Sunday, August 28, 2011

102 Minutes

The title:
102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers
The authors: Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
Publication: Times Books, 2005
Got it from: The library

Everybody has their story.

Mine goes like this. I was 19 years old. It was the first week of classes, my second year of university. Ten a.m. As the course outline was passed around, a boy I'd known since high school slid into the seat beside me. "Hey," he said. "Did you hear that somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center?"

This was confusing to me. I had only a vague idea of what the World Trade Center was, and no idea that it was actually two buildings. "Do you think there were people inside?"

"Oh yeah, thousands."

It wasn't until I arrived home after lunch that the magnitude of the situation hit me. My first instinct was to think, okay, it was before 9 am, probably nobody was inside the building. But as the news footage showed the events of that morning, it dawned on me. Hundreds of people were actually killed. Maybe thousands. I was unable to turn off the TV until after supper, trying to make sense of what was going on. It felt like the bottom had fallen off the world.

That fall, I would remember the sense of fear following everything and eveybody. I couldn't watch or think about that day in the weeks and months that followed. It felt too raw, too immediate. That day was seared into everybody's consciousness, but nobody wanted to talk about it.

Six and a half years later. It was a quiet Sunday morning, not unlike the Sunday that will mark the 10th anniversary two weeks from today. My husband and I were in lower Manhattan and ended up on Liberty Street. We were looking at the open space where just a few years before, the world had changed forever. I can't describe that moment. There were only a handful of us, plus a security guard watching the site, and we were completely silent. On the ground, a homeless man played "Amazing Grace" on his flute. Next to me, a woman who couldn't speak English pointed to a picture she had of the twin towers. She pointed to one, and then pointed to the spot just in front of us. The south tower. She put her finger on the picture of the other tower, and pointed slightly northwest. The north tower.

We were standing at the graveyard of a scene of mass murder. It was horrible. I had been to the Colosseum before, but the people there had died thousands of years ago, and not all at once. I felt sick to my stomach, and we had to leave and walk down Wall Street and across the Brooklyn Bridge, but I still felt shaken until much later in the day. But I was also full of questions. I was finally ready to discover what happened that day.

Since then I have read countless books and seen many documentaries about what took place that day. I feel driven by a strange impulse to know every detail of what happened. Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn's 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers is exactly the kind of book that tells the full story. We all know what we saw as we were watching outside, but for those inside, most of whom were unaware of what was really going on, it was a wholly different experience. The stories of those who survived, and most especially, those who didn't, deserve to be told.

Life and death that day was a matter of chance. Some people, like Brian Clark in the south tower,
survived despite all odds, making it from above the impact zones while managing to rescue another man who was trapped. In the 79th floor sky lobby, directly where the plane struck, some survived while others were killed instantly. In the north tower, everybody above the 92nd floor was doomed by impassable stairwells, their horrific last few minutes unimaginable. But there were also stories of hope. Frank Di Martini and Pablo Oritz, the subjects of an upcoming TLC documentary, despite being neither police officers nor firefighters, managed to rescue over seventy people who would have otherwise been trapped in the upper floors. Another group of people trapped in an elevator shaft were able to break the drywall outside the doors and emerge into a bathroom where they descended to safety.

The real protagonists, though, are the towers themselves. Like the Titanic, any number of safety precautions could have been put in place during their construction that would have saved countless more lives on September 11. If, for instance, they had followed the building code used in the construction of the Empire State Building and had more fire-resistant stairwells placed further apart on each floor, it is likely that those on the upper floors would have had an escape route. If the elevators had not had safety locks that prevented the doors from opening when the cars were between floors, hundreds of people trapped in elevators across the towers would not have needlessly perished. And there is also the failure of the emergency crews - that for all their bravery and self-sacrifice, they had serious communication problems that compromised their ability to talk to their commanders, their fellow teams and the other emergency departments. Had it not been for their communication breakdowns, many in the police and firefighting departments would have evacuated in time to save their own lives.

So many myths and conspiracy theories have arisen over that day, and it's so important that books like this exist to get the facts straight now, while the events are still within living memory. I have a feeling that historians will mark September 11 as a turning point in world history, and certainly as a defining moment that forever changed the course of the 21st century. In all the chaos and monumental sadness that permeates those events, it's more important than ever to study it at the individual level, to see how it affected each person who was in those towers that day. But for the hand of fate, it could have been us. Their stories are our own.

Photo taken by me of the World Trade Center, April 2008. The South Tower would have stood directly in front of us. The North Tower was in the northwest behind it.

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