The Daily Telegraph dubbed producer, director and cameraman Paul Berriff the 'Indiana Jones of British television'
The Daily Telegraph dubbed producer, director and cameraman Paul Berriff the 'Indiana Jones of British television' when he was on hand to film the oil fires in Kuwait. He was one of the first people to reach the Piper Alpha oil platform after it exploded and escaped death when a volcano erupted around him in Nicaragua. In fact, he has quite a reputation for being in the right place when a major disaster happens - in terms of documentary making - and having a fearless approach to getting spectacular shots.Inevitably, therefore, Berriff found himself in New York on the day terrorists attacked the World Trade Centre. He'd been filming a series for Animal Planet called Animal Precinct about the city's ASPCA, the American equivalent to the RSPCA. When he heard about the first plane hitting one of the towers he immediately left with his film crew for lower Manhattan. Fortunately, filming for Animal Precinct had almost finished so those plans were immediately put on hold and the filming of what Berriff calls 'the real-life Towering Inferno' began.Managing to evade the police, who were preventing anyone from going near the towers, Berriff was able to get to the base where assistant fire commissioner Steve Gregory and battalion safety chief Arthur Lakiotes were setting up their command post on West Street. 'I thought if I'm going to make a film about this, these are the two characters I should start with,' explains Berriff.Berriff and his crew had been filming them for about 10 minutes when there was a massive explosion. Berriff panned his camera across to see the south tower starting to collapse. He managed to film seven seconds of footage before evacuating the area.Berriff suffered concussion during the disaster and had to crawl out of the debris in a semi-conscious state - he describes the landscape as looking like 'something from Dante's Inferno'. His equipment smashed, he decided to regroup at his apartment before going to hospital.Berriff returned to England that week to reassess the situation. Fortunately his film had survived and a few weeks later he decided to track down the two fire officers he'd met at the towers. The programme really developed once he'd shown them the rushes. 'I wanted to go a bit further than just show what happened on that day,' says Berriff. I wanted to follow it through towards the future.'The film also follows a third fire officer, Mike Puzziferri, commander of Battalion 27. The two had met in July last year when Berriff approached him about making a film about a New York fire chief. Puzziferri was eventually used as the narrator and linked the sequences in the final film.Berriff's first-hand experience of the events meant he felt closer to the firefighters and didn't have to coax their stories from them. It also helped that he is a trained firefighter and search and rescue expert.He would often talk extensively with them before filming on a small DV camera with no additional lighting so as not to be intrusive. The only other person involved with filming the interviews was sound recordist Louise Machin.Around 54 40-minute tapes were used during the six months Berriff worked on the project and were edited by Richard Kennan in New York because the whole film was being put together as they shot it. Nothing was added in post-production.After September 11 Berriff questioned his whole career as a cameraman but decided to stick with it. Which may be unfortunate if you ever run into him. As he jokes: 'I've a sort of knack of being in places when things happen. I've quite a reputation: watch out Berriff's passing again, the building's bound to blow up.'9/11: THE FIREFIGHTERS' STORYBroadcaster: Channel 5Producer: AngliaStart: 20.00, 29 August Length: 1 x 60-minutes Commissioning editor: Chris ShawPRODUCTION CREDITSExecutive producer: Andrea CornesProducer/director/cameraman: Paul BerriffEditor: Richard KennanSound recordist: Louise MachinMusic: Ernie Wood.