Fighting to Live as the Towers Died
May 26, 2002 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Fighting to Live as the Towers Died : the NYT continues its fine reporting, reconstructing the final moments of temporary survivors on the upper floors, through over 150 e-mail and telephone contacts used to reach friends and relatives (as well as videotapes and recordings of 911 calls and emergency radio bands). Since I briefly worked in the trade center, I have often wondered what this experience must have been like. You may want to take a moment to prepare, and expect to need breaks.
posted by dhartung (48 comments total)
 
That was the most chilling article on 9/11 I have ever read. Thanks for posting it.
posted by aznblader at 10:05 AM on May 26, 2002


You know, I go for days without thinking of the event. I don't hear about it, don't mourn for the people, or remember where I was that day. Then someone mentions a family member who died or posts a link like this, and suddenly it's September and I'm in the office bathroom staring out the window with my heart in my throat.
posted by FunkyHelix at 10:33 AM on May 26, 2002


"I have often wondered what this experience must have been like."

why?
posted by clavdivs at 10:36 AM on May 26, 2002


Another really excellent article about 9/11 from the NYT. Honestly worth reading, guys. Thanks dhartung.
posted by josh at 10:37 AM on May 26, 2002


It's a fine line between worthwhile reconstruction and exploitation. I know I'll be better off without reading this.
posted by muckster at 10:46 AM on May 26, 2002


...
posted by metrocake at 10:51 AM on May 26, 2002


...
posted by MidasMulligan at 10:53 AM on May 26, 2002


I'm torn on how to react to this article. On the one hand it's a pointed reminder of the loss of life that occurred on 9/11, and what that loss means. It wasn't just an attack on a city where we lost buildings. People died. The article reminds me [us] that these are not faceless, nameless people.

On the other hand I'm feeling appalled over my vision of the information gathering required for this article.

"Hello. I'm doing an article on the 9/11 tragedy. Did your spouse or loved one try to contact you in his/her final moments? Could you tell me what their last words were? It's for the Times. Can I quote you on that?"

Either way, ungh.
posted by mikhail at 10:53 AM on May 26, 2002


Additionally, there is an extensive Flash presentation showing the positions in the towers, with audio narration by the reporters, and very detailed architecture. I'm just now getting to it. It's not linkable (flash navigation) so you'll have to go to the main article page to get to it.

N.B. I don't feel the need to explain myself or justify this reporting.
posted by dhartung at 11:10 AM on May 26, 2002


I hardly think this qualifies as 'exploitation.' These were real events that actually happened, real phone calls that were actually made, etc., and people are interested to know as much as possible about what went on, and, presumably, interested to share what they know, without compensation. The tone of the article is, I think, quite far from anything exploitative, but if you haven't read it I don't imagine you'd be able to say.

If you want to see something exploitative about 9/11 look to that TV special, to the news networks' crawl and 'attack on america' branding, and to the Bush administration. The Times has demonstrated extraordinary sensitivity and judgment about 9/11 reporting, it seems to me.
posted by josh at 11:11 AM on May 26, 2002


clavdivs, it's only natural to wonder how "you" would react or behave in such a circumstance. Not morbid, or exploitative, but people's brains can't help but wonder: what if it had been me?
posted by davidmsc at 11:20 AM on May 26, 2002


I found it informative.

1. Don't go up in a burning skyscraper unless you have to.

2. Don't listen to announcements that everything is OK until you are sure yourself that everything is okay.

3. Don't ever worry about your palm pilot.

4. Listen to men with red bandanas who know the way out.

This kind of information can save lives...
posted by srboisvert at 11:45 AM on May 26, 2002


Thank for posting that, Dhartung. The people shouldn't be forgotten are those who were killed. This piece is not explotative. What I find explotative is learned opinion pieces about how more people in far off countries should be murdered.
posted by dydecker at 11:53 AM on May 26, 2002


Calling this exploitation is like calling primo levi's books exploitation of the holocaust (no I'm not saying it's comparable). These are simply the stories of the people who were there, those who survived and second hand accounts of those who didn't. I am sure that no one who didn't find it useful or even necessary to speak about their experiences was forced to make statements.

and what funkyhelix said.
posted by mdn at 12:35 PM on May 26, 2002


Eventually an emotional scab will form and I won't cry when I read about this, but until then...
posted by GernBlandston at 12:47 PM on May 26, 2002


Thanks for posting this.
posted by fahfooh at 1:15 PM on May 26, 2002


Good points, mdn, dydecker, and josh.

