On Sept. 13, 2001, the Chamberlain family of Staten Island, N.Y., got a call from a documentary filmmaker named James Ronald Whitney. Amid the sea of “missing” fliers tacked up all over downtown, one photo in particular had caught his eye: it showed 36-year-old Michele Lanza (née Chamberlain), an administrative assistant on the 97th floor of the South Tower, with her 7-year-old son, Nicholas. Whitney asked for permission to keep a vigil with the family and tell the story of mother and son.
The result was the Emmy-winning 2002 HBO documentary Telling Nicholas, which captured the agonizing wait for news of Michele and the moment when her husband, Robert, finally breaks the news of her death to their son.
For the Chamberlain family, the personal tragedy was compounded by the fact that Michele had just embarked on a new life. Recently separated, she had moved from Virginia back to her childhood neighborhood, found a job, and settled Nicholas into first grade. “She was finding herself again,” says Susan Chamberlain, Michele’s younger sister.
As the cameras rolled, Michele’s family waited, swept up into hope and dread, guilt, and anger. Her sister Cindy agonized that if Michele hadn’t stopped to call her when the first plane hit the North Tower, she might have made it out. (They later learned how, as a floor manager, Michele delayed her own evacuation to round up others.) Their mother, Ethel, went from being hopeful to vengeful. “Death is too easy for them,” she says of the terrorists. “I want them tortured. Tortured.”
Robert waited 10 days to tell Nicholas what it meant that Mommy was “lost,” during which time the young boy consoled himself that she was on a “special street” downtown or else “took a cab to New Jersey.”
“Did they find her?” Nicholas asks, as his father embraces him and leans into his ear. “Mom’s not going to be coming home, little man,” he says. “Mom has died, OK?”