Ten years ago, Michelle Peters was walking her son, Brook, to his second day of kindergarten in downtown Manhattan. The day was sunny, New York in all its glory, a crisp breeze and very few clouds in the sky. Michelle dropped Brook off and went to one of the firehouses she frequented as a volunteer. Not more than 45 minutes later, American Airlines flight 11 flew into the North Tower; fifteen minutes after that United Airlines flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. A few of the downtown public schools started evacuating and Michelle hurried to pick up Brook, still as unsure as everyone else about what was happening. She took him to the safest place she knew – the firehouse.
By the time the first tower was collapsing, Michelle knew she needed to get as far north as possible and picked Brook up in her arms, covered him with her jacket and ran. His head did not stay covered for long, and as Michelle moved toward their home, Brook’s eyes were fixated on the falling building, the flying debris, and the figures he saw jumping from the windows.
Now, 10 years later, Brook has made a documentary film, The Second Day describing what took place in the moments before, during, and most importantly, after the tragic event. “There was nothing written about 9/11 from the children’s perspective and I really wanted to fill in the holes for everybody. I wanted to give a voice to those who didn’t have one,” says Brook, whose school was just 10 blocks from the World Trade Center.
Although Brook didn’t lose any immediate family members on 9/11, he did say goodbye to many of his role models and father figures – the firemen. Michelle, a single mom, had been taking Brook with her to the firehouses his entire life. He took his first steps in a firehouse and spent every Saturday washing the trucks. The firemen were their family. “You’re lucky if as a parent you’re able to give your kid one great male role model, and Brook was and still is very fortunate to have many,” she says.
In the weeks, months and years following September 11th, New York City public schools provided counselors for the students, though most were unsure of how the children would be affected by what they’d seen and experienced in the long run. At age 11, Brook began interviewing some of these counselors for his film, as well as teachers and students from seven other city schools; some of the children had never before spoken about their feelings regarding 9/11. “The film was therapeutic for all of us,” explains Brook, who is now 14 and about to start high school. “And I wanted to continue exploring that with the Show Your Strength campaign.” The campaign, which Michelle and Brook launched last month, is meant to encourage teens to speak out about the challenges they face, and to teach them that inner strength and resilience is universal. “No matter what issue you’re having, even if it’s as tiny as having a bad day or something as big as 9/11, I want people to know they’re not alone,” Brook says. “I’ve just been trying to build a community of people who have been through it and are there to comfort others as well.”
Brook’s inner strength is also due in large part to the unyielding support he has received from his mother. Michelle was his producer on the film and was with him for every step of his journey. “He was very passionate about the film, and I did whatever I could to help,” Michelle says. “I knew the film was a great idea, and I told him that I would support him as much as I could, but I was also thinking, he’s eleven and a half!” Brook’s age never deterred him, but it did mean Michelle would have to be present for everything from subway rides to interviews to editing sessions in the Bronx. “We had no budget, zero. I reached out to everyone I could. A friend lent us his camcorder, I tracked down photographers and maps and found volunteers. And all of this was between taking him to soccer practice and school,” she says.
Her hard work has not gone unnoticed by Brook. “I think it’s important for parents to support their kids’ dreams and aspirations because it helps them gain self-confidence. Right from the beginning my mom was very supportive. She brought me everywhere, she was the whole team,” he says. “She made it happen.”
Since its Tribeca Film Festival debut in April of this year, The Second Day and Brook have been featured in the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Redbook, on ABC, CBS, and Fox, and in countries across the globe. Brook’s dedication to the film has sparked an excitement in the media – he was only 11 years old when he started the project – and with the anniversary of 9/11 just around the corner, Brook’s story has become one both children and parents alike can find great hope in. The band Simple Plan has recently joined the effort by donating their song, “What If” to the soundtrack of the Show your Strength music video Brook is working on.
Brook is still dealing with his emotions and the losses he experienced in relation to 9/11; more than a dozen of Michelle and Brook’s fireman friends passed away in their rescue attempts. Michelle is continuing to encourage him, even in his goal of one day becoming a fireman himself. “It’s scary for me,” she says. “But what did I think? I raised him to be around this group of men and he’s witnessed firsthand everything they give. I’m just so proud.”
As he has to wait a few more years before joining the ranks, Brook is hard at work on another documentary film, this time about the FDNY and the fatal 1994 Watts Street fire in Manhattan. “If he wants to be both a fireman and a filmmaker, I think that’s great,” says Michelle. “Brook is working towards something larger all together – he wants to show that you can really go through anything in life and come out the other side with strength and spirit, as we all did after 9/11.”