I skimmed this during breakfast when the article started at me from the front page, but I am still not sure what is to be gained from knowing every last detail of what happened in the towers. Of course there is value in memory and knowledge, but there should also be a right to privacy in dying, even if it is such a spectacular, catastrophic death. Is it really our business what these people said to each other in their last minutes? Note that I didn't call the article exploitative -- I merely wondered where others would draw the line between the public's right to know, a justifiable interest that is also honoring the memory of the dead on one hand, and catastrophe porn no better than rubbernecking on the other. I got a freakin Sept. 11 coffee table book for Christmas and haven't looked at it once. I'm not trolling or disparaging anybody's interest or genuine emotion; I'm just groping around for standards, for ways to think about this. Is staring the horror in the eye a healthy way to grieve? When does it turn into looking for kicks in all the wrong places?
posted by muckster at 1:59 PM on May 26, 2002


Our local paper carried this story, so it was one of the first things I read this morning. (I guess they're either owned by the same company, or buy a feed from the Times.)

It impacted me much harder than I thought it would, I thought myself relatively inured to the tragedy by now...I was wrong. Sometimes, amidst all the political fighting and blame-laying, it's easy to overlook the actual people...for a moment, as I read this, it was like that morning, seeing the towers fall, and realizing all of the lives that were being lost even as we watched. I stand in stunned silence, offering a prayer for both those that were lost, and those that have been left behind.
posted by dejah420 at 2:01 PM on May 26, 2002


Is it really our business what these people said to each other in their last minutes?

As I said above, if the family members don't want to share those memories, they are free to refrain from doing so. But difficult ordeals tend to be things people want to share; holding it all inside does not ease the pain. Yes, sometimes stories of horrible events are shared under the guise of "never again", but just as commonly there is a basic desire to witness, to relate what you went through to other human beings.

When does it turn into looking for kicks in all the wrong places?

What exactly do you mean by "kicks" though? I mean, I think most people who read this feel empathy and pain more than anything. There is something primordial to us about "not forgetting"; there is something important about staying emotionally connected to people who died and relating to the trauma they went through.

Is staring the horror in the eye a healthy way to grieve?

Is there really any other way? I mean, in the end, you either face what happened or you push it away... I dunno, I've been reading a lot of accounts of trauma recently, mostly from the holocaust and from american slavery, for a paper I'm writing on ethics, and it seems to me that remembering individual experiences is fundamental to retaining our humanity and eventually overcoming despair.
posted by mdn at 2:24 PM on May 26, 2002


Forget about the terrorist attack: This is the story of a fire in a high-rise building. A building probably very much like one in which you might work. What does it tell you? It tells you that architects, engineers and emergency planners can't foresee every emergency. That if something happens and you're way up in the sky like that, you're a gone goose. What should we conclude about that? 1.) We should no longer build these tall buildings, and, 2.) responsible employers should not ask their employees to work in them. No building should be larger than the tallest fire ladder. This is not such a huge sacrifice. We have a great, big, broad country, and plenty of room to spread out.
posted by Faze at 2:27 PM on May 26, 2002


>We have a great, big, broad country, and plenty of room >to spread out.

Yes, but Manhattan is a relatively little, little island compared to the great big country -- and that's why the buildings are so tall. You can't go "out" on Manhattan, you can only go "up." Cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta developed differently because they did not have these limitations -- they are sprawling, while New York City is relatively contained.

Granted, there's no law that says businesses need to be located in Manhattan. But that goes into a "real estate location: Manhattan vs. rest of country" argument that's got naught to do with this thread.
posted by metrocake at 2:40 PM on May 26, 2002


What Faze said. WTC was phallic, politically-motivated creation. It never had much prestige. It didn't revitalize lower Manhattan as hoped. I worked for a little while on the 57th floor of the South Tower in 1998. It was neither productive nor enjoyable. If you want to build tall, build a CN Tower-type structure. But don't put office workers in it.
posted by ParisParamus at 3:11 PM on May 26, 2002


Forget about the terrorist attack: This is the story of a fire in a high-rise building.

no, this is the story of a terrorist attack. A leftover cigarette would never have caused a fire like this. Only an intentional attack could have made the building so dangerous.
posted by mdn at 3:13 PM on May 26, 2002


Every time I read an article like this I am reminded about exactly where I was when so many died.

I was in bed, sleeping, on vacation, oblivious to it all. I don't know why that rattles me, but it does.

Nice post dhartung...
posted by tomcosgrave at 3:54 PM on May 26, 2002


thank you, dhartung.

and if I could, I'd thank the families who cooperated with the NYT for this article.

Iliana McGinnis, whose husband, Tom, called her from the 92nd floor of the north tower, said, "If they can uncover even one more piece of information about what happened during those last minutes, I want it."

I suppose she's a voyeur seeking kicks, too?

We all lost something that day.
posted by Sapphireblue at 4:10 PM on May 26, 2002


Only an intentional attack could have made the building so dangerous.

Actually, the idea of planes crashing into buildings either accidentally or intentionally wasn't born in some terrorist camp, its an old idea and the WTC towers were built to withstand a collision from the largest airplane the time according to a couple sources I've read. Not to mention NORAD forsaw this scenario and was certain it could be stopped, but could not get a plane there in time.

I think muckster is asking the important questions here. Why is so important to not only understand this in both an intellectual way and an emotion way but to constantly reexperience it emotionally? The cynic in me thinks because it sells papers and its a good story. Also, what aren't we supposed to remember. With memorial day coming up should I feel guilt that I don't know every detail of every american war? I don't think so.

I think its morbid and informative like the Pearl video, yet the WTC attack has a stamp of approval seemingly because of its political implications and scale, but the Pearl video will forever be controversial. Go figure.
posted by skallas at 5:31 PM on May 26, 2002


Also, intellectual detachment makes us more rational. There's a reason we're not hearing about random Arabs getting beat up this week as opposed to the couple weeks after the 11th. The people who claim to need this seem to me to be showing more traits of obsession than sympathy or humanity. I certianly won't try to deny them from getting the information they crave, but I think its emotionally unhealthy to keep reliving shocking and hurtful events and thinking that long sob was good for them.
posted by skallas at 5:38 PM on May 26, 2002


I really need to start proof reading these.
posted by skallas at 5:39 PM on May 26, 2002


I appreciate this post too. There is a fine line that I have wrassled with in my head between getting the information out and the value of that, and exploitation, WTC tourism, and all that other nonsense. It's no secret what I feel about the Pearl video, and I continue to hold my beliefs about that (but respect yours as well).

I had a lot of feelings about those who would pose in front of the wreck for pictures, Starbucks in one hand and a big Mrs. Fields' cookie in the other. I also had a lot of personal feelings about the event, with my dad escaping death by sheer luck (he was supposed to be at Windows on the World that morning, and was running late, and was on his way into the building when the first plane hit). My current supervisor lost her brother in law. It was an event that affected us all in different ways, and a lot of hit has nothing to do with how close we were in proximity. I am amazed to see some New Yorkers who seem to (at least on the surface) have gotten through the events with little disruption to their minds and psyches, but have known others who live far away who had nightmares for months.

I guess my point is that grief affects people in different ways, and if this article was done with the greatest of intentions and no one was pressured into reliving the events of that day and the loss of their loved ones, I see nothing wrong with it. I have a lot of feelings, and many that I admittedly have not thoroughly sorted through yet, regarding the imagery we were blasted with. I appreciate the information being available to us, but some of the way that it was handled made me sick. There is just something about the imagery that the news programs put together, with solemn music in the background, a flag in the corner waving, and explosion after explosion in a carefully choreographed introduction to the newscast that made me sick.

There was a NY Times article a while back, talking about how the devil is in the details for many of those who lost their loved ones. There are two sides to the coin, but many want to know more about how their loved one died: were they alone, or with someone? Were they in the tower or on the ground? Were they one of the ones that jumped? Did they know they were going to die? (cant find the article, but I am trying).

I guess some people want to have the information for their own closure, and that has been difficult to come by, given the total destruction of the scene. It's something I can't understand because I haven't gone through it, but whatever these people feel they need to do, including cooperating in a news article that may upset some, it is fine with me. (my god, that was my longest post ever...forgive me!)
posted by adampsyche at 5:41 PM on May 26, 2002


Actually, the idea of planes crashing into buildings either accidentally or intentionally wasn't born in some terrorist camp, its an old idea and the WTC towers were built to withstand a collision from the largest airplane the time according to a couple sources I've read.

