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9/11 Plus Four

Jim Dwyer, co-author of 102 Minutes: The Untold Story to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, joined Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club on August 31, 2005 for an online discussion about 9/11 four years after the attack on the Twin Towers.

Gotham Gazette: Four years after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, there is still much left to be resolved.

  • The country continues to debate the best national response to the threat of terrorism.
  • New Yorkers in particular are still figuring out how to build safe skyscrapers -- the Freedom Tower had to be redesigned earlier