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A September Morning

Reviewed by John Farmer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page BW07

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

By Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. Times. 322 pp. $26

Chief Orio J. Palmer, left, raced up 40 flights of stairs with 50 pounds of equipment. (Ap/wide World Photos/goldfish Pictures)

Truth may not be the first casualty of war, as some say, but if some official accounts of Sept. 11 were any indication, it ranks fairly high. For nearly three years, the American public was fed a series of half-truths, exaggerations and outright fabrications that, taken together, transformed America's defeat that day into an almost Homeric account of heroism. But if the 9/11 Commission taught us anything, it was that you can't turn The Iliad into an after-action report, particularly if you're the guys who let the horse inside the walls.

The chief virtue of 102 Minutes, Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn's unsparing, eloquent history of the struggle to survive inside the World Trade Center, is the authors' insistence that truth supplant myth. However comforting myths may be after a defeat, they're useless in assessing what went wrong and may actually be impediments to preventing future disasters.

Dwyer and Flynn allude, for instance, to perhaps the most egregious national legend of that day: the myth that the U.S. military was tracking and had been authorized to shoot down the last of the four hijacked flights, United 93, whose passengers overpowered the terrorists on their own and forced the plane to crash. Just as that inaccurate (to put it charitably) account understated the civilians' valor by overstating the federal government's response, so too did "the first telling of the story of the trade center rescue," in which "civilians played little role, except as helpless victims who were saved by the police and firefighters," the authors write. "That civilians had collaborated in the rescue -- and indeed had been instrumental in saving many people on the high floors -- simply did not make the early chronicles."

Dwyer and Flynn, both reporters for the New York Times, also show that the predicament in which the nearly 15,000 people in the towers found themselves that morning was the point of convergence of seemingly unrelated currents of history and patterns of personal choice. Historical developments such as the unchecked rise of al Qaeda, the reduction in U.S. air-defense capabilities after the Cold War and the decision to build tightly clustered stairwells in the Twin Towers "merged and crashed on the morning of September 11" with career choices, commuting habits and personal schedules.

The trailing consequence at the end of this chain of circumstances was, for many that morning, the absurdly simple issue of whether and how to open or close a door: office doors, elevator doors, stairwell doors, bathroom doors, rooftop doors. Some, like the rooftop doors, were locked; others, like the stairwell doors on upper floors in Tower 1, were jammed with debris. Some doors miraculously opened, like the ones to Stairwell A on upper floors in the South Tower or the door to an elevator that was stuck in the lobby of Tower 1 for more than an hour. Some doors had to be pried open; others should have remained closed. No one knew which was which.

Like subatomic particles in an accelerator, the lives of civilians and first responders were compressed for 102 minutes into a world ungoverned by the dictates of common sense or the normal rules of causation. Choices that had ensured safety during the 1993 bombing and evacuation proved fatal in 2001. Civilians who had learned that the great lesson was to remain in place died for that wisdom. People who, remembering the helicopter rescues in 1993, climbed toward the roof to avoid the rising smoke and flames found the doors locked and perished; the few in the South Tower who descended past the smoke and flames in the only open stairwell lived. Firefighters who were the most physically fit were also the most likely to climb so high that they could not get back down in time. Firefighters sent mistakenly to the Marriott Hotel instead of Tower 2 lived because of the mistake. Because of the lack of coordination among first responders, many lower floors were searched by several fire and police units; had the effort been better coordinated, units assigned to search the higher floors would not have been able to escape.

With its consistently clear prose, 102 Minutes does an admirable job of conveying this chaos without replicating it. The book demonstrates that, in many ways, the most effective first responders on Sept. 11 were not police officers or firefighters but civilians. Although the book does pose the Russian-novel problem of uncountable characters, their stories are well-told, stirring and heartbreaking. Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz, Port Authority employees, traveled the upper floors of Tower 1 prying open jammed office, elevator and stairwell doors on 12 floors near the crash zone, rescuing dozens. Both died. Brian Clark, a business executive, went out of his way to free someone trapped in an office by debris even as the fires raged. They both lived. Abe Zelmanowitz refused to leave the side of his handicapped friend, Ed Beyea, even after the arrival of rescue personnel. "I'm staying with my friend," he told them simply. Both men died.

This emphasis on the civilian response in no way detracts from the heroism of the professional first responders. Their gallantry -- like that of the late Fire Department Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer, a marathon runner who raced up 40 flights of stairs in the South Tower with 50 pounds of equipment on his back, accelerating as he climbed, reaching the fire just as the building was about to collapse -- is movingly described, as is their indispensable role in ensuring calm in the stairwells, assisting the injured and guiding the evacuees on the lower floors. Fire Capt. William Burke Jr. had seen Tower 2 collapse and thus knew the urgency of the situation in Tower 1, but he still stopped to assist Beyea and Zelmanowitz. He died with them. Port Authority policeman Dominick Pezzulo had been trapped by debris when Tower 2 fell; a weightlifter, he had freed himself and was lifting debris off other trapped officers when Tower 1 collapsed and killed him. Former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's conclusion that the first responders "gave us an example of very, very brave men and women who stand their ground to protect civilians" seems just as true after reading this book.

But by capturing the scope and success of the civilian evacuation, 102 Minutes raises important questions about the response on Sept. 11. The book disputes Giuliani and the city's view that the approximately 200 firefighters who died in the north tower had heard the Fire Department chiefs' order to evacuate but were busy helping civilians. "Nearly all of the 6,000 civilians below the impact zone had left the north tower by the time of its collapse, a fact hard to square with the notion that most of the . . . firefighters who died in the north tower could not get out because they were busy helping civilians," the authors write. "On the 19th floor of the north tower, scores of doomed firefighters were seen . . . taking a rest break in the final minutes, coats off, axes against the wall, soaked in sweat. As an explanation for why that group did not escape, a lack of awareness seems far more likely than the mayor's position that firefighters were tied up helping civilians."

By implication, 102 Minutes also raises a series of vital questions about today's state of preparedness. Sept. 11 demonstrates, above all, that the first first responders in any future terrorist attack will probably be ordinary citizens. So why is there no nationwide effort, like the one the United States conducted during the Cold War, to train citizens in the rudiments of emergency response? Why has the private sector, which controls some 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure, been allowed to drift with little or no oversight of its preparedness for another catastrophe? Why was the issue of emergency communications gear that would have let cops and firefighters talk to one another -- a central failing of the Sept. 2001 responses in both New York and Washington -- dropped from the reform package passed based on the 9/11 Commission's recommendations? And why didn't that package insist on focusing spending for homeland security on the targets that al Qaeda is most likely to hit, rather than using it on pork projects elsewhere? Implicitly, this book demands answers to such questions. Even in defeat -- perhaps especially in defeat -- knowing the truth about the past is the only way to ensure a better future. •

John Farmer, a former attorney general of the state of New Jersey and senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, led the commission's staff team investigating the nation's immediate response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

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