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Book Review: The Ultimate Shock and Awe

Stuart Mitchner

Two simple numbers have come to stand for the defining catastrophe of our time. Try it with Pearl Harbor 12/7? Hiroshima: 8/6? Would 10/11 work as well as 9/11? What if it had happened on the eleventh of July? With 7/11 you'd end up inadvertently associating the attack on the World Trade Center with a chain of convenience stores. As it happens, the way 9 and 11 go together gave the media (and the rest of us) the formula needed to reduce the "day of infamy" (as FDR titled 7/41) to a shorthand perfectly representative of the e-mail era.

A new book about what went on inside the towers that morning uses a different but no less suggestive number for its title. In 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Times Books/Henry Holt and Company $26), New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn make it clear that an inability to imagine the attack's ultimate consequence may have caused more loss of life than any other factor except perhaps the 1968 building code revision that allowed the towers' designers to weaken security in order to free up profitable rental space. It was too late by the time an engineer from the Department of Buildings warned that the stability of both structures had been seriously compromised. Although the possibility of total collapse was known by those few who were able to communicate the information, as many as a thousand of the men and women inside the towers that morning may have died because no one believed that the buildings could fall. The relatively contained effects of the 1993 bombing had encouraged the false sense of security, and on top of that, a structural engineer had assured everyone that the towers had been designed to stand up to the impact of a Boeing 707. The authors of 102 Minutes compare the fall of the invulnerable towers to the sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic.

"Shock and Awe" was the title the Bush administration gave the bombing of Baghdad on the night of March 23, 2003. It sounded dynamic enough, but the ultimate manifestation of "shock and awe" exploded out of a beautiful clear blue sky on a September morning in 2001.

A Readable Narrative

Now, four years after the event, why read a book about people fighting for survival in the twin towers? Does anyone really want to get close to the horror experienced by the victims and survivors of that nightmare? Columbia Pictures apparently thinks otherwise, having acquired the film rights to the story in July; someone is already working on a screenplay, and the movie could be released in time for the fifth anniversary of the attack. It's hard to imagine how a film picturing the events described in 102 Minutes could be seen as anything but exploitive by the families or friends of the 2,749 victims. In The American Conservative Norman Mailer observed that "our movies came off the screen" on September 11 "and chased us down the canyons" of Manhattan. Put together a thousand Towering Inferno type disaster flicks, with all the top-of-the-line computer-driven special effects available, and you still wouldn't come close, because what the world saw that day really happened. Not only did thousands of innocent people die, but the lethal shockwaves continue to be felt in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I02 Minutes , on the other hand, is no more interested in exploiting the tragedy than the 9/11 Commission was when writing its report. Like the commission, Dwyer and Flynn have put together a readable narrative that does justice to the complexities of the event and the people caught up in it. You rarely feel them over-artfully embroidering on or distorting the material from which they've shaped a narrative. The authors' general restraint is revealed by how jarringly the more "written" passages stand out. For instance, the faces of people watching the plane hit the north tower are "billboards of distress." An elevator caught between floors "shook in a death rattle, a mouse swinging in the jaws of a cat." These not very serious lapses are the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time the prose is right there, unadorned and potently on target, as when describing what happened when the first plane slammed into the north tower:

"The plane itself was fractionalized. Hunks of it erupted from the south side of the tower, opposite to where it had entered. A part of the landing gear landed five blocks south. The jet fuel ignited and roared across the sky, as if the fuel continued to fly on course, even without its jet. Much of the energy deflected from the speeding plane shot in waves down the skeleton of the north tower. The waves pulsed into the bedrock, rolled out to the Atlantic Ocean, and along the bed of the Hudson River. The impact registered on instruments in Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, twenty-two miles to the north, generating signals for twelve seconds. The earth shook."

The authors also know how to save the right detail for the most effective use. When a man in the south tower hears the explosion as the first plane hits, he goes to the window but is unable to see much, the width of it being no more than that of "a magazine spread open" because the towers had been designed by an architect who "feared heights" and whose "antidote to acrophobia in the world's tallest building had been skinny windows." Some seventy pages later the narrative picks up the same man emerging down on the street, still with no idea of what happened except that "a private plane" had hit the other building, "In the riot of papers and debris scattered by the first airplane strike" he finds a single sheet and sees that it's the itinerary for someone traveling to Los Angeles. That's when he realizes that the plane in question had not been a little Cessna.

There are innumerable such incidents, a few worthy of black comedy, most of them simply wrenching: the wrong turn, faulty advice, failed communication. Only a few people found out in time that there was a navigable stairway in the south tower. 102 Minutes offers a painful inventory of crossed signals, of stalled elevators and dysfunctional computers shutting off potential means of escape, of messages that could have saved lives not getting through, or, worse, of the wrong message getting through to hundreds of people who might have fled the south tower in time but went back to their offices after being assured that the worst was over. This admirably objective account does not go out of its way to move you, and reading it, you can almost keep your distance as you appreciate how well the authors have covered the intricacies of their subject. You may find it harder to keep your distance when you look through the photos of victims and survivors included in the book and see the faces, particularly the young, open, lovely smiling face of Christine Olender, who was working that morning at Windows on the World, where there were no survivors.


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