Sunday, February 26, 2006

102 Minutes

I've been revisiting 9-11 these last few weeks, after having picked up 102 Minutes, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. Their book tells the stories of those people who were inside the towers that morning. Two individuals who appear in the book are justly famous: Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the brothers who filmed so many of the key events of that day. I saw their clip of the first plane crash when I got to a television at my parents' house on the night of September 11, and watched their documentary, "9-11", when it aired on network TV some months later. I saw it again last week after finishing 102 Minutes; and it's been a depressing visit to the past all around. There are no soft edges around these events; they still leave you with a mix of fear, adrenaline, and disgust. They leave you feeling a little less alive.

Perhaps that is due to the rawness of both 102 Minutes and "9-11" as simple documentary records. Neither is cooked into something palatable, sentimental, or political, and both are sensitively done rather than exploitative. I was not aware, while reading 102 Minutes, that the record within it contradicted any myths about the day, and I'm not even sure I'd heard of the existence of 9-11 myths, other than the conspiracy theories. Nothing I was reading seemed controversial, but Dwyer and Flynn affirm in their afterword that there are certain myths around the history of 9-11.

The authors note that in 2004, Mayor Guiliani insisted that firefighters stayed in the north tower to save people even after hearing the order to evacuate. In 102 Minutes, it's clear that countless firemen did not hear the order, their communications system having long been hampered by bureaucracy and by the infighting among the various New York City rescue departments; that the firefighters were occupied, understandably, with climbing the stairs; that most survivors saved themselves, or each other.

On the other hand, I was surprised to read that some firefighters did reach the fire. One elevator remained operational in the south tower after the second plane crashed into it, and that elevator took a few firefighters up to the 40th floor. Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer, a dynamo on the stairs, climbed another 38 floors to the impact zone, arriving at the lobby on the 78th floor by 9:51 a.m. He and a few other firefighters worked a little while longer before losing their lives in the first collapse at 9:59 a.m.

Firefighters in the north tower had been climbing longer, since the first plane impact, and some did climb as much as Chief Palmer. But without an elevator, that put them only in the 40s, perhaps the 50s. And their impact zone was higher: it began at the 94th floor. They had the full 102 minutes between the first plane and the second collapse, but they got only about halfway to the fire.

A very large crowd of firefighters, some of them suffering from chest pains and the like under loads of 60 pounds or more, were still resting on the 19th floor as the last of the interviewed survivors came down. Dwyer and Flynn note that few could have made much headway to safety, if they began evacuating.

I cannot understand why such comments as these have prompted a small number of Amazon reviewers to reject the book as unpatriotric, and in one case even to say that Dwyer and Flynn are blaming Americans rather than terrorists for the deaths. The authors explicitly lay the blame on the terrorists, and they do not stray from documenting lives to make any geo-political analysis. The loss of human life has to be studied: and if blame is put on Americans, it is only for those lives which could still have been saved after the planes hit.

And even from the nationalist perspective that prompts an occasional reader to reject the book, there is every reason to identify where Americans might have been at fault. That's because if one of the aims of terrorists is to take the lives of Americans, then we thwart their aims by protecting our own people as best we can.

I do not, however, find myself angry at the firefighters, police and medics. There is much wrong in their organizations, but there is not much wrong with them. One medic a few blocks from the towers, in the middle of his work, began sobbing because his wife had a job in the north tower. He went back to look for her. She escaped, and he did not. It's these kinds of stories that command your greatest emotions when reading, and this story haunted me more than any other.

I was surprised also to learn that most of the normal population of the towers had already arrived by the time the attack began. Dwyer and Flynn report that population at around 17,400, and they calculate that some 14,100 had arrived already (not counting the thousand or so who were in the Marriott Hotel, a place where people were killed). Popular figures based on the numbers of workers and visitors who travel in some way through the lower concourse and all seven of the World Trade Center buildings had left me assuming that something like 50,000 people would have been present in the full lengths of the towers when the planes hit. That is not so. The hijackers picked early flights, but nevertheless they endangered most of the people who put in a typical workday at the towers. Dwyer and Flynn do not say so, but perhaps the one population that was truly spared by the early flights would be the hundreds of sightseers typically present at any one time in the south tower's observatory. I was there as a child a few times; and I lunched in the plaza directly beneath the towers for a few weeks in the spring of 2000, staring upwards for a long time on one day, trying to get a sense of how massive each tower was.