I watched a documentary about the WTC and its architecture that was filmed before the event but aired after on the History Channel. One of the building's managers was proud to announce that its outer supports would allow the building to withstand a direct hit from a smaller 7x7 plane (the number escapes me). He died when the slightly larger 7x7s hit that day.
posted by adampsyche at 5:42 PM on May 26, 2002


remembering individual experiences is fundamental to retaining our humanity and eventually overcoming despair.

I have been pretty far removed, geographically, politically, and emotionally from the attacks, but hearing about NYT's "Profiles" on NPR, or any individual's story of loss, touches me.

Loss is loss, and to make it more human is to make it more accessible and real.
posted by pudders at 7:18 PM on May 26, 2002


The people trapped in the towers died sudden, untimely deaths, and at the moment of truth reached out for loved ones and friends in order to give and receive support. They lived, to the last moment, the words of E.M. Forester - "only connect."

By reading these last hurried messages, we connect with them again and again in their hour of need. It is proof of the fact that they did not perish alone and forgotten, as so many of them feared.
posted by junkbox at 8:24 PM on May 26, 2002


This is a great article. It's almost like a dramatization (as if such a thing would need dramatization) and really puts you there. This definitely makes me feel like a well crafted movie on the disaster would be extremely powerful.
posted by wackybrit at 9:09 PM on May 26, 2002


I just found these accounts that are very similar to that NYT article. The Los Angeles Times one is particularly vivid.
posted by wackybrit at 9:33 PM on May 26, 2002


ParisParamus: WTC was phallic, politically-motivated creation.

Hey, PP, you know what's phallic? A penis! I'm reminded of one of the pro-Palestinian speakers at the anti-Israel rally in DC several weeks ago, who looked across the park at the Washington Monument and declared it to be a phallic, missile-like object to be scorned.

The WTC towers were beautiful monuments, regardless of their "motivation." I genuinely don't understand the reason to call them "phallic." Sometimes a skyscraper is *just* a skyscraper.
posted by davidmsc at 10:17 PM on May 26, 2002


I had a lot of feelings about those who would pose in front of the wreck for pictures, Starbucks in one hand and a big Mrs. Fields' cookie in the other.

Yes. Gruesome. And the flood of tour buses that now routinely cruise ground zero is gruesome too.

I also had a lot of personal feelings about the event, with my dad escaping death by sheer luck (he was supposed to be at Windows on the World that morning, and was running late, and was on his way into the building when the first plane hit).

Yep - I was supposed to be at that conference myself (there was a big conference on IT in Finance in the Windows that morning ... but a project I was running developed a serious glitch, and I wound up in the WFC instead - thank God Siebel CRM is a nightmare to implement ...).

I guess my point is that grief affects people in different ways, and if this article was done with the greatest of intentions

It was done with the intention to sell papers. It worked. I personally see it as little different than the tour buses. While I do understand that - according to the comments on this thread - a number of people apparently did get something out of it, I couldn't read more than a couple of paragraphs.

Since 9/11, I now know what a body looks like when it hits the ground from 100 stories up. I don't need "dramatizations", or anything to make it more human. And I think the tour buses, and photos of smiling people with their new "Ground Zero" hats in front of the site ... and the almost ceaseless stream of articles and clips and shows (that are inevitably called "powerful", and/or "tasteful") ... all belong in the same category.
posted by MidasMulligan at 10:21 PM on May 26, 2002


I've read everyone's posts and there are some good points, but still -- fundamentally it just seems to me that we live in a society in which papers -- books -- music -- whatever -- our culture gets sold to us. That fact is inescapable and can't be allowed to undermine the content of the culture we buy. If you buy a great novel, the fact that lots of other people bought it doesn't mean it was only written 'to sell lots of books.' That's reductive and harsh and cynical and I don't see any point in that kind of thinking. What would you have preferred? That the Times give away the article for free? It just doesn't work that way, sadly enough.

If there's a reason we can think of articles like this, or books/novels/art/films/whatever about 9/11, as 'exploitative,' it's not because they exploit the event, whatever that means, but because they exploit us -- because they prey on the very genuine feelings of the audience to produce a commercial outcome. I have a lot of faith in people; I think even those folks wearing their ground zero t-shirts are trying to get their (senseless) minds around a horrible event as best as they can. And I don't think well-written articles like this one about 9/11 exploit that audience; they don't give people the easy, commercial way out that a t-shirt like that does. You can call it 'obsession' all you want skallas but it seems to me that the desire to understand something awful is normal, healthy, and part of all of us. Far better that people get some understanding from fully felt and moving journalism than from some stupid t-shirt.
posted by josh at 11:43 PM on May 26, 2002


One thing I have never understood is why helicopters weren't dispatched to the roofs to rescue the people up there. They had enough time. I've never heard anyone else wonder about this, either. The people going up the stairs shouldn't have been doomed. Surely the city of New York could get a couple of birds up there within 10-15 minutes. Or am I missing something?
posted by Poagao at 12:53 AM on May 27, 2002


Re: helicopters. I'd wager that the amount of smoke made it too dangerous in the initial hour or so, and then the "all stop" command for all non-military flights probably made it a moot point anyway.

