NEW YORK — NEW YORK - They did not see the airplane streak across the corner of the video camera's field of view at 8:46 a.m. But the camera, pointed at the twin towers from the passenger seat of an SUV in Brooklyn, kept rolling as the plane disappeared for an instant and a billowing cloud of smoke and dust emerged from the north tower.
The SUV, carrying an immigrant worker from the Czech Republic who was making a video postcard to send home, then entered the tunnel and emerged a few minutes later - to the shock of the men in the vehicle - almost at the foot of the burning tower.
The camera, pointed upward, zoomed in and out, and then, with a roar in the background that built to a piercing screech, it locked on the terrifying image of the second plane as it soared, like some awful bird of prey, into the south tower.
It was not until almost two weeks later that the worker, Pavel Hlava, even realized that he had captured the first plane on video. Even then, Hlava, who speaks almost no English, did not realize that he had some of the rarest footage of the World Trade Center disaster. His is the only videotape known to have recorded both plane impacts, and only the second image of any kind showing the first strike.
The tape has surfaced publicly only now, on the eve of the second anniversary of the attacks, after following a winding path, from a circle of Czech-American friends and drinking buddies.
A pub in Queens
At one point, a friend of Hlava's wife traded a copy of the tape to another Czech immigrant for a bar tab at a pub in Queens. Hlava and his brother, Josef, who was also in the SUV on Sept. 11, tried at various times to sell the tape, both in New York and in the Czech Republic. But with little sophistication about the news media and no understanding of the tape's significance, the brothers had no success.
Eventually, a woman happened to learn of the tape and the pub deal at a school where one of the Czech immigrants was studying English. She brought it to the attention of a free-lance news photographer who was her ballroom dancing partner, and that man, Walter Karling, brought the tape to The New York Times.
For all the tape's imperfections - the first plane is seen distantly, and Hlava's hand is understandably far from steady at many points in the hourlong record - federal investigators who are studying the collapse of the towers say they are now trying to get a copy for the data it may contain.
A lack of information on the first strike, for example, has posed a major challenge to engineers trying to understand exactly why the north tower crumbled. The tape could, for example, help investigators pin down the precise speed at which the first plane was moving when it struck the tower.
'You waited too long'
In an interview Thursday, Hlava said through a translator - David Melichar, who with Karling now describes himself as Hlava's agent - that the language barrier had much to do with why no one beyond his family and friends had seen the tape. Finally, Hlava said, so much time had passed that he doubted that anyone would still be interested.
"All his friends, they told him, 'Hey, you made a mistake - you waited too long,'" Melichar said.
Melichar also made it clear that the driver of the SUV had strong objections to releasing the tape. And because the driver, a Russian native named Mike Cohen, is Hlava's boss on his construction job, that wish carried a certain weight.
"Three thousand people died in that place," Cohen said when reached on his cell phone Friday. "I told him, the day he's gonna sell that film, he's not gonna work for me anymore." The New York Times had not paid for the tape, and it had not been sold to any television station, Karling said yesterday morning.
The tape is being shown for the first time on the program This Week With George Stephanopoulos on ABC at 9 a.m. today. ABC did not pay for the tape, said Tom Bettag, executive producer of the program.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Cohen was driving with Hlava, who was in the passenger seat, to a job site in Pennsylvania. Normally he would have driven around Manhattan, but Hlava's brother, Josef, had just arrived from the Czech Republic and was with them. Hlava asked Cohen if he would drive past the twin towers instead - Josef had never seen them up close.
Pavel Hlava decided to try out a new video camera by recording everything on the trip and sending it back to his family in Europe.
As they drove, Cohen listened to talk radio in English and spoke to the Hlava brothers in Russian, which they understood by virtue of having grown up in a country that was part of the Eastern Bloc. As the brothers spoke to each other in Czech, occasional one- or two-word exchanges in English also punctuated the conversation. (Several officials at the Czech Center in Manhattan listened to the tape and translated portions.)
The SUV drove beneath the Gowanus Expressway toward the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and Hlava zoomed in on the twin towers, which rose up beyond the other side of the East River.
"Now they are beautifully visible," Hlava narrated. "Do you see that? The two tallest buildings in New York: 411 meters."
The SUV continued toward the tunnel. The electronic signs over the toll booths flashed messages to commuters: "SCHOOL'S OPEN; DRIVE CAREFULLY" and "SEP 11, 2001; 8:45 A.M."
Hlava panned to the right. There were the twin towers again. The tops of the buildings stuck up above a white railing in the foreground. The south tower was closer.
Hlava would remember that as he zoomed in at that moment, he was looking at the camera's relatively low-resolution LCD display, not through the viewfinder. He did not see the whitish object moving toward the towers or go behind the corner of the north tower.
What looked at first like a sort of avalanche of dust spurted from the tower's side. It became a silvery, expanding cloud, growing until it reached high above the top of the tower.
American Airlines Flight 11 had struck the north tower, but seemingly no one at the toll plaza had noticed. The traffic crept forward toward the tunnel entrance. Hlava kept the camera on.
Inside the tunnel, Cohen heard a radio report that a small private plane had hit the World Trade Center. He warned the Hlava brothers that traffic could slow down because the towers were straight ahead outside the tunnel.
But when they came into the sunlight, the north tower, looming above them, was bursting with flames. "Stop, stop, Mike!" one of the brothers shouted in English. "Oh my God! Oh my God!" the other exclaimed. "Stop, Mike," the first said again.
They stopped and got out of the SUV. Hlava could not absorb what he was seeing.
"A short while ago we were camera-ing the twins, and they were cool," he said in Czech. "And now they're on fire."
'It's an attack, brother'
There the shrieking of a jet from behind them. The volume of the noise was terrifying, Hlava later said. The dark shape of the plane shot into the camera's view, its right side tilted up so high that the wings seemed to be almost vertical.
The plane dived into the south tower, and an orange fireball burst forth.
"Mike!" Hlava shouted. "I got it on tape!"
Someone else, possibly Josef, shouted: "It's an attack, brother. That's not normal."
After a few moments, the reply was "Let's leave or something else will happen, dude."
In spite of all the chaos, Hlava still recognized, on some level at least, that he had created an irreplaceable record. "I hope no one takes my camera," he said at one point.
By the time police officers had directed the SUV in a wide circle, first to the western edge of the island, then around its southern tip and northward again on FDR Drive along the East River, Hlava had regained some of his composure and tried to continue his video postcard.
"Right now I'm under the Brooklyn Bridge, and I'm taping," he said as they drove north, still very close to the burning towers. "After the Brooklyn Bridge," he said, panning backward toward the flames, "comes the catastrophe."