Dwyer and Flynn describe the energy released in each tower's collapse as equivalent to 1% of a nuclear explosion. That is not a surprise when you think about everything that's been written concerning their size. Still, I had never regarded the 9-11 attack as falling within the nuclear scale -- despite the phrase "Ground Zero", which historically has referred to the point underneath a nuclear explosion. The energy released on 9-11 has been estimated at 600 kilotons of TNT, which includes both impacts and collapses, and perhaps also the collapse of the Marriott and the 47-story building at 7 World Trade Center. That total is actually around 5 percent of the 12,500 kilotons released upon Hiroshima.

Considering the destructive energy of the attack is one way for me to reflect on why 9-11 has been regarded as such a unique horror. Someone once told me that other people suffer 9-11 every day, and I disagree with that emphatically, for reasons that I hope will be clear. But I do believe that our country has overreacted to the attack, not in aiming to destroy Al-Qaeda but, at the very least, in linking Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda. The number of people who died at the trade center, as reported by Dwyer and Flynn, is 2,749, not including the hundreds who perished on the remaining two flights and within the Pentagon; a very similar total number of civilians were killed in Afghanistan by the campaign that toppled the Taliban. Yet when an early estimate of 3,000 Iraqi civilian deaths was reported here, an American supporter of the invasion was quoted in the New York Times as saying that this was merely justice for the 3,000 deaths on 9-11; and that strikes me as narrow-sighted in obvious ways.

The number of people who died at the Trade Center is very small compared to losses in other man-made catastrophes. Is it the shock of that morning that makes the event loom so large? Is it the uniqueness of the kind of attack, with hijacked planes as missiles? Is it the evil of an attack on a target that was populated, visited, and protected by civilians? Or perhaps the poignancy of losing so many civilians who rushed selflessly into a danger that they did not foresee? Or the international death toll? Or was it the sense we felt, as in a war, that blows were landing across a country?

Is it the height of the towers? Here we have a quality with multiple influences on our imagination. The height added labor and heroism, and a certain quixotic nature, to the rescue efforts. It added almost the same qualities to any effort to escape. It left those who were isolated above the impact zones with a terrible choice, and introduced what I consider the most awful image of the whole day -- the sight of people falling to the distant concrete below. Perhaps that sight is especially dismaying to Westerners, who have worked at such heights and looked straight down from observatories.

All of these factors influence us. But one that always sticks in my mind is the collapse of each tower. It is not merely that each tower was collossal enough to have made even a controlled demolition frightful. It is also not simply that the collapses contributed that morning to a sense of receiving four large and disorienting blows (two impacts, two collapses) in quick succession, and that each of the first three blows shocked us with new information or increasingly dreadful realizations. It is also that there cannot be many moments in history when so many lives have been snuffed out in essentially an instant. Each tower fell in about 10 seconds, and a great number of those who lost their lives did so instantly at the top.

When searching for comparisons with other disasters, I think first about the Titanic; and that comparison seems to be the most commonly used, even by Dwyer and Flynn. 1,500 people lost their lives within about 20 minutes of first slipping into the frigid Atlantic -- but not in an instant (though some unknowable number still below deck probably were drowned within seconds of one another). Tens of thousands were lost in certain firestorms during World War II, but again, not instantaneously. Similar things must be said of natural disasters. Now, when we get to airplane crashes, we do find the sudden death of hundreds -- and the first two crashes on 9-11 were among the deadliest in history, each taking the lives of a few hundred people more or less instantly. In the collapse of each WTC tower, even greater numbers of people were instantly killed and brutally buried. Perhaps the only historical instants that I find comparable are those dreadful moments when atomic flashes incinerated thousands of people and began catastrophic fires in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Even measuring the historical moment as lasting 102 minutes, that is a short time for such massive loss of life. Countries throughout the world suffer far greater losses, extending into the millions, from wars and from the pestilence and famine they cause. But even in a large war, a death toll is considered unusually large when a single bomb, or two bombs, cause 100 people to lose their lives instantly or under the stresses of wounds and infection. So a quick loss of thousands from essentially two bombs leaves us haunted, and is what brings us to compare the event against the loss of a hundred thousand or more from a single atomic bomb, as at Hiroshima.

