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Sept. 11 Shows Begin to Fill the Channels


With the sheer volume of Sept. 11 programming reaching critical mass as the anniversary of the terrorist attacks nears, TV shows about it are already stacking up, to the extent that some tough choices will have to be made and VCRs called into service.

Tonight is a case in point, with two exhaustive--if also a bit exhausting--efforts that would have made ideal programming companions but are instead butting heads with overlapping time slots.

"Report From Ground Zero" (9 p.m. on ABC), based on the best-selling book by firefighter Dennis Smith, is constructed as an extended string of first-person accounts by the men and women on fire or police duty in New York on Sept. 11. In a number of other cases, however, we hear not from the principals but from their surviving colleagues and family members.

Said Lee Ielpi, a retired firefighter who lost his son, Jonathan, that day: "That cliche we've used for so many years--when people run out of burning buildings, firemen are running in--I want you to look at those buildings and I want you to say, 'Firemen looked at that and ran into that?' You better believe it."

And from firefighter James Efthiamides, who was caught in a fourth-floor stairwell as the tower he was in began to pancake down: "You heard metal twisting, and then you heard from far away, 'boom, boom' as the floors started falling."

Most of the stories are by now so familiar that fresh details or insights are scarce, but seeing the emotional toll in the eyes of these people, from a camera set just inches away, still carries a jolt. And when their voices break as they recall the horrific events of that day, something inside you breaks as well.

Yet as the two-hour documentary wears on, the effect begins to wear down, despite the extensive use of Sept. 11 footage and biographical photos from the lives of those profiled.

"America Rebuilds" (10 p.m. on PBS), which covers the incomprehensible demolition task engineers faced at ground zero as well as the debate over the future of the site, also feels a bit overlong.

The 90-minute documentary, narrated by actor Kevin Spacey, takes us on searches for survivors, into midnight shift-change meetings at ground zero and to a community meeting at which one woman, mourning the loss of a Borders bookstore, called for the rebuilding to begin.

"That is a burial site," replied an angry Monica Iken, who lost her husband at the World Trade Center. "How can we build atop of those souls?"

Back at the site, the work continues. As the 275,000-pound excavators lower their jaws to chew away at the tangle of compressed steel and concrete, PBS shows engineers who 30 years before had walked this turf while planning the twin towers plot the removal of what remains.


"Report From Ground Zero" airs tonight from 9 to 11 on ABC; "America Rebuilds" airs from 10 to 11:30 p.m. on KCET and KVCR.

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