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Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff — emotional overload

Cover of Fall And Rise , The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff

Twenty-one years ago the world watched aghast as terrorist attacks rained down on the United States of America. In his role as a reporter with the Boston Globe, Mitchell Zuckoff wrote extensively about the attacks of September 11; the people killed or injured and and the hundreds of emergency workers involved in rescue attempts.

As the years passed, scores of books rolled off the presses, describing and analysing the events of that day and their aftermath. Zuckoff came to recognise that none of these accounts gave a complete and comprehensive narrative of what happened, the way the government and military responded and the effect on individuals. His intent with Fall and Rise was to fill in that gap by covering not simply the timeline of key moments but to concentrate on the impact on individuals: victims, survivors and responders.

Bearing Witness

Fall And Rise: The Story of 9/11 is the result of rigorous research conducted over 18 years. It’s based partly on the 9/11 Commission Report but also relies heavily on the personal testimonies of those directly involved, many of them feeling able, for the first time, to tell their story.

The book is organised into three sections: events in the air, on the ground and in the aftermath. Fall and Rise thus begins with a chronological account of what happened to all four hijacked airplanes, together with some contextual information about the construction of the Twin Towers. Part two looks at the consequences at the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and in Shanksville. Part three is a much shorter section that acts as an epilogue, touching on a few of the featured individuals.

Zuckoff set himself a difficult, almost impossible, task with this book given the sheer scale of material available, the multiple locations and the fact many events happened simultaneously not sequentially. Fortunately he didn’t attempt to write an encyclopaedic account or to treat every facet of the tragedy in the same depth — the hijackers and their motivations are not given much space for example, nor is there any analysis of the lack of military intervention.

The facts and details and the multiplicity of individual stories (about 40 in all) are still overwhelming. I’ve forgotten many of the specifics but that doesn’t matter because it’s the cumulative nature of the narrative that gives the book its power.

Decisions and Consequences

It’s a book about how every agency and system became overwhelmed by the magnitude of events, but it also highlights some fundamental weaknesses that contributed to the scale of human loss.

I hadn’t realised, for example, how decisions about engineering and design of the World Trade Centre reduced the options for occupants to escape via lifts. Nor did I know that police and fire services used different communication systems so could not relay vital information to responders on the ground. I was dumfounded to learn that crew on the first plane to be hijacked, raised the alarm with their airline. But those alerts were never passed on to the police or military, meaning other flights were never warned of danger.

One of the things that really stood out in Zuckoff’s account is that emergency services in New York failed to appreciate the magnitude of the scenario that confronted them. Twin Tower employees were instructed to stay in place and take shelter even when people working on floors above them were throwing themselves out of the windows because they knew they had no way to escape. It’s simply flabbergasting.

The personal stories of the people caught up in that day are heart-breaking. Some of the details are too graphic to include here so I’ll mention instead a few of the more hopeful examples.

One relates to a would-be actor sent to deliver marketing materials to an office high up in the World Trade Centre. He was descending in a lift when the first plane struck the North Tower, was stuck in there alone for hours, but emerged completely unscathed. Only when he stepped outside did he realise he’d been caught up in a major incident.

Another was of a fire crew whose leader decided it was too dangerous for his team to continue searching for survivors. As they inched down the staircases, exhausted, with depleting oxygen supplies and burdened by heavy equipment, they found one woman whose feet were so badly damaged she couldn’t walk. Though it hampered their own escape, the burliest of these firemen carried her 40 floors or so to safety.

Danger of Sentimentality

My one criticism of the book is that Zuckoff tended to be overly slushy and banal when he introduced individuals whose experience formed the basis of his narrative. One World Trade Centre employee is described as:

Forty-seven years old, with kind eyes and three grown sons, Linda loved the smell of clothes freshly dried by the crisp Allegheny mountain air.

An emergency worker gets this introduction: When Gerry wasn’t saving lives in New York City, he raised pigs, goats and chickens with his wife and two young sons on a small farm.

Pilot John Ogonowski is made out to be a regular salt of the earth kind of guy: “Fifty years old, six feet tall and country-boy handsome, John gazed at his wife and sixteen year old daughter. His smile etched deep crinkles in the ruddy skin around his blue eyes.”

Zuckoff’s point, I think, is that the people caught up in this extraordinary event were fairly ordinary individuals. Their days before 9/11 were unremarkable, filled with chores and activities that formed part of their normal routine. They went off to work that day just like every other day, expecting to return home as normal.

Having won the trust of the victim’s relatives Zuckoff was never going to write anything that would be disrespectful. I don’t intend to disrespect his subjects either. I just wish his portrayal of them hadn’t sounded so cheesy. I especially didn’t care for that tone when banality was juxtaposed with sentences whose brevity and import were startling. Take this section about a police officer who is running towards the North Tower:

David Lin … turned to his bomb-sniffing dog, a yellow Labrador called Sirius that Dave considered the smartest dog he’d ever known. ‘Maybe they got one by us, Sirius, Dave told his partner who moonlighted as the pet of Dave, his wife and their two children. On the way [to the Tower] he spotted a body next to a bandstand. As he radioed a report to dispatch, another person landed fifty feet from him on the plaza’s pink granite. On impact, the body disintegrated into a puddle of flesh, bone and blood.

Maybe it’s just me but I found the juxtaposition of cosy domestic insight with the moment of someone’s death, was uncomfortable. And there are were many other passages of that ilk.

But that was the only reservation about a book which was provided an immensely powerful experience. It was often deeply uncomfortable but that was to be expected given the nature of the subject, and not surprisingly it stirred up many emotions. Although Fall and Rise covered a lot of familiar ground, it still succeeded in deepening my appreciation of what happened on that dreadful day.

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