By Susan Horsburgh
March 18, 2002 12:00 PM

It was a routine call—a reported gas leak on Church Street in lower Manhattan. French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet were with the men of Engine 7, Ladder 1, shooting a documentary about a year in the life of a rookie, or “pro-bie,” in the New York City Fire Department. Gedeon elected to stay at the firehouse; brother Jules followed a crew to the leak site six blocks away. It was Sept. 11, 8:45 a.m.

Out on the street, Jules heard a roar overhead. Pointing his video camera skyward, he captured the first plane crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center. “It’s a day I don’t like to talk about,” says Jules, 28, who raced 14 blocks to the scene with the battalion chief. Nonstop for the next two hours he taped the chaos—falling bodies, people on fire, screaming office workers—and the frantic rescue efforts as doomed firefighters rushed up the stairwells. “I think I will only be able to talk about it years from now.”

Until then the filmmakers are letting their footage speak for them. Now the centerpiece of a two-hour documentary, 9/11, their gripping account will air on CBS March 10, with an introduction by actor and lower Manhattan resident Robert De Niro. Though the graphic images have been edited out, the Naudets left profanity uncensored. David Bianculli of New York’s Daily News called it “an astonishing, riveting, remarkable piece of filmmaking.”

But some survivors of Sept. 11 victims say the trauma is still too raw to relive. They have appealed to CBS not to air the footage; others are asking for viewer warnings and that screams and the sounds of bodies hitting the pavement be edited out. “This is just showing it all over again for the ratings,” says Mary Ellen Salamone, 39, a North Caldwell, N.J., physical therapist who lost her husband, John, 37, in the north tower. (CBS says it’s mindful of the families’ feelings but will not stop the broadcast.) Though the Naudets sold the 10-second clip of the first plane crash to cover costs, they say they turned down multimillion-dollar offers so they could retain control of the footage and ensure it was handled sensitively. “We knew it was a part of history,” says Jules.

Born in Paris, Jules and Gedeon, 31, also know something about a sense of vocation. Their parents, journalist Jean-Jacques and clothing designer Shiva, instilled in them a love of film. Their dad, a former movie critic for French Vogue, kept them up to watch Hitchcock films and gave them their first video camera in 1982. After the family moved to New York City in 1989, both brothers went to New York University Film School. Their first documentary, Hope, Gloves and Redemption, about young boxers in Spanish Harlem, took honors at the 2000 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. “It was a hard world to get into,” says Jules.

The tight-knit brotherhood of the FDNY proved even harder. The Naudets’ firefighter friend (and fellow 9/11 producer) James Hanlon, who is married to an old school friend of theirs from Paris, helped them gain permission from FDNY brass in late 2000—a process which took more than six months. But Hanlon’s colleagues at the Engine 7 firehouse were leery of their presence when they started filming last May. “There were a lot of guys saying they didn’t want to be on camera,” recalls Hanlon, 36.

That changed on Sept. 11. After the first plane crash, Jules stuck with battalion chief Joseph Pfeifer as he deployed firefighters from the north tower lobby. A few blocks away, Gedeon was by now filming the second plane slamming into the south tower at 9:03 a.m. Jules heard the news that the Pentagon had been hit—and then a deafening rumble as the south tower fell, covering the north tower’s lobby with debris. Everything went black. “I didn’t really know what had happened,” says Jules, who had crouched down in the lobby, covering his face with his T-shirt. As his grit-covered video camera kept taping, he used its floodlight to find his way out. Unknowingly half a block apart when the second tower came down, the Naudets did not find each other until two hours later at the firehouse. “It was the best feeling in the world when I saw my brother,” says Jules.

After Sept. 11 Jules set a date for his wedding to longtime girlfriend Jacqueline Longa. “That day showed that if you know what you want, just do it,” says Longa, 29, a human resources counselor. (They hope to marry at the firehouse June 1.) It also sealed other bonds—with the 55 men of Engine 7, all of whom miraculously survived. “That night, when we got back to the station house,” says Jules, “one of the guys told me, ‘You left here this morning with one brother. Tonight you have 55.'”

Susan Horsburgh

Bob Meadows in New York City