These two new books on 9/11 are must reads:
The main problem with the plea to “never forget” is that we invariably do. Our memory is poor, and we easily forget things that matter. That is why we must constantly be reminded of that which is important. And one of the most important events of recent times which we must ever keep alive in our memories is the Islamic terror attack on America on September 11, 2001.
We just recently had much of the world commemorate the 18th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil. At this time of year various documentaries and programs will be shown concerning this momentous event, but as we get further and further away from that day of infamy, we forget more and more.
Several major new books have appeared this year to help keep the memory of this dreadful day fully alive. Both primarily make use of first-hand accounts which really help us relive that terrible day in great detail. While numerous books on 9/11 have appeared over the years, these are certainly the newest, and are among the most important. I refer to these two volumes:
Mitchell Zuckoff, Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 (Harper, 2019).
Garrett Graff, The Only Plane in the Sky: The Oral History of 9/11 (Monoray, 2019).
Although these two tomes cover some 1100 pages (600 the former, 500 the latter), one will not find them formidable. Indeed, I read each one in a day – they are those sorts of books that you cannot put down. In each one you are reliving the day as if it were happening afresh.
We all know – or should know – the basics on this: On that Tuesday morning 19 Islamic terrorists hijacked four commercial airlines – two slamming into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and the last one into a field in Pennsylvania (heroes onboard prevented the murderers from reaching their target). All up 2,977 innocent men, women and children were killed on that day.
That is not all. As Zuckoff says, “Roughly six thousand more sustained physical injuries, some of whom would never fully recover.” And other ailments (including cancers caused by toxins at Ground Zero) would mean that by “the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, more people will have died of an illness related to ground Zero than in the attacks.”
As mentioned, the two books are rather similar in dealing mainly with that one day, both relying on hundreds of interviews and first-hand accounts. Zuckoff provides narrative throughout, interwoven with these personal stories, while Graff’s book is almost entirely made up of these voices, with only a modicum of editorial remarks.
Perhaps the best way to give you a feel for these books is by just featuring small quotes from each of them, beginning with the Zuckoff volume. He briefly sets the stage by reminding us that on February 23, 1998 Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa, declaring war on America and its citizens.
The rest is history – horrible history. We hear, for example, of those on board the planes who became aware of their fate. Consider Elizabeth, who was on United Flight 93. Those on board had learned of what had already happened with the other three planes. She managed to say this on a phone call: “Hello, Mom. We’re being hijacked. I’m calling to say goodbye.”
And then there were the fallers and jumpers. Images of them can never be forgotten. These were men and women seeking to flee the burning buildings. From such a height, death was the only outcome. “On impact, the body disintegrated into a puddle of flesh, bone, and blood.”
One police officer said this: “I did see one jumper actually hit a fireman on the corner near Vesey and West. I later found out that the fireman was Danny Suhr. He played for the fire department football team. I coach our team, and I’ve played, so I knew Danny. He was one of the first firemen to get killed.”
Such was the terrible nature of the job of the first responders. In Pennsylvania Terry was one of those persons who had to try to find bits of evidence. He found a flight manual – written in Arabic. But he also had the horrific job of seeking any remaining body parts:
Once Terry became a witness to death, he couldn’t stop seeing it. Remains were everywhere, small bits of men and women who at the moment should have been landing in San Francisco. Some larger parts, too, including part of a torso; a charred buttock; a piece of spinal cord with five vertebrae; and a foot with three toes that tree-climbing arborists, sent by investigators, would find in the hemlocks. All the remains would require DNA matching, dental records, or other means of positive identification. Somewhere near where terry stood was a napkin-sized piece of skin, charred at the edges, whose source was never in doubt: the intact Superman logo tattoo on the flesh of Joey Nacke’s shoulder.
And those who lost loved ones back then continue to hurt, all these years later. As just one example, Jennifer said this: “It never heals. You just get better at putting the Band-Aid on.”
Graff’s book, based on 500 oral testimonies, contains hundreds of other painful and poignant moments to help us not forget. He also records the fate of the jumpers, and those who witnessed them. One was an assistant FBI agent:
This fireman said something to me that I didn’t understand – he said, “Watch out for the falling bodies.” I remember crossing West Street and thinking, What did he say about falling bodies? I said, “It’s a fire.” As I got close to the building, this fireman from behind yelled, “Run! Here comes one!” I froze and looked up over my right shoulder, up into that beautiful bright blue sky. I saw a fellow spreadeagled, coming out of the sky. He had on navy blue dress pants, a white shirt, and a tie. Dark hair. I couldn’t believe what I saw.
Phone calls between those trapped in the towers and loved ones were certainly moving. Howard for example said this: “My brother, Gary, was in the building. Later that night, when I spoke to my sister, she told me that she spoke to my brother. She had said to him, ‘Oh my God. Thank God you’re not there.’ He said, ‘I am here, and I’m going to die. I wanted to tell you I love you.’ He said goodbye.”
Deena Burnett and her husband Tom Burnett, a United Flight 93 passenger, had this conversation. Tom had said, “Were going to take back the plane.” She tried to dissuade him, but he said: “No Deena. If they’re going to crash this plane, we’re going to have to do something.” She asked, “What can I do?” He told her to pray. He told her he loved her, then hung up. He never called back.
She said this “I kept waiting. I held on to the telephone for almost three hours, waiting for him to call back to tell me he had landed the plane and everything was fine and he would be home later. I started thinking about what I could cook for dinner. I was thinking about sending the kids to school and who could come pick them up, because I didn’t want to miss his phone call. So I just sat there.”
The fall of the towers and the aftermath was equally heart-wrenching and cataclysmic. Graff offers this background: “The South Tower collapsed at an estimated speed of nearly 124 miles an hour, and later estimates held that the winds generated from the collapse of the World Trade Center peaked as high as 70 miles per hour, driving the accompanying cloud of debris scores of blocks away as the hurricane-force wind spread devastation throughout Lower Manhattan.”
One New York Police Department member said this about it all: “I’ve never heard screaming like I did on that day. It was all men. It was unbelievable screaming. I’m thinking about how I’m probably going to die and about my kids.” And those involved in the rescue will never forget that day either. Consider what Jennifer Meyers, a dispatcher at the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center, said:
All of us who worked that day can recall moments that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Mine was a phone call from a man who spoke with extreme calmness – I believe he might have been in shock. He told me he knew his wife had been on the plane that went into the Pentagon, and he knew she was no longer alive. What he was requesting was for me to assist him in finding out who was sitting by her. He wanted to know what her last words had been – he wanted to speak to the survivors. My heart sank. His voice is ingrained on me forever. What I was not allowed to release to the public yet was that they were almost certain there were no survivors on the plane.
Bruno Dellinger, who made it out of the North Tower, said this:
When I got home, the first thing I did was take my suit off, and – don’t ask me why, I think it may be unconsciously because I thought there might be some human remains in those ashes – I collected them, put them into a small box. I was never able to ever wear that suit again, or the tie, or the shoes. For some reason I was inspired to collect that dust and keep it, and I still have it in a small box with the only thing that’s left of my office: a set of keys.
There was little good news on that day. But one good news story came the next day. Graff introduces it this way: “In New York, at what workers and rescuers called ‘The Pile,’ teams searched for the dead and the living, and bucket brigades began sorting and clearing debris, a process that would ultimately encompass 1.8 million tons of wreckage and stretch until May 30, 2002. Early on the second day, rescuers stumbled upon Pasquale Buzzelli’s coworker, Genelle Guzman.”
Genelle had been buried for 27 hours. She said this: “Everybody in my family was in mourning already. They were up all night. They didn’t even entertain the thought that I had made it after the collapse. They went through a moment of thinking I was dead and they were not going to see me again. And, as the Bible says, sadness comes at night, but joy comes in the morning. That’s what happened to my family.”
As she later said:
I was praying for 27 hours. Being the last survivor—it was a huge thing. I felt totally different. When I came out of that rubble, I felt a total conviction. From there I knew that the Holy Spirit was working in me and had changed my life. Since that day, I’ve been serving the Lord. After I came out of the hospital in November, I went to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. I got baptized. I got married to my boyfriend. I’ve been living the Christian life ever since. I had two kids after that marriage and the Lord has been good to me.
All this – and more – is why we must never forget. But as Zuckoff reminds us, “Already an entire generation has no direct memory of 9/11, despite its daily effects on their lives.” Thus the importance of books like this.