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Chaos Complicated by Error,
This review is from: 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Hardcover)
Everyone is familiar with the pictures of the World Trade Center from 11 September 2001. The views from the outside as the planes strike the towers, and then the collapse of one and then the other, with dust and chaos everywhere, possess a grim fascination that even repeated viewings do not dim. But what was going on inside? There were thousands of people already at work in the buildings in that morning. Many had gone through the attack on the basement of the towers eight years before (and sadly may have had false confidence in the buildings' structural integrity because of that first attack). We can imagine what some of them must have gone through, but how can we know? While many of those in the towers that day will never be able to tell their stories, even some of those who perished were able to get through on computers, radios, and cell phones. The interactions of firemen, policemen, and heroic victims did leave electronically recorded trails and memories that can be examined. Two reporters, Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, have undertaken to reveal the hidden, human aspects of the disaster in _102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers_ (Times Books). Everyone knows how it all turned out, but this is a superbly suspenseful account, mostly of ordinary humans confronting an extraordinary disaster, combined with an analysis of sad error and inefficiency. It could have been worse, certainly, but it could have gone far better.
The fate of the buildings is repeatedly tied to their initial design; the authors explain that the most important actions taken in a skyscraper disaster are those that were laid out in the blueprints. Because engineering of the time was thought to be so much better than in previous skyscrapers, the rules about stairways had been relaxed; there were fewer of them, and they were clustered within the building so that if one got physically damaged, the others were close enough to suffer the same damage. The authors never confuse the real cause of the disaster, the suicidal hijackers and their masters, with mistakes that led to a worsening of the disaster, but for many of the dead, they write, "Their fate was sealed nearly four decades earlier," when the buildings were designed to give maximum rental space often at the cost of safety space. The stories of the individuals who worked in the towers, or happened to be visiting that day, are uppermost throughout the book, however. After the north tower was hit, those in the south tower were rightly concerned that they were at risk, but were reassured that the building was secure. Stanley Praimnath, for instance, went back up to his job at a Japanese bank on the 81st floor of the south tower once a guard told him the building was secure and under no danger. He was on the phone, assuring a colleague in Chicago that he was fine, when he looked out to see an airplane headed toward his window. The caller in Chicago watched the TV in horror, as Praimnath dived under his desk screaming as his ceiling collapsed. There are so many stories here, and so many characters, that it is often confusing to keep them all straight, but in recounting such extraordinary chaos, the confusion is nothing but realistic.
There are plenty of stories of heroism here, and it is good that the book concentrates, at least at first, on the tales of ordinary people who showed it. Such stories were not the center of the initial coverage of the event, which concentrated on the stories of the rescuers. Naturally, the firefighters and police had plenty of opportunity to show heroism, too, and this as well is fully documented, but with the sad understanding that many of their sacrifices were not necessary. Dwyer and Flynn give the history of radio communications for firemen and policemen, how new equipment had been available, and how bureaucratic inertia caused the old to continue to be used. There were also significant problems in communication between the police and the firemen, who had often been at odds. (A couple of cops at the scene joked as they worked with a fireman, wondering if this is what it took to get cops and firemen working together.) The authors frequently compare this disaster with that of the _Titanic_. A few months after the ship went down, George Bernard Shaw commented that the disaster had led to "an explosion of outrageous romantic lying." In hearings after the event, Mayor Giuliani spoke with pride of the heroic firefighters in the remaining north tower who stayed at their posts, rescuing others even though the order had been given to leave. The truth is that communications were so badly confused that many of them never heard the order and did not even know that the south tower had fallen and that theirs was expected to do so, too. Many were taking rest breaks (certainly needed after climbing floor after floor with sixty pounds of equipment) because almost everyone below the strike zone had left the building. No amount of good planning would have completely overcome the chaos those two planes caused, but the bad planning revealed here made it worse. There are lessons here for those who will heed them, but _102 Minutes_ deserves to be read especially for its exciting stories of heroism and sacrifice by ordinary people.