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`I needed to document this horror’

Sep 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Christian Martin was about to perform that most American of rituals when the first hijacked jetliner smashed into the World Trade Center.
Mr. Martin, a producer for “Dateline NBC” and a veteran of the Oklahoma City bombing, was about to go vote near the Brooklyn Heights home he shares with his wife Elizabeth Cole, also a “Dateline” producer.
Instead, he placed a quick call to NBC News to tell them he was headed for the financial district and would look for an NBC crew.
Before he found any NBC colleagues, he ran into a tourist, a “nice guy” from the West Indies staying in a hotel that later would collapse, with a video camera.
In about two minutes, Mr. Martin had made a deal to “rent” the camera from the tourist for the day for $500. “I think he understood I was a professional and had a job to do. I needed to document this horror,” he said.
Mr. Martin was about four blocks south of the WTC when the second tower started to collapse.
“I had it right in the viewfinder, and I was stupidly thinking `Gee, what a thought,”’ he said.
A split second later, Mr. Martin, 34, came to his senses and took off, prodded by a cop who said, “Run, run!”
Mr. Martin has lived through coups in Africa and hostage crises in Uganda. He also had a valuable learning tool in the rescue/survivor stories that are a “Dateline” staple.
“You really listen to them,” he said. “I knew that in a fire you need to be low. I didn’t know if that applied to ash.”
Dusty and “freaked” and clutching the borrowed camera, which had been completely destroyed when he dropped it while crawling away from the airborne debris, Mr. Martin made his way west to what “seemed to be the area with the most air,” and then south around the tip of Manhattan and back up along a street that cuts up through the center of the financial district.
He hired a car off the street and delivered his “rented” camera to NBC News technicians, who took it apart (“if the tape hasn’t caught fire, they can usually salvage it”), dubbed the tape (“it was in some crazy format”) and rushed both producer and tape onto the air.
“I just told the story and tried to remember it,” he said. “There was no paucity of horrible images.
“When I watched it the first couple of times, I was unaffected,” said Mr. Martin, who would be ordered to go to a doctor and counselor at work. Late at night on Sept. 12, he watched the tape he made. “That was a trip. I just got so very lucky.”