By Tim Stack
September 22, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
Jack Zeman/FOX
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Even a day at the beach is a cause for drama on this Fox hit. For its third-season premiere, 9-1-1 is wiping out the Santa Monica Pier with a massive tsunami — and firefighter Buck (Oliver Stark) is among those dropping the funnel cake and running for dear life. “I thought we had gone as big as you could possibly go, but no, there’s more,” jokes star Angela Bassett, referencing season 2’s multi-episode earthquake premiere.

The effects and scale of this latest natural disaster are so huge that production used the Mexico-based water tanks James Cameron employed to film 1997’s Titanic. “We re-created Santa Monica streets in this tank, along with a piece of the Santa Monica Pier,” says showrunner and co-creator Tim Minear (American Horror Story). “The tsunami hits, and what’s left is the sign that says ‘Santa Monica Pier’ and the top 30 percent of the Ferris wheel sticking out of the ocean.”

9-1-1’s tsunami event will be structured much like last year’s opener. “Not unlike the earthquake episodes last year, the big event will happen at the end of the premiere,” reveals Minear. “Then the thrill ride of the flooding and people trapped at the top of the Ferris wheel sticking out of the ocean will happen in part two. Part three is the aftermath of that once the water recedes and people are displaced and separated. We don’t know who’s lived and who’s died. Buck has lost [Eddie’s son] Christopher (Gavin McHugh) and it’s very harrowing. And then there are other rescues to be had and the clean-up period and Maddie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is instrumental in discovering a real crisis in a building that’s not calling for help.”

Once that crisis is averted, though, things are hardly calm for the newly married Bobby (Peter Krause) and Athena (Bassett). The seventh episode of the season will finally give viewers Athena’s origin story and reveal what drove her to join the police force. “We’re all getting along well with this new family, this new dynamic, and then, of course in this 9-1-1 world, something happens,” teases Bassett. “This whole discovery that just brings up her past and what has made her who she is.” Adds Minear: “We see a very young Athena and an event that took place in the ’90s which has come back to haunt her a little bit in the present day. She unravels a mystery from her youth as we tell that story in parallel timelines.”

One of 9-1-1’s other couples, Maddie and Chim (Kenneth Choi), also find themselves struggling to overcome the past. “They’re definitely back on,” says Minear of the couple. But, “Maddie is not done dealing with the turmoil and the destruction that [her dead abusive ex-husband] Doug has left in his wake. I think that she’s probably far more damaged by Doug than she knows yet.”

Brace for impact.

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