You will see no bodies, no body parts and no people leaping to their deaths in the special CBS documentary that airs tomorrow night at 9 -- the first time the American public will see footage shot inside the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 by two young French filmmakers.
Even so, the network has been blasted by radio and cable TV personalities, scolded by politicians and chastised by representatives of the families of some victims for proceeding with plans to air "9/11."
None of those who have criticized the project has seen it, the show's executive producer, Susan Zirinsky, said yesterday in a phone interview.
"Everybody has done the right thing here," insisted Zirinsky, who heads the CBS News team brought in to finish the documentary, which was culled from 180 hours of tape shot by Jules and Gedeon Naudet.
Zirinsky says the producers worked with the New York City Fire Department to identify all of the firefighters whose faces are seen at the World Trade Center during the documentary so that their families could be notified about the project. None requested that the footage not be shown, she said.
The Naudet brothers had set out in May to document the evolution of a firefighter from rookie to veteran. They chose Tony Benetatos, assigned to a firehouse in Lower Manhattan. But by early September, Benetatos had yet to be called to a major fire -- though he did help extinguish a flaming car engine. Benetatos was pegged a "white cloud" by his crew, a designation for "probies" who seem to bring no fires with them, as opposed to "black clouds."
The morning of Sept. 11, 28-year-old Jules Naudet, who only recently had begun using a video camera, went out with a group of firefighters responding to a gas-odor report -- in order to work on his technique.
While checking out the leak, about 10 blocks from the World Trade Center, the firefighters heard the roar of a plane flying too low. Naudet looked up with his camera still on and caught the only known video of the first plane hitting the north tower. That brief bit of footage was released to the broadcast media and was aired repeatedly.
The firefighters rushed to the north tower, accompanied by Naudet. Entering the lobby, he saw two people on fire; the fuel from the plane had created a fireball that went down an elevator shaft.
"No one should see this," Naudet is heard saying on the tape. He didn't film the scene.
"This was the first time I had seen anything like this," Naudet explained during a telephone news conference Tuesday with reporters and TV critics. "This was an image that was quite horrible, and I thought immediately, 'It's not something people should see.' I guess I did some kind of auto-censorship."
There are also no shots of the many people who either fell or jumped from the upper floors of the Trade Center's two towers.
Viewers will, however, hear the ghastly sound of people crashing through the enormous glass awning outside the lobby entrance to the north tower.
"Those are jumpers," a firefighter is heard saying matter-of-factly.
CBS elected to edit out much of the crashing noise.
"To have that incredible crush of sound every 20 to 30 seconds would have been very difficult for the audience," Zirinsky explained.
Only one dead victim is shown during the entire two-hour broadcast. The body of the Rev. Mychal Judge, a Fire Department chaplain who's seen earlier praying silently in the lobby, is later shown being carried out of the wreckage. Judge was killed by chunks of falling debris as he administered last rites to victims on the sidewalk. Only his booted feet are shown on videotape, but CBS added the now-familiar Reuters photograph of five men carrying Judge's body, in which his face can be seen.
The Naudets also documented the first few days of the recovery efforts at ground zero, including some scenes shot underground as firefighters searched frantically for signs of life. Here, too, Gedeon Naudet said, the brothers would turn off their cameras rather than film workers removing human remains from the rubble.
During Tuesday's news conference, the Naudets defended their decision to "auto-censor" their coverage.
"It is a story about a firehouse and the men in the firehouse, going through their daily lives and, after Sept. 11, surviving this," Gedeon Naudet said. "It's not a story about death or what happened. It's a tribute."
Viewers will on occasion hear some rough language, mostly coming from the firefighters. The media has made much of CBS's decision to retain the language, even though the network has issued parental warnings about the program, and actor Robert De Niro, who introduces and closes the special, warns viewers at the outset.
When Jules went to what became ground zero that day, Gedeon, the more accomplished cameraman, had stayed behind. After the first plane hit, he went with several firefighters to the site and also began filming, first shooting crowds of people as they gaped at the upper floors of the north tower where the first plane had penetrated and later filming the same street, abandoned and filled with dust and debris.
The Naudets say they declined several offers from television networks to buy the footage -- they say they were offered millions of dollars -- because they couldn't stand the thought of a news operation playing portions of it over and over again.
But the brothers struck a deal with CBS after the network agreed to buy the rights -- reportedly for $1 million -- for just two broadcasts of the program, with the Naudets retaining not only the copyright but also creative control of the project. They insisted that it remain a "tribute" to the firefighters and a fundraiser for a scholarship fund. Which is why -- though a Zirinsky-led CBS News team finished the documentary with the Naudets -- it is not a presentation of CBS News, and why De Niro, rather than a member of CBS's on-air team, opens and closes the broadcast.
The network has scheduled three breaks, totaling 7 1/2 minutes, in the two-hour program, all paid for by the show's sole sponsor, Nextel. Zirinsky says all of that time is taken by public service announcements, including a plug for the Uniformed Firefighters Scholarship Fund -- to which the Naudets say they are are donating the money they got from CBS, after recouping their costs. CBS is also making a contribution but declined to say how large it is or whether the network will make a profit on the program.
Because of those breaks, the documentary will be rated by Nielsen Media Research and ranked among all of the season's programs. The network scheduled the program to air on Sunday because TV viewing levels are at their highest. William Morris agent Ben Silverman, who was involved in bringing the project to CBS, has predicted that 50 million people will watch. That would put it ahead of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which averaged 45.6 million people.