info 01.6.05

Fresh Hell

102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn (Times Books, $26) is good for history, but probably toxic for you. It is certain to scrape barely scabbed agonies of empathy while you're awake and unleash fresh hell while you sleep. And as its publication happens to follow so shortly after the tsunami catastrophe, the book may not be greeted by many readers willing to imagine, moment by moment, the horror of the 102 minutes from the first plane crash to the second tower collapse.

Yet Messrs. Dwyer and Flynn have done a masterful job at reconstructing those minutes from interviews, transcripts, and phone and email messages. They have uncovered hundreds of new details that enhance both our understanding of what took place in the buildings and why.

For instance, we had always reflexively vilified the person in the south tower who'd made the announcement for people to return to their offices. But the authors point out that for many reasons — the dangerous plaza, the prevailing ideas of a "fireproof" building, the lack of knowledge about additional hijacked planes (even the air-traffic controllers at LaGuardia at that moment didn't know of any problems with any planes) — the announcement was logical for the information at hand.

Information, or lack of it, is one of the recurring issues throughout. The police can't communicate with firefighters, 911 operators have little useful information, terrified office workers want to know whether to stay or go, air traffic controllers are in the dark, a jet scrambled after the two airliners is interpreted as an additional threat. (And as you sift through all the miscues, you get the sinking feeling that if there were another attack tomorrow, nothing much would have improved the communication matrix.)

Both at the core of the buildings and at the core of the whole disaster (beyond, of course, the perpetrators themselves) was the layout and number of staircases in the towers. Hubris and greed in the buildings' planning stages sealed the fate, as the authors point out, of many of the victims. It is only because of heroes such as Frank De Martini, who led a group that helped clear an escape route for dozens of others (Mr. De Martini died in the second collapse), as well as firefighters, cops, EMS workers, guards, and civilian volunteers, that the numbers of dead were not even greater.

Yet it is the details of horror that haunt us: molten aluminum pouring from a window on the 80th floor of the south tower as the airplane melted, that someone trapped in the MetLife office turned on a radio and heard a disc jockey joking about how drunk the pilot must have been, the gasps of evacuees as they reached the mezzanine and looked out onto the plaza, seeing bodies, pieces of plane, and a windowpane covered in blood. And perhaps most haunting of all, the 19th floor of the north tower, where over 100 firefighters were catching their breath, unaware of the south tower's collapse or that police in overhead helicopters had warned about the north tower. They assured those who tried to get them to leave, "We'll come down in a few minutes."
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