Yet some perspective is needed here, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons. There were many collapses of buildings from fires in Hiroshima; the city even suffered one of the handful of firestorms witnessed during World War II. Fire is essentially what destroyed the city -- and it's essentially what destroyed the city-within-a-city said to have existed in the vertical towers and the vast concourse below. I am not a scientist, yet it seems to me that the better comparison would be between the Hiroshima bomb's explosion and the total energy released by the impacts of the planes (Dwyer and Flynn note that the first impact registered at the Earth Observatory twenty-two miles to the north), or between the destruction wrought by subsequent fires in both places.

Any comprehensive war, without a doubt, spreads more terror and sorrow than 9-11 did. And the tsunami of December 2004 caused destruction on a scale exceeding anything done by human beings in a single morning: the earthquake itself released energy equivalent to several of the most powerful nuclear explosions ever attempted. For all these reasons, I think we need to be careful not to exaggerate the power of 9-11. Some analogies are more appropriate than others.

While reading 102 Minutes, I recalled two books more than any others: John Hersey's Hiroshima, which reconstructs that bombing from interviews with six survivors; and Walter Lord's A Night To Remember, the definitive account of Titanic's sinking. There are many more similarities with Lord's account -- particularly the attempt, by a non-participant, to keep an eye on hundreds of personal stories.

And the analogy with Titanic itself seems to be the best. Titanic was called unsinkable, and the towers were thought to be capable of surviving the impact of any civilian airliner; faulty reasoning and pride in mechanical marvels undergirded both assumptions. The White Star liner, like the WTC, has been called a city unto itself. It even took 160 minutes to sink, and thus went down in a very similar drama, offering the reader a rich prompting of the question, "What would I do?"

I am tempted to restate the common argument that Titanic's sinking drew more attention at the time, and in the twenty years since Robert Ballard discovered the wreckage, than the event warrants; and to extend the analogy to 9-11. The trouble is that Titanic's sinking was not an event driven by international politics or religion, and it was not murder or terrorism. 9-11 draws up questions which cannot be more serious. What does it mean to profess faith in God when God is used to justify murder? How can we stop political murder? What do we do about war?

We don't need the Titanic analogy, or any other, to decide the importance of the 9-11 attack. And my suggestion is that, while the human aspect is endlessly rich, as in 102 Minutes, the political and religious aspects have been distorted and blown out of proportion by calling 9-11 an act of war. It was an act of terrorism, which is something similar but not equivalent. The primary purpose of the attack was to sow great fear with as simple an effort as possible. By unleashing aggression against nation states, as if World War II were repeating itself, we've been acting on the fear that these terrorists sowed.

In the days after September 11, I wrote a personal note to the effect that any true understanding of the event would have to begin with an eye on the suffering. Say a prayer for the departed and the survivors; or if you're an atheist, just keep your compassion fixed on how the violence unfolded for the lives on the ground; then all other understanding would proceed correctly. 102 Minutes is not a religious book, but it does keep its eye on the human aspect; and it succeeds in weaning us from at least some myths. There are many more to go -- like the idea that 9-11 began World War III.

For a sample of the stories covered in 102 Minutes, there is a very good interactive feature by Dwyer, Flynn and others at the New York Times website.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

April 10, 2006 6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post uses the figures of 600 Kilotons of TNT-equivalent at 9/11 and 12,500 Kilotons for Hiroshima. As your sources should indicate, both figures are accurate for Tons, not kilotons. 12.5kT was the force of Hiroshima-- 12,500 kT would be 12.5 megatons, the size of a modern strategic weapon.

November 07, 2006 2:29 AM  

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