Capturing History at Ground Zero

In the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, television viewers saw images of rescue workers at "Ground Zero" – the site of the massive destruction wrought when the Twin Towers and other buildings collapsed.

(click thumbnail)1. FEMA cameramen Jim Chesnutt and Kurt Sonnenfeld in front of "the Pile" with their Canon XL1s. (photo by Mike Reiger, FEMA)

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NEW YORK— In the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, television viewers saw images of rescue workers at “Ground Zero” – the site of the massive destruction wrought when the Twin Towers and other buildings collapsed. Almost all the video footage and still photography of the restricted site was shot by four Federal Emergency Management Agency photographers with digital cameras that proved to be exceptionally versatile.

FEMA’s Denver-based Region 8 Deputy Public Affairs Officer Jim Chestnutt and Public Affairs Officer Kurt Sonnenfeld used Canon XL1 digital video cameras with Mini DV disks through 16- to 18-hour days, shooting Ground Zero, the Pile (the mass of debris at the center of the disaster) and the arduous rescue and cleanup operations. They carried the cameras through the streets, over the mounds of debris and underground for three weeks.

“We did everything you shouldn’t do to a nice camera,” Chestnutt said. “There were fires still burning, and we walked through clouds of ash. There was more dust, dirt and debris than you can imagine. The cameras were always exposed to particles, especially when carrying it through the mess. They got banged around when we carried them in our backpacks. But the cameras lasted through it all.”

No camera crews were inside the closed-off perimeter Sept. 13 when Region 8’s head of public affairs for disasters Ed Conley arrived. He asked Chestnutt and later Sonnenfeld to capture everything possible on video for use in news programming, as a teaching tool for search and rescue operations and for future historical research. Photographers Andrea Booher and Michael Rieger shot the still photos using Olympus E20 and Nikon D1X digital cameras.
(click thumbnail)2. Jim Chesnutt "on the Pile" with the Utah Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. (photo by Mike Reiger, FEMA)

“When FEMA was shopping for cameras we did research about what we wanted and picked the ones that seemed best for use in external and internal video consumption,” Chestnutt said. “I liked the new digital technology that allowed us to get professional-quality equipment at a lower price and because digital footage could be worked on a computer. We would be able to work out of a hotel at a disaster, edit pictures and send them from a laptop. This made it all portable and gave us a faster turnaround time.”

The only crew at Ground Zero, the four cameramen passed the Mini DV disk footage to CNN, which, in a news-sharing agreement with other organizations, uplinked the footage via satellite to other broadcasters, who sometimes brought it straight to television without editing. Within a few hours the rest of the world saw what the FEMA crew recorded.

“A great thing about the DV cameras is that we can copy digital tapes from camera to camera using a Firewire connection,” Sonnenfeld said. “In the first few days we were able to take tapes to TV stations using a teleport node that could accept DV cassettes. It was easy to transfer, unlike VHS tapes.”

With the huge demand for their footage now apparent, the crew decided to send the footage directly to the broadcasters. FEMA brought in an uplink truck, a producer, and more photographers. Footage was stored in a computer and then uplinked to the satellites twice a day. In addition, two beta-video crews began recording sound and interviewing workers to get more of the human story.

“It’s amazing how different our capabilities are today, and what we are able to accomplish using digital technology, compared to 10 years ago,” Sonnenfeld said. “We can walk around, take good images, give it to CNN, and people all around the world can quickly see the footage. It’s the same with the still cameras. This is powerful technology.”

The Canons can be shoulder-mounted and operated with one hand, and are small enough to be packed in foam-padded daypacks, yet sturdy enough to survive travel over the debris-strewn terrain.

“We needed our hands free to navigate the rubble, and we could carry a camera in one hand,” Chestnutt said. “It also gave us an element of discretion necessary when there was an emotional scene. These smaller cameras were less intimidating to the workers.”

“Sometimes I’d be crawling around underground with the search and rescue people,” Sonnenfeld said. “The Canons were the perfect cameras to take because they shot high-quality stuff and were small enough to get into tiny places.”

Now that the immediate need to be at the site gathering as much footage as possible has passed, FEMA is concerned with obtaining similar equipment for future use, parsing the footage for lessons on how to conduct future search-and-rescue operations and archiving the footage.

“I think they break down the barriers between professionals and the average person,” Chestnutt said. “A government agency was not previously likely to buy professional cameras. They couldn’t justify a $40,000 expenditure on the best equipment. But they can spend $4,000 on the gear we used. The results of using these cameras and the laptop computers and Final Cut Pro editing software at Ground Zero will help justify money for more equipment.”

FEMA camera personnel are writing about lessons learned, new rules to follow and what equipment is useful based on their experiences. They will use footage for training videos and make multiple digital copies publicly available, eventually on the agency’s Website.

FEMA is searching for advice on how to do archive their footage and on which media asset management applications they should use. Although the agency still uses a large VHS tape room, more footage is now being stored on DV tapes, though Sonnenfeld believes that everything will eventually be stored on DVD. “One great thing about digital,” he said, “is the ability to make copies and copies. We can make plenty of back-up copies without a loss in resolution.”

By using the new breed of digital cameras – smaller, high-quality, less expensive, and with strong footage-transfer capabilities – future events can be covered by more people and brought to the viewers faster and with high quality. Though dwarfed by the tragedies of Sept. 11, these new developments herald much larger changes for the industry and the ability to bring a connected world that much closer together.

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