Rating: 5 Stars
I mean, really. How do you write a review about a book like this? I am not sure, but I will try. Though, I am fairly confident I will meet the same challenges here that I did when I reviewed Flight 93 by Tom McMillan, and I probably won't do this book justice. But I will try.
First the cover. I have never once been to NYC in my entire life. It is on my bucket list, it is a dream of mine to go. My first glimpses of New York came in the mid-90s when I started watching FRIENDS. Yes, I was 11, don't judge. I loved the skyline of the city regularly shown in the episodes and something about the towers spoke to me. So, here on the cover there they are, outlined, still standing like guardians. I can't look at a photo of the Manhattan skyline now and not place the towers back there myself in my mind. Seeing the cover, in all its simplicity, is comforting and heartbreaking. I just wish there was less text on the cover. In particular, I could do without the plug at the top, comparing it to Lord's 'A Night to Remember'. Still, it is beautiful. The towers are beautiful. That is how I always want to remember them.
While we are sort of on the subject of Walter Lord and his book (that coincidentally, I recently reviewed) 'A Night to Remember', I do have one small complaint. Not only did that little blurb I mentioned above do so, but there are a couple points in the book where the sinking of the Titanic and the terrorist attacks of 9-11 are compared. This bothered me a lot. I always feel like comparing tragedies in this way somehow diminishes their importance. I don't think it is necessary or helpful. Luckily, it only occurs a couple times and it is the only real complaint I have. I even feel a little guilty for having a complaint at all.
Aside from the, pardon my language, A-HOLES, who took it upon themselves to crash two airplanes into the Twin Towers, it seems that the two biggest factors that contributed to the senseless deaths of so many innocent people were poor building planning before, and lack of any communication during.
I hope by this point the police and fire departments have gotten over their pathetic pissing contests and are able to communicate. It was so incredibly childish to read time and again of squabbles between the two forces and how it impacted their work on September 11th. There were special radios purchased specifically for the use of the two departments to communicate, yet they could not agree on who would be in charge of the frequency so the radios went unused. The fire commanders had to contact their dispatchers who then contacted the police. Talk about a major time-waster. I honestly could not believe what I was reading and throughout it became painfully obvious that so many deaths would be directly because of this lack of communication.
On the same theme, it baffled me how many people in the south tower began evacuating when the north tower was struck, yet were told everything was okay and they could go back upstairs and resume their days. I understand that when the first plane hit, everyone thought it was an accident. But there is no way I could have in good conscience told people to go back upstairs, nor is that a directive I could have followed. I also realize that no one expected the towers to come down, but remaining inside seemed like such a huge risk to take. For example, when Port Authority employee Patrick Hoey called the PA police desk from his office in the north tower, he was told to stay put and the police would come to him. I don't understand why he was told this. Several people on his floor, 64, left immediately. Flight 11 had crashed into the building nearly 30 floors above them. Mr. Hoey, like so many others that day, should have survived. I don't understand why so many people were told to stay put. I also don't understand why the direction was obeyed. Perhaps many were there for the bombing in 1993 and were unfazed? I am not sure and it is so frustrating to think how many more lived might have been saved. At what point too does the idea of self-preservation kick in, especially when seeing/hearing so many others evacuating from the higher floors?
One thing that may be of comfort to family members left behind that day are the countless stories of heroism. It was so refreshing to see that, despite the lack of communication, the miscommunication, the incorrect information, and so on, there were ordinary people who performed extraordinary feats in the face of death. People like Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz who went floor by floor, freeing people who were trapped by jammed doors, directing them to safety. Then there are those who were not named, people like Welles Crowther who, time and again, returned to the burning Sky Lobby to lead others to safety - though like De Martini and Ortiz, would not make it home. I first learned of Crowther specifically when ESPN aired the short, "Man in the Red Bandana", which you can watch HERE if you have not seen it yet. In the book, survivors detail how a man "appeared out of no where", at one point carrying a woman on his back, leading others, performing first aid, rescuing people. Time and again Crowther returned to the 78th floor where Flight 175 had struck, killing so many on impact. Yet Crowther directed dazed survivors and was able to make sure that those he could help reached safety. Yet he was never named in the book, and this bothered me because of the postscript that was included for the 10th anniversary edition. I wouldn't expect them to change the original text, but mentioning the identity of Crowther in the postscript might have been appropriate. This detail bothered me so much in fact, that I emailed the author, Jim Dwyer, at the New York Times to ask about it. He responded quite promptly, saying that at the time the book was first printed, Crowther had not yet been identified as the man in the red bandana, and he agreed that the story is truly an inspiring one. So, I felt a little better, but would still like to see him acknowledged somewhere in a subsequent edition. The courage that so many showed that day is beyond anything I could hope for in myself. I'd like to believe I would think of others, do what I could to rescue people, but we never really know how we will respond until we are in the moment and truthfully, I hope that day never comes for me. Frank De Martini, Pablo Ortiz, Welles Crowther. Remember these names. They are heroes.
Perhaps one of the hardest stories for me to read was that of Ed Beyea. He was confined to a wheelchair, a quadriplegic, and ultimately did not survive. Time and again firefighters and rescuers passed by him as he and his friend, Abe Zelmanowitz waited patiently for help. Though Abe was able, he never left his friend's side and the two men, presumably along with Captain Burke, perished when the north tower came down.
Some have complained about the jumping viewpoints and that the story is not linear, but I could not disagree more. It is written in a way that gives you a feeling for the day, the chaos and terror going on inside the tower for those agonizing 102 minutes. I found myself reading of someone, then flipping quickly to the back where the authors listed the names of those who ultimately did not survive, hoping to not see their names. Of course, 131 times, I was disappointed. The authors cover so many stories of both victims and survivors in the book, and of all of those stories told, 131 people did not survive and are memorialized; employees are listed with which tower they worked in, then those at the Marriott, firefighters, police officers (both NYPD and PAPD), then NYC Emergency Medical Services. There are so many more stories I want to tell, but it is best if you read it for yourself, hear the stories from the survivors and the loved ones left behind.
Though this national tragedy occurred 15 years ago this coming September, the day is very vivid in my mind. The world I grew up in is gone and it makes me sad for future generations, for my own daughter, that this is the world she has to navigate now. It has only been recently that I have been able to start reading about September 11th, and if you are like me and find it difficult still, then start with this one. If you read nothing else about that day, this will give you a much better understanding of how and why so many did not make it home - not only because of the planes, but so many other factors working against the employees housed in the towers. Highly recommended.