THERE’S nothing like bad weather to get Paul Berriff firing on all cylinders. The North Yorkshire-based photographer and documentary maker has built an award-winning career on some of the most dramatic conditions Mother Nature could throw his way.

From white-water rafting down the Colorado River to lifeboat rescues off the Bridlington coast, Paul has filmed them all – and has the trophies to show for it.

After starting out as a newspaper photographer in Leeds, he moved to the BBC as a news cameraman, then set up his own TV production company, pioneering fly-on-the-wall-style documentaries.

He has made films about Britain’s busiest fire station, ridden the waves with lifeboat crews and spent a year with RAF search and rescue at Lossiemouth, during which he survived a helicopter crash and was first on the scene at the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster, winning a Bafta for his work.

Arguably his most incredible footage is of the Twin Towers collapsing in New York on September 11, 2001 – when Paul was lucky to escape with his life, let alone his camera.

But Paul is not only an observer. Over the years, he has trained as a firefighter and is a qualified lifeboat man and coastguard. Paul set up the Humber Lifeboat, one of Britain’s busiest rescue stations, and remains its commander. His heroics have saved scores of lives and have earned him the title, the “Indiana Jones of television” as well as medals for bravery.

When I ring Paul this week on his mobile to request some photographs of his time with the Bridlington lifeboat in the 1970s, I’m not surprised to find him out in the Dales with his camera. There have been storms overnight and torrential rain. It’s pure gold for Paul.

“The River Ure has burst its banks and I want to get some pictures of the waterfalls. It’s a fantastic place. There is nobody else with a camera. It all looks very dramatic,” says Paul.

Extreme weather brings drama, but danger too – and Paul has already spotted some sheep stranded in rapidly flooding fields between Leyburn and Hawes and is considering calling out the emergency services.

“I have got both hats on – the professional photographer/television hat and my other life based with search and rescue,” says Paul. “The two don’t meet; if I’m involved in a rescue, I do that and that alone – very rarely do I take movie or stills photos.”

But there are exceptions to that rule – and Paul has the footage to prove it.

Like the time his RAF helicopter crashed in the Scottish highlands and he managed to scramble free along with the rest of the crew, make the May Day call and film the wreckage for posterity.

It was during the same year-long stint with the RAF crews at Lossiemouth that Paul put down his camera to become rescuer himself. He had gone out in the helicopter with a Mountain Rescue team following a call about three students stuck on a 200-foot-high rock stack off the coast.

The weather had changed and a force 10 gale was raging. One student had got off the stack to raise the alarm, a second had drowned while making his way back to the mainland and a third was up to his neck in sea water.

Paul takes on the story: “The mountain rescue team abseiled 300 feet down the cliff side, but five minutes later radioed that they could not reach the boy.

“They were not really equipped for the conditions. I had on a full RAF dry suit and life jacket and everything I needed to go into the water so I got on the radio and said: ‘I’m dressed to go in the water; I’m a coastguard from Yorkshire and done cliff rescues at Flamborough Head and I’m also a lifeboat man’. They said: ‘Come on down’.”

Battling heavy snow and foaming seas, Paul managed to save the student and was later awarded Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. In typical Yorkshire style, Paul shrugs off any talk of him being a hero. “If it was me out there, I’d want someone to try to get me.”

Paul clearly remembers the day, as he puts it, when “I crossed the line and became a casualty myself”. It was on that fateful day in New York eight years ago.

Paul, his wife Hilary, and a film crew had been in the Big Apple for months filming a documentary series on animal cops when the Twin Towers were struck. Paul’s journalistic instinct kicked in and he immediately ordered his team to head for the World Trade Centre.

“As I drove nearer, I could see both towers were on fire and we could see people jumping out of buildings. I decided: now we are going to make the Towering Inferno; we will film this.

“We’d been filming for about 20 minutes when there was suddenly an explosion. I panned the camera up the tower to see the top floor collapsing and coming towards me. I stood there filming for seven seconds meanwhile all the others started running down the street. Then I thought I better start running myself.”

As Paul scrambled – with his sound recordist in tow – he kept the camera pointing behind him, and captured the towers thundering to the ground.

Paul was struck by falling debris and was unconscious for about 20 minutes. When he came too, he was surrounded by a thick white fog and struggled to breathe. “I thought this is it. My clothes were ripped and my knees were burning. I thought I was going to die.”

Amazingly, Paul managed to crawl to safety – and was reunited with his wife and crew, who also escaped the attack. Another survivor was Paul’s camera, complete with footage of the towers coming down.

Paul has a still taken from the footage, which he shows me in the backroom of his studio in Bedale.

It is here that Paul’s latest venture is taking shape – one that brings his career full circle, back to his days as young photographer in Yorkshire.

After finding a haul of “lost photographs” in his attic – including 50 unseen snaps of The Beatles from the early Sixties – Paul has launched a new photographic sales business, selling glossy big-sized prints and posters from his archive.

Other images in the collection include gritty scenes of Leeds, shots of his time with the Bridlington lifeboat crews and dramatic Yorkshire landscapes – some taken years back, others more recently. Many have been snapped using his first camera, a Speed Graphic 5 by 4 plate camera.

Paul said: “Everything comes together; I’ve got these pictures from my attic and they complement what I am doing here.”

Despite a glittering career – Paul has won 17 awards – rescue work remains his biggest achievement.

He says: “There is nothing in the world like saving someone’s life, or helping somebody. That feeling of elation; nothing else can overtake it.”

• You can look at – and order from – Paul Berriff’s photographic archive online at