A clear-eyed view of 9 / 11 horrors, heroism

Editor's Choice

February 06, 2005|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Book Editor

102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers

By Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. Times Books. 323 pages. $26.

Euphemism is how we protect ourselves from the unbearable. When we hear "Holocaust," we take in the word's abstract meaning, but unless we will ourselves to do so, unless we are confronted with images, description or accounts, we do not venture beyond the symbolism the word connotes. In that way, we let ourselves off the hook, we spare ourselves the full, soul-depleting contemplation of the unspeakable.

So it is with "9 / 11." Within days of that appalling morning, we had a shorthand way of referring to it, a term that both signified the horror and created distance from it. We could evoke that atrocity, discuss it in terms of policy and politics and even human cost, without experiencing the rattling shock every one of us felt watching those towers and their doomed occupants disappear before our eyes.

New York Times journalists Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn reduce that distance in this harrowing, deeply reported, practically minute-by-minute and floor-by-floor portrayal of what happened inside the World Trade Center between the first plane's attack and the second tower's disintegration. Through interviews and access to all manner of communications flowing in and out of the towers that morning -- e-mails, voice-mails, radio transmissions, 911 calls -- Dwyer and Flynn make vivid acts of heroism, desperation and futility as the unfathomable (at least to those inside the towers) unfolded.

The point-counterpoint that runs achingly throughout 102 Minutes, is the interplay of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Office workers chatting over their morning coffee one instant and the next contemplating the only choice available: incineration or leaping from a 98th-floor window. Or, in a dilemma readily recognizable in our bell-ringing culture, brokers in the South Tower weighing whether to evacuate after the North Tower (but not theirs) was hit or leave and possibly miss a killer trade.

Insightful, compassionate, and unrelievedly tense, 102 Minutes creates a hellishness we once thought could exist only in places like Dresden and Stalingrad, never here, never in Manhattan. The intensity of the inferno, the choking smoke, the terrifying chaos, all of that is rendered palpably, painfully. And better than any telling I recall, Dwyer and Flynn make the topography of the trade center understandable and significant.

Who lived and who died was often the arbitrary consequence of where one was (no one survived above the point of impact in the North Tower) or what one was told and by whom. (Some dispatchers advised people to stay put, others to get out.) But 102 Minutes also makes powerfully evident that many were doomed by past decisions and failings -- in some cases decades past. Suspect design and construction choices would prove fatal for many. Institutional hostility between the New York police and fire departments and massive communication failures also ended in deaths.

The authors refuse to sentimentalize. They note that the vast majority of uniformed rescuers died not in specific acts of saving lives but because they did not know the true peril. But 102 Minutes also contains stories of remarkable self-sacrifice -- office workers who climbed up to free trapped workers and the case of Abe Zelmanowitz, unwilling to abandon his paraplegic friend, Ed Beyea, who could not get downstairs in his wheelchair.

102 Minutes rekindles the heartsickness of 9 / 11, but it is also unmistakably affirming as well. In relating the actions of people like Frank De Martini, a Port Authority bureaucrat, and Battalion Chief Orio Palmer, both of whom died saving others, Dwyer and Flynn showcase what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." If there is any comfort to be had in 9 / 11, it is that nobility may hover closer than we ever suspected.

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