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Filmmaker casts lens on heroic 9-11 efforts of NYC Transit workers

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While Brooklynites have heard about the heroes lost in the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, and about the heroic firemen, police officers and emergency services personnel that gave their time and energy in the recovery efforts, rarely have the stories of New York’s transit workers been told.

Producer-director Winston Mitchell is hoping to bring attention to both the Herculean rescue efforts and rebuilding efforts of Transit employees with his new documentary, "Above & Below: NYC Transit Responds to 9/11."

The one-hour documentary, which premiered at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on Wednesday, includes footage that has never been seen before, explained Mitchell, including collapsed subways and interviews with bus drivers and train conductors.

Mitchell is the producer of MTA NYC Transit’s television newsmagazine "Transit Transit" which profiles transit workers and features excursions New Yorkers can take on public transportation. Mitchell was in the wrong place at the right time to document the transit workers’ many roles, beginning on Sept. 11, when the first plane flew right over his car and into the World Trade Center as he was driving by Greenwich Street and Park Place. The documentary includes the live WABC-TV newsreel of Mitchell’s voice, conveying audible terror, as he reported that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. "People are running up the streets. Everybody is panicking," yelled Mitchell.

The one-hour documentary captures emotional reunions between passengers, such as Theresa Betancourt, who were blinded and choking on debris, and the bus drivers, such as Anthony Gallo, who pulled them to safety. "When they started banging on my windows [to get in]," said Gallo, "they gave me a purpose. Now I knew I wasn’t dead."

One bus driver recounted how his scared passengers urged him to leave the scene and the other victims not yet on the bus, saying, "We’re going to die!" But he stood firm, not leaving until he pulled as many passengers as possible, some who had "passed out," to safety. Train conductors honked their horns as they came through the stations so passengers could follow the sound through the smoke and board.

"There were a lot of people on the platform. I made an announcement that it was an emergency and everyone stayed on the train - only one tried to get off. There was no way we could leave them there," said one train conductor.

There were 50 bus stops and seven train stations in the World Trade Center area, and the MTA reports that there were no serious injuries among MTA workers and not one train or bus was lost. Three hundred buses provided support for the firefighters, city Emergency Management personnel and police. The MTA also estimates 4,000 of its employees were looking for victims and working to restore service, beginning on Sept. 11.

Mitchell told GO Brooklyn that the MTA "got a half-million people out of the Downtown area. We had less than an hour to get the people out."

He says the MTA’s twice-yearly disaster drills - although they never could have predicted the scope of this disaster - helped the employees go into reflex mode. "The years of planning paid off," he said.

Governor George Pataki is also in the documentary lauding the transit workers’ attitude of "we’re doing our job."

"They showed an extraordinary commitment to other people," he said. "They set the tone for the days and weeks to come."

"Above & Below" also has footage of the remarkably fast cleanup and rebuilding efforts at Ground Zero, with the workers laying track and rebuilding the subway box of the 1/9 line below Chambers street from both ends, meeting in the middle ahead of schedule.

While many passengers are familiar with train conductors, token booth clerks and bus drivers, the MTA also employs a wide array of specialists - such as ironworkers and heavy machine operators - who put their lives on the line "standing shoulder to shoulder" with emergency workers to cut through steel beams and allow medical personnel to get to and save the lives of victims on Sept. 11, including a firefighter trapped in his truck.

Many of the men and women interviewed on camera were unable to stop themselves from crying when they recalled their experiences.

"The video made us relive things you thought you forgot about," MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow said after the screening. "That day was the proudest moment of my life, although I lost three close friends. The spirits of all our people as well as the police made me proud to be a New Yorker and an American, and part of this organization."

The documentary is narrated by actor, director and writer Ossie Davis, who volunteered his talent and time, said Mitchell, reading the script in the "80-degree heat of the pit [at Ground Zero]. He was a real professional. He didn’t even complain." The score, photographs and television footage used in the documentary were also donated, he said.

Mitchell has captured for the history books the transit workers’ stories that might have otherwise been lost, but he certainly wasn’t looking for the job.

"’Transit Transit’ used to be a happy-go-lucky show," said Mitchell. "But all of that changed in September. Hopefully this will be the last time we’ll have to do a video like this."

 

"Above & Below: NYC Transit Responds to 9/11" airs on channel 25, WNYE-TV, Sept. 11, 13, 18 and 20 at 9 pm and on BCAT (Cablevision Ch. 67 and Time Warner Ch. 34) every Thursday at 6 pm. For more information, call (718) 694-3418.

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