BTW - anyonce see the HBO special tonight? Chilling, sobering, haunting. We must never forget -- not just what happened, but also *how* it happened. As a Time columnist wrote shortly after 9/11, we don't need grief counselors, or some other method to assuage our hatred of those who committed these acts. Vengeance, coupled with the desire to prevent future such attacks, is a natural, normal, and healthy response to this horror, and periodically viewing shows such as this will keep us focused on fighting those who would destroy us.
posted by davidmsc at 1:37 AM on May 27, 2002


Wasn't the smoke going off to an angle, not affecting the roof at all? And why would "All Stop" mean you couldn't rescue people? That seems a bit daft.
posted by Poagao at 1:56 AM on May 27, 2002


According to the article, people couldn't make it out to the roof because the door was locked. In one tower, anyhow.
posted by adampsyche at 4:23 AM on May 27, 2002


Poagao: helicopter rescue debate was a bone of contention between the police and fire experts, and even the pilots believe they could only have saved a few people from the South tower roof. Sooty fuel-fire smoke and superheated updrafts made approach dangerous, and antennas would have needed cutting down. Given that the towers collapsed, it's clear in retrospect that chance should have been taken, but nobody running the emergency response seemed to expect that.

Related: Why one stairway survived the crash, the USAToday story on the elevator equipment that shielded a single route to safety -- one, alas, used only by a handful. This was briefly alluded to in the NYT article.
posted by dhartung at 5:10 AM on May 27, 2002


"Hello. I'm doing an article on the 9/11 tragedy. Did your spouse or loved one try to contact you in his/her final moments? Could you tell me what their last words were? It's for the Times. Can I quote you on that?"

First, some of the personal information (emails, phone calls, last words of any sort) was gathered by the police and is available to any reporter who cares to file Freedom of Information Act requests. Second, within my experience, about half the time victims' families come forward with information willingly; the reporters need only be thankful and polite to receive it. Third, just like doctors and cops, any journalist with more than a few years of experience working for a good newspaper has picked up a good bedside manner. Considering the long-term nature of this story, I wouldn't be surprised if the Times started with letters rather than phone calls, and I seriously doubt there were any cold-calls to bereaved families, particularly when you consider they've been reporting the hell out of this story since September. The reporters may have established relationships with many of these families by now, even if the first contact was only to get a photograph of the victim to run in in the paper, since the Times did, indeed, run a photo of those who died (with a few exceptions, probably including those working in the CIA and FBI facilities). So all-in-all, you can toss out our your notions of the insensitive reporter standing in the flowerbed, hammering on the living room window, shouting, "How do you feel?": they exist, but just like real life, they're not the norm.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:15 AM on May 27, 2002


I add my thanks, dhartung.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:51 AM on May 28, 2002


The only break I need is from the endless 9/11 posts.
posted by {savg*pncl} at 7:25 PM on May 28, 2002


'WTC was phallic, politically-motivated creation. It never had much prestige. It didn't revitalize lower Manhattan as hopedthis is why i love metafilter, everybody has some common ground, even if slight.
ParisP - 'WTC was phallic, politically-motivated creation. It never had much prestige. It didn't revitalize lower Manhattan as hoped. '
damn right, it was also never fully occupied during it's existence.
posted by asok at 8:12 AM on May 29, 2002


not sure what happened there :~/
posted by asok at 8:15 AM on May 29, 2002


I'm rather late in my reply (ones not needed really) none-the-less. i asked why in hopes of an answer in which i....see in the fact that my dad was at pearl. i have often thought of what it would have like. i feel this comes from desire to change the situation, help out. To man that AA gun early or pull the fire alarm at 8:00 a.m. at the WTC on sept. 11. My question did not stem from malice but from understanding, the human desire to change events even though we cannot.
posted by clavdivs at 2:24 PM on June 5, 2002


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