For 102 minutes on the morning of September 11, 2001, 14,000 men and women fought for life at the World Trade Center. This book aims to tell what happened solely from the perspective of the people inside the twin towers—office workers, visitors, and the rescuers who rushed to help them. Their accounts are drawn from 200 interviews with survivors and witnesses, thousands of pages of transcribed radio transmissions, phone messages, e-mails, and oral histories. All sources are named and enumerated.
No single voice can describe scenes that unfolded at terrible velocities in so many places. Taken together, though, the words, witnesses, and records provide not only a broad and chilling view of the devastation, but also a singularly revealing window onto acts of grace at a brutal hour.
The immediate challenges these people faced were not geopolitical but intensely local: how, for instance, to open a jammed door, or navigate a flaming hallway, or climb dozens of flights of stairs. Civilians or rescuers, they had to take care of themselves and those around them. Their words inevitably trace a narrative of excruciating loss; they also describe how the simplest gestures and tools were put to transcendent use—everything from a squeegee in a stuck elevator to a squeeze on the shoulder, from a voice booming an order to get out to a crowbar smashing Sheetrock around a jammed door. As chapters in the history of human valor and frailty and struggle, these are matters of first importance. They brought us to this book.
That the crises in the two buildings had identical beginnings and endings—suicidal attacks by terrorists in airliners, followed by raging fire and total collapses—evokes the parallel shape and size of the buildings, suggesting one more way in which the towers were twins. Yet the events in each tower ran on different clocks and took different courses, each separately instructive. The north tower was hit first, at 8:46:31, sixteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds before the strike against the south tower at 9:02:59; this gap between crashes afforded some opportunity to begin an evacuation in the south building before the second plane flew into it. Conversely, the south tower, though hit second, was the first to fall, collapsing at 9:58:59, twenty-nine minutes and twenty-six seconds before the north tower, which fell at 10:28:25—in effect, giving notice that total calamity was not only possible but also imminent, and thus providing a chance for rescuers to pull out of the north building.
In heartbreaking measure, many people could not take hold of those fleeting opportunities. During those two intervals, and ultimately, across the entire 102 minutes, decades of struggle over safety in skyscrapers and over the sensible operation of New York’s emergency services would come to shattering ends.
Nothing can diminish the culpability of the hijackers and their masters in the murders of September 11, 2001, which stand beyond mitigation as the defining historical truth of the day. The ferocity of the attacks meant that innocent people lived or died because they stepped back from a doorway, or hopped onto a closing elevator, or simply shifted their weight from one foot to another. That said, simply to declare that the hijackers alone killed all those people gives them far more credit as tacticians than they are due. The buildings themselves became weapons, apparently well beyond the designs of the hijackers, if not their hopes; so, too, did a sclerotic emergency response culture in New York that resisted reform, even when confronted again and again with the dangers of business as usual.
At least 1,500 people in the trade center—and possibly many more—survived the initial crashes but died because they were unable to escape from their floors or elevators while the buildings stood. Those people were not killed by the planes alone any more than passengers on the Titanic were killed by the iceberg. With 102 minutes in the north tower, and 57 minutes in the south, thousands of people had time to evacuate, and did. Those who did not escape were trapped by circumstances that had been the subject of debates that began before the first shovelful of earth was turned for the trade center, and that continued, at a low volume, through the entire existence of the towers. Could the buildings withstand the direct impact of an airplane? Was the fireproofing adequate? Were there enough exits?
The willingness of firefighters, police officers, and medical workers to serve others, never in question, was indelibly established on September 11. Stark and towering as their sacrifices are, they do not stand alone in history. We have now obtained many records documenting the emergency response that both the City of New York and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have tried to keep secret. These records show that for all the aggressiveness of the response, emergency workers suffered the same failures of communication, coordination, and command that they had experienced on February 26, 1993, when terrorists first tried to knock down the trade center. This time, those failures came at terrible cost. Indeed, for 102 minutes, success and failure, life and death, ran parallel courses—as did effort and selflessness, infighting and shortsightedness.
Finally, the fate of all the men and women inside the towers during those 102 minutes was specifically, and intimately, linked to decisions about the planning and construction of, and faith in, colossally tall buildings. Approximately 12,000 people—nearly everyone below the crash zones—got out, creating an encyclopedia of survival: the towers stood long enough, the office workers formed a mass of civility, the responders helped steer and steady them.
And then there is the brutal calculus of death. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City reports that 2,749 people died in the attacks on New York. Of these, 147 were passengers or crew members on the two flights; in the buildings, no more than 600 people were on floors where the planes hit, close enough to be killed immediately. Another 412 of the dead were rescue workers who came to help. The rest, more than 1,500 men and women, survived the plane crashes, but were trapped as far as twenty floors from the impact. Like the passengers on the unsinkable Titanic, many of the individuals inside the World Trade Center simply did not have the means to escape towers that were promised not to sink, even if struck by airplanes. In the struggle to live, those who survived and those who did not sent out hundreds of messages. They gave us the history of those 102 minutes.
Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
New York City
Copyright © 2005 by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn