Rating: 5 Stars
Wow. Just, wow.
I saw this at the library the other day when my now-five year old and I were completing one of the scavenger hunts for musical instruments in the hopes of scoring symphony tickets this upcoming season. I was struck by the simplicity of the cover, and those towers, and the fact that this is a story of 9/11 that I did not actually know about.
If you have read other reviews I've done of books on 9/11, you know this is a particularly emotional thing for me, despite the fact that I was halfway across the country. I was about three weeks into my freshman year of college, a six-hour drive from home; it was both terrifying and exhilarating. That beautiful morning as I was getting ready for an 8 AM class, I briefly saw something on the news about an airplane hitting the North Tower. I was in shock, but still thought like so many others that it was a tragic accident. As I trekked across campus and arrived for class, it was obvious it was no accident, when the second plan struck the South Tower. There I was, an 18 year old kid far from home, already dealing with the major changes of navigating the beginning of the end of life as a dependent human being, and our nation was under attack.
Like with so many others, through the pain and trauma, the hero stories became the thing that helped us cope. The First Responders running into the towers while everyone else was running out. The stories of men and women who helped their colleagues to safety, risking their own lives in the process and ultimately sacrificing themselves so others might have a chance.
That is exactly what this book is about, the heroes. I never realized how many evacuations were actually made by water. So often when I have read books about that day, so many survivors recounted trekking miles and miles to safety. There was nothing to do but walk, and walk, and walk. I never realized so many of them ended up walking to the harbors, seeking safety there.
One of the reason I chose this book was so I could read it with Eleanor, but also to learn a bit more for myself. One might think this is a heavy topic for a five year old, and you would be exactly right. It is a heavy topic. Every so often I will let Eleanor go through her Amazon cart and pick some books out (free shipping over $25, woohoo!). She really likes that What Is/Who Is/Where Is series and one of the books she chose a while back is What Were the Twin Towers. I looked through it when we received it and knew right away that it would just be too much for a four year old, even one with the intelligence and maturity that Eleanor has. She has asked about it a few times, and I have explained that some bad men wanted to hurt our country, so they took some airplanes and crashed them, and many people died because of the bad men. Once I saw this book and flipped through it, I knew that it could do a much better job of explaining the horrors of 9/11, and I was right.
"While more than one million people searched for escape, hundreds of boat captains sailed into the destruction. They felt a call to action, a desire to help, a realization that they could provide a safe harbor. They were ordinary people who became heroes on a day when greatness was desperately needed.
A day when the unthinkable happened."
The drawings, as much as the words, truly convey the feelings of the day. They are all done in black and a tannish off-white. But the sky is a brilliant crisp, clear blue, just as it has been described time and again. Only the smoke from the towers is a charcoal black, flowing across the pages. The choice of the tannish off-white works so well because to me it really captured the fact that these survivors, struggling to escape, were covered from head to toe with ash. The diversity is still there if you take the time to look, a woman in a hijab holding her child close, shoppers with bags, students with backpacks, young men with afros, men in baseball caps, women and men in suits with their briefcases. The message is unmistakable: that day, covered with ash, they were all the same. They were all Americans, trying to reach safety, pushed to the edge of the island in a desperate attempt to escape Lower Manhattan.
As I was reading to Eleanor, she stopped once, and told me it was so sad that so many people got hurt and she did not want to read anymore because she did not want to be sad. I pulled her onto my lap and explained that she was right, it was a sad story. But if we kept reading, we would find out about all the brave captains and crews who went into the danger even though they did not have to, because they wanted to help. She thought about it for a minute, and then we continued reading. So many times I had a lump in my throat, and that kind of funny feeling that starts in your stomach and rises up as you speak, that kind of pride knowing that on September 11th, we were all in this together. The text included direct quotes from captains, firefighters, and engineers who witnessed it, as boats of all kinds came to the rescue, responding to the Coast Guard's call between 11 and 11:30 that morning: "All available boats! This is the United States Coast Guard aboard the pilot boat New York. Anyone wanting to help with the evacuation of Lower Manhattan, report to Governor's Island" (page 14). And help, they did. Boats from all over arrived, even private boats. Tugboats, ferries, and party boats came with captains and crews, ready and willing to haul as many passengers as possible to safety.
Tom Sullivan was a firefighter aboard a fireboat in the harbor as thousands of people ran toward the Hudson when the Towers first came down, before the Coast Guard call went out. Thousands became hundreds of thousands, with people climbing over railings when necessary and boarding boats already there. Sullivan recounted how, "People were just diving onto the boat...Mothers and nannies with infants in their arms were dropping the children down to us. And then we helped the mothers and nannies down" (page 13).
Boats sailed back and forth from Manhattan, taking the weary survivors to New Jersey, then heading back to the island with rescue workers and supplies. The author notes (having been one of the evacuees herself, which she explains in an author's note) how police officers warned the thousands and thousands of people queuing up for boats that it could be several hours before they could get going, due to the massive numbers of people lined up. In the end, it took nine hours to ferry nearly 500,000 people across to Jersey. 500,000. That number is insane to me, but it is a testament to just how many hundreds of boats responded to the call, helmed by captains and crews who were under no obligation to do so.
"It was the largest sea evacuation in history.
It was an answer to a call for help.
It was a light on the city's darkest day"
I had tears in my eyes by the end. Eleanor asked if I was sad. I told her I was proud that, even on such a terrible day, people found the courage to do what most will never have the opportunity to: risk their lives for another human being with little thought for their own safety. That is one of the lasting legacies of that horrible day and amid the trauma, something we can be proud of.