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Documentarian Jeff Orlowski Reflects on 9/11 Student Journalism Experience


Jeff Orlowski is an Emmy-winner documentarian who was a senior at Stuyvesant High School on Sept. 11, 2001. He was also the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Spectator. As the World Trade Center stood burning, Orlowski’s instinct was not to run from the scene but rather to figure out how to cover the news happening just blocks away. In the weeks after, displaced from his school, he and a small team of student reporters created a special edition of the paper that was distributed by the New York Times.

He recalls his 9/11 experience to former classmate and Variety senior features editor, TV, Danielle Turchiano:

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I was in music class on the ground floor when the first building was hit, and my first instinct was that there was a truck outside — just some ginormous truck that slammed its doors shut. It didn’t really make sense, but it was extremely loud and extremely close and everything was otherwise normal.

Then I went to environmental science [class] and the second building was hit. And our teacher was just trying to continue teaching the class as if nothing was happening. There was a real dissonance. We could look outside and see smoke billowing from the North Tower.

I found Ethan [Moses], our photographer, and we got our press passes, and I tried to get him out so he could take photographs. I remember seeing some of our editors in the hallway in tears, and I just gave them a hug and they were not in working mode, so I said, “Find other people.” It was about figuring out how we cover this thing. There was a news event happening right outside our window, and we wanted to try to capture that. We were trying to be journalists.

When the second building fell, we were now evacuating. I was at the north end of the building, and when I was getting close to the doors, the south of the building just went dark. I was standing at the stairs at the north exit, in the middle of people running in opposite directions: everybody inside was trying to get out and everybody that was outside was trying to get back in. Finally things settled a little bit, and the buildings weren’t there.

We used to do all of our layout editing in the office with desktop computers, but we put everything onto this brand-new laptop [that I borrowed from another student]. We had built a relationship with some of the editors of the [New York] Times and they let us use their darkroom. Everybody was just trying to do everything that was possible to get different perspectives and capture the experience of our school and our community.

It’s been with me ever since. I think I only really processed the emotions of that day on the 10 year anniversary. I think jumping directly into workload masked the real-time experience of what was happening. Reliving it 10 years later was particularly heavy and hard for me. I certainly don’t feel like I could capture that day in a film, personally. But then, people wanted to share our stories and our message. We had people donating the printing of the magazine; we had the New York Times donating the distribution of the magazine — they distributed 830,000 copies to the entire New York metro area. To see our work get spread like that was completely transformational for me. We were just a group of high school kids that made something that others appreciated and wanted to share, and that’s been my life ever since then: just trying to make things that speak to the public about issues that we’ve been facing.

The quote on the back of the magazine was a W. H. Alden quote that says, “We must love one another or die,” and I feel similarly today. Either we love each other or we’re going to kill each other. War is not the answer for anything, and if the last 20 years have taught us anything, it’s got to be that there are better and smarter ways for us to solve our tensions. That’s what we need if we’re going to have any success as a civilization; we need to work on bridge-building and empathy-building.

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