Karen Abbott is the author of, most recently, “Liar Temptress Soldier Spy.” Her next book, “The Ghosts of Eden Park,” will be published in August.
For those of a certain age, it is strange to think of Sept. 11, 2001, as distant history. Yet an entire generation has no living memory of that day’s events, which reverberate as strongly as ever in our messy, complicated present. Early in “Fall and Rise,” Mitchell Zuckoff’s remarkable and groundbreaking book about 9/11, he invokes the most obvious historical parallel: the attack on Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier, which also claimed thousands of lives and hurtled America into war. “Hindsight furnishes us with perspective on the crisis,” Zuckoff writes, quoting historian Ian W. Toll, “but it also undercuts our ability to empathize with the immediate concerns of those who suffered through it.” Zuckoff, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, states that his intention is not to address the “why” of the attacks, by probing into the mind-set of jihadists, but to offer a more intimate perspective of the tragedy for those who lived through it and to create “something like memories” for everyone else.
Part of Zuckoff’s challenge is to distinguish his book from a crowded and ever-growing field. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 are not only the deadliest in U.S. history but also the most dissected and documented. You can read about the tragedy in every imaginable genre: graphic novels, airport blockbusters and literary fiction (and even entire books reviewing 9/11 novels), memoirs, documentaries, collections of poetry and short stories, conspiracy theorist narratives, and factual examinations of intelligence failures and the history of al-Qaeda. The most similar to Zuckoff’s in tone and scope is Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn’s “102 Minutes,” which focuses on the experiences of those inside the twin towers, from the moment of first impact until their collapse. Zuckoff includes and expands upon this landscape, delving into events at three airports, on the four hijacked flights, inside the Pentagon, at the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, N.Y., and at the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in rural Pennsylvania. He also smartly begins his narrative on the evening of Sept. 10, capturing the cozy banality of everyday life that precedes the impending horror, the final ticking hours before the world irrevocably changed.
“Fall and Rise” is an ambitious undertaking, setting out to be an exhaustive, prismatic chronicle of 9/11. Impressively, Zuckoff pulls it off. He deftly employs novelistic tools to create and maintain suspense (a difficult feat when the story’s outcome is universally known): foreshadowing, cliffhangers, and an evocative homing in on details both heartbreaking and macabre. A 2-year-old girl, excited for her first trip to Disneyland on United Airlines Flight 175, tucks her stuffed rabbit under the covers so he’ll be safe until her return. Ziad Jarrah, the hijacker of United Airlines Flight 93, drafts a goodbye note to his fiancee (“I will wait for you until you come to me. There comes a time for everyone to make a move”). Shortly before that Tuesday morning, a 38-year-old passenger on Flight 175 gives his wife specific instructions should he die: “You invite all my friends and you drink Captain Morgan and you live.” A service manager for American Airlines scans the business section of Flight 11 and experiences “a queasy gut feeling” as he locks eyes with Mohamed Atta in Seat 8D. Then come the numerous calls from Airfones, progressing from frantic to resigned: “Don’t worry, Dad,” consoles a passenger on Flight 175. “If it happens, it’ll be very fast.”
Following the four crashes, the narrative both broadens (witness President George W. Bush at Booker Elementary School and Vice President Dick Cheney being whisked off to an underground bunker) and becomes more personal. While the general aftermath of 9/11 is standard knowledge, the characters’ individual fates are not, and the reader follows each of their plights with heart-stopping anticipation. How would aspiring actor Chris Young, on a temp job in the North Tower, escape from an elevator? Who would help Elaine Duch, struck by a fireball on the 88th floor of the North Tower and so badly burned that the zipper of her jacket fused into her scorched skin? What would happen to the firefighters of Ladder Company 6 and their injured charge, Josephine Harris, as the North Tower collapsed around them? Would Rear Adm. Dave Thomas find his best friend and colleague amid the smoldering wreckage of the Pentagon? What would Terry Shaffer, the chief of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, encounter on the field where the 44 passengers of Flight 93 lost their lives? The reader can barely fathom what Shaffer had to endure: a scattered heap of seared limbs, teeth and bones; a swatch of torso and a foot with three toes; a Superman tattoo on a slice of shoulder. It would be years, Zuckoff writes, before the fire chief could bring himself to describe his most disturbing find: the detached face with mangled features that, Shaffer surmised, belonged to the man who had crashed the plane.
“Fall and Rise” evokes David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood” and, before that, the work of Walter Lord, whose style was described by one reviewer as “a kind of literary pointillism, the arrangement of contrasting bits of fact and emotion in such a fashion that a vividly real impression of an event is conveyed to the reader.” Speaking of his research for “Day of Infamy,” his classic 1957 book about the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lord explained: “I wanted to get from people ‘the way it really was,’ but also ‘nothing political, no strategy, no tactics’. . . . I wanted the accounts of a mix of people to make the book come alive — history not just from the point of view of the leaders but from the point of view of those who were really there.” In this same way “Fall and Rise” comes alive, reconfiguring and preserving the memories of that day in a vital and unforgettable account.
By Mitchell Zuckoff
589 pp. $29.99