefighter Tony Benetatos, who looked as newly minted as Hanlon had when he stood honor guard at Drennan's door. The goal was to show it is indeed the greatest job in the world.

"To do something great about the Fire Department," Hanlon says.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Hanlon was off, but his French partners were filming the start of another day for Benetatos at Ladder 1. Jules Naudet was himself a kind of probie with a camera, and to get some practice he responded with Chief Joe Pfeifer on a report of a gas odor.

As Joe Pfeifer held a meter over a street grating, a roar came overhead, and Jules Naudet raised his camera to capture the first jetliner flying into the World Trade Center. He continued filming as Joe Pfeifer became the first chief in the lobby of the stricken north tower.

Jules Naudet declined to film two people who were burning to his right as he entered. He did document firefighter after firefighter heading up into total hell with precisely Drennan's spirit as Chaplain Judge prayed.

The most harrowing aspect of the video is the sound of the unseen bodies striking the pavement outside. The most graphic sight is of a beam of light falling on Judge's right foot as his lifeless body is lifted in the eclipsing dust.

Hanlon and the brothers could have just cashed in and let the footage become the world's most sensational snuff film. They instead stuck with their original notion of documenting a probie's initiation into the ways and wonders of the Fire Department.

The result is a two-hour tribute of impeccable taste likely to offend only those who feel the footage should never be shown at all. Hanlon and his partners alerted the family of every firefighter who appears and sent them tapes of the footage. One widow reported she was comforted to see her husband was wearing his wedding ring.

Hanlon had no tape to send to the family of Patrick Brown, who is said to have headed directly to the stairways without stopping at the command center where Jules Naudet was filming. Brown and Ladder 3 are also said to have ascended to the 56th floor, higher than any other firefighters.

Faces of Courage

Brown's ashes have since been scattered by the hands of those who loved him. You can see his spirit and the spirit of John Drennan and all the other fallen firefighters in the faces of those who do appear tonight on "9/11." You could have set your hand on any one of them and know you were touching a great man.