'Report from Ground Zero': a true inventory of horror

The Argument

Dennis Smith's reconstruction of the final half-hour of New York's World Trade Center makes a compelling case for retribution.


March 10, 2002|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff

They canceled an entire week of professional football over it. People stocked their basements with crates of bottled water. Gun sales soared. Paul McCartney got so upset, he purged his soul in song -- caterwauling "Freeeeeeedom!" at any venue that would have him.

Now, Americans seem to be over it.

The slaughter of Sept. 11 is just six months behind us, but the tabloids are now breathless over Rosie O'Donnell coming out of the closet.

Is it a mark of national resilience? Or a sign of callousness? Could any other people on earth repackage the worst mass murder in their county's history as a Super Bowl halftime show?

If Osama bin Laden was planning on shattering U.S. morale that day, he failed miserably. But he did succeed in exposing, yet again, our lack of long-term memory and the peculiar American propensity for confusing sentimentality with reverence.

If ever we needed a gut check -- a reminder of our moral obligation to hold sacred the memory of those few who fell so that many could live -- it is now. So thank God for Report From Ground Zero, by Dennis Smith (Viking, 366 pages, with 16 pages of black and white photographs, $24.95).

It's precisely the cold slap in the face we need.

"This book is dedicated to these 403 brave souls who went in to help others get out," it begins.

Immediately thereafter, it takes readers straight into the maw of hell -- as described in the awe-struck, first-person voices of the trembling men and women in uniform who survived to tell the tale of the evacuation and collapse of the World Trade Center.

It is as unsparing an account as any in the annals of warfare, rivaling such works as Richard Tregaskis' Guadalcanal Diary for raw immediacy and intimate detail. Be there no doubt, war is the only analogy that begins to encompass all that occurred inside the Twin Towers in the scant half-hour after the planes struck.

As severed human limbs rained into the street -- and as men and women by the score leaped from the heights and exploded like so many water balloons on the concrete below -- a new kind of barbarism befell the world.

How much can you stand, dear reader?

Dare you look away?

Without ever preaching the message, Report From Ground Zero teaches a hard lesson in basic civics. It is our duty as citizens to know what happened that day -- not just the sanitized media abstracts meant to spare fragile sensibilities. Because as this New War is fought, and the inevitable losses come, we must never, ever forget why.

Most remarkably, for all the millions of words that appeared in the press and miles of footage aired on television, the story of what happened on the ground -- and under it -- has never truly been told, until now.

That's because the author was granted a level of access to the inferno that no conventional journalist could attain. And he possesses insight that could be gained only by long experience.

Smith spent 18 years in the FDNY, and served in the South Bronx -- notorious as the most dangerous post in the city. The author of 10 prior books, his first is still his best known: Report From Engine Co. 82, a memoir of his years with the department, which has sold a phenomenal two million copies since it was published in 1972.

In the rough fraternity of the firehouse -- where the all-purpose greeting and most honored title is "brother" -- Smith enjoys a bond of trust with his subjects that brings forth their most harrowing and difficult memories.

There are times when the book reads like a therapist's notes.

Such is the account of Officer Will Jimeno, 34, a rookie Port Authority Police officer who ventures into the catacombs below the World Trade Center shortly after the first plane hits. It is a vast space covering some 16 acres, a subterranean mall descending seven stories underground.

Jimeno and four other officers are racing through the maze of corridors, evacuating civilians, when chunks of the Twin Towers break off and cascade into the plaza above their heads at speeds of 120 miles per hour. The impact causes sections of the concrete ceiling to crumble like Ritz crackers.

Strung out in a line, the officers flee through the tunnels. As they run, they are picked off one by one, crushed by falling blocks and girders and collapsing walls. Then comes the jet fuel, pouring down the elevator shafts, disgorging fireballs into the basement.

Those who are not bludgeoned, smothered or roasted to death are entombed alive.

"I have an old pair of handcuffs," Jimeno recalls, "and I begin to scratch at everything around me, trying to free up some of the concrete."

Miraculously, his partner, Officer Dominick Pezzulo manages to free himself and crawl to Jimeno's aid. A weight lifter, Pezzulo, squats and tries to leverage some of the concrete off his pinned friend, just as the first of the two towers begins to collapse.

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