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On 9/11, Before the Horrible Became the Unimaginable
BOOKS OF THE TIMES - January 21, 2005
By KEVIN BAKER
102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers
By Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, for many of us who lived through the attack and its aftermath in New York, is how unreal it all seems now. Already, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, often feel as if they took place in the distant past. And yet all it takes is the smallest reminder - a low-bearing plane, a National Guardsman patrolling Grand Central Terminal, a whiff of jet fuel like the smell that pervaded Lower Manhattan for months afterward - and one is plunged immediately into the same emotions that gripped us at the time: horror, grief, shock, rage.
In "102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers," Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn evoke all these responses, and more. Mr. Dwyer, a reporter for The New York Times and the author or coauthor of two other books on New York (including one on the 1993 attempt to blow up the trade center), and Mr. Flynn, a special projects editor and former police bureau chief at The Times, have put their experience to good use, drawing on hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of electronic, phone and radio transmissions and oral histories. What they have produced is a masterpiece of reporting.
Not all of "102 Minutes" was truly "untold," but it is a remarkably comprehensive account of what went on inside the trade center that day, distilled to an amazingly coherent 261 pages of text. The authors have added charts and drawings to help readers keep track of the dozens of individuals whose plights they follow, but so vivid are their characterizations that one hardly needs to refer to such aids.
Their style is invariably succinct and understated; like all the best reporters, they let the story they have dug out speak for itself.
"102 Minutes" is a book riveting enough to be read in a sitting, but I suspect that many readers will find it too emotionally debilitating to do so. It contains one story after another of harrowing escapes, immense heroism and heart-rending loss. Take the experience of Liz Thompson and Geoffrey Wharton, who became the last people out of the Windows on the World restaurant because a man happened to hold an elevator door for them. Or Jan Demczur, a window washer stuck in an elevator on the 50th floor of the north tower when the first plane hit and who, with five other men, cut his way out of the elevator shaft with the blade and handle of his squeegee.
Frank De Martini, the ebullient Port Authority construction manager, with his crew of Pete Negron, Carlos DaCosta and Pablo Ortiz, performed herculean labors, saving at least 70 people in the north tower and even radioing out the first, ominous reports of the damage the fire was causing to the building's steel (reports that appear to have gone largely unheeded).
Then there are Abe Zelmanowitz, who stayed with his paralyzed, wheelchair-bound friend Ed Beyea to the end; the 24-year-old security guard Robert Gabriel Martinez, who was assigned to the 78th floor of the south tower only because he was a few minutes late to work that day and refused to abandon his post; and the 72-year-old Port Authority construction inspector Tony Savas, who, after being trapped in a smoky elevator for half an hour, bounded out asking, "What do you need me to do?" and who insisted, when he was finally rescued, "I've got a second wind."
Again and again, one finds oneself moved to the point of tears by the smallest things. A conversation between a person trapped in a tower and a loved one; the mere fact that several of the firms in the center preferred to hire friends and relatives; the account of a firefighter, Danny Suhr, who is mentioned only once in the narrative, killed by a falling body before he could even get into the south tower. The pictures of those who didn't make it, even the simple diagrams showing the outlines of the planes where they hit and dissolved into the buildings, are nearly as heart-wrenching.
Mr. Dwyer and Mr. Flynn's story is an intensely human, personal one. And yet it also draws them inevitably into the question of whether or not some part of this calamity might have been ameliorated. This is where the rage comes in.
Of the 2,749 people thought to have been killed in the attack, the authors estimate that at least 1,500, "and possibly many more," survived the initial plane crashes but died because they could not get out of the towers before they collapsed. They attribute this to the design of the buildings themselves, and to "a sclerotic emergency response culture in New York that resisted reform" even after the earlier 1993 terrorist attempt to destroy the trade center.
The towers had been built under a New York City building code that was quietly modified in the 1960's in order to make such steel-and-glass boxes economically feasible. This was a betrayal of the city's longtime social covenant, stretching back to another of its most tragic moments, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which dozens of teenage girls ended up jumping to their deaths because they were caught beyond hope of rescue by a fire in a tall building.
Ninety years later, the authors explain, because the Port Authority was allowed to erect skyscrapers with insufficient stairways or fireproofing, victims again were forced to leap to their deaths.
Even worse was how the police officers and especially the firefighters who rushed to the stricken towers were left mostly to their own devices by their superiors and, ultimately, by the administration of the most acclaimed public hero of 9/11, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Messrs. Dwyer and Flynn spell it out: "The people fighting the two worst building fires in the nation's history had no video monitors. No radio communications with other agencies. No way to get reports from police helicopters and only a limited ability to communicate among themselves."
Mr. Giuliani, testifying before the Congressional 9/11 Commission, tried to make out that the estimated 200 firemen still in the remaining north tower at the time of its collapse had somehow received the order to evacuate but had chosen to keep helping civilians. Mr. Dwyer and Mr. Flynn find no evidence for this assertion. Nearly all the civilians who could have left the north tower were already gone, they write; the hard fact spelled out here is that most of the firefighters who died there probably had no idea the building was about to fall.
The courage of these men remains unsurpassed in the annals of our city. It needed no gilding from Mr. Giuliani - especially none that conveniently obscured the failure of his own administration to properly prepare for and react to the terrorists' attack.
Mr. Dwyer and Mr. Flynn duly point out that "nothing can diminish the culpability of the hijackers and their masters" for all the death on Sept. 11. Yet if this brilliant and troubling book gives us any indication, we will probably be just as unprepared the next time.
Kevin Baker is the author of the historical novels "Paradise Alley" and "Dreamland," both set in New York City.
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