Heroism, sacrifice and what 9/11 documentaries can teach us about what matters in life

This week, as we remember the 17th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, I watched a new documentary on the history channel titled: “9/11: Escape from the Towers.” The documentary features firsthand accounts of people who were working in the Twin Towers that day.

The stories are astounding. Aside from “9/11,” a documentary by two French filmmakers who happened to be with NYFD Engine 7 on the morning of 9/11, and which I consider to be the best documentary made regarding that day, “Escape from the Towers” is probably second. This documentary so vividly captures the human spirit and gives perspective on what matters in life.

Spoiler alerts 

Two of the survivors are Michael Benfante and John Cerqueira were on the 81st floor of the North Tower, just below the impact zone of where American Airlines flight 11 struck.

As they were making their way out, they encountered a disabled woman in a wheelchair. Her normal chair was going to be too heavy and difficult to bring down the stairs. They found a special wheelchair for evacuations and helped the woman (whom they had never met) get down 68 flights of stairs and out of the building.

They could have kept going. They didn’t. When they came to the 21st floor, there had been a triage unit setup. They could have dropped her off there. They didn’t.

Jyoti Vyas was working on the 77th floor of the South Tower. She was 7 months pregnant on September 11. The documentary spends a lot of time focusing on Vyas and her coworkers and their efforts to help her (and her unborn baby) safely evacuate the building. Once again, the story is inspiring as you consider the selflessness, camaraderie, and love that coworkers had for her. Now forever a family in a shared bond of tragedy they experienced that day. I consider all of those coworkers to be heroes. They could have had an “every man for himself” mentality. They didn’t. They could have been more concerned for getting out to see their own families. They weren’t.

In the documentary, one of them talks of how all of them were getting out or none of them were getting out.

9/11 was a day where we saw the worst of humanity and true evil with what those highjacks did. But part of the reason why I watch documentaries is because they’re also inspirational snapshots of the good things which people are also capable of doing to help others out.

They all bare the emotional scars. Many of them got emotional talking about the day, talking about the aftermath and the emotional trauma of that day, talking about the flashbacks that they’ll never be able to escape. There’s the survivor’s guilt and the harrowing experience of being a firsthand witness to so much loss of life.

There are undoubtedly many more stories of heroism and selflessness from that day, stories of risking one’s own life to help another, stories of coworkers sticking together. Unfortunately many of those stories didn’t end happily.

In the documentary, they talk of the firefighters passing them on the stairs, trying to keep everyone calm as they trudged upward.

I think the documentary was also a sobering reminder of the importance of appreciating the people we have. Throughout much of the documentary, there are interviews from Dale Koster, who’s wife Anne worked on the 81st floor of the North Tower. Anne suffered from asthma. Her husband chronicles the helpless feeling of watching these events unfold live, knowing how far up she was and some of her health complications. When the tower collapsed, he knew she had perished.

As a twist in the documentary, we find out that Anne had actually survived. I think that this was an important piece of filmmaking because it invited you into one person’s agony and aguish as he worried about a loved one. Something felt by thousands of relatives that day. Dale and Anne talk of their appreciation for each other and their closeness since the attacks.

It’s sad as I consider the small things people argue over, the things friendships end over, the things that cause strain in families. There are precious people in our lives (also, the Koster’s seemed like they had had a very good marriage before 9/11, I’m just commenting on what I was thinking during the film). We never know when someone will be taken from us.

It’s important to appreciate and cherish the people in our lives.

I loved this documentary. I can’t say enough good things about it. Certainly it’s shrouded in tragedy but I also think that when we see the service of people to others, that we should all be inspired to live selfless lives.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear what you think, and don’t forget to subscribe! 

Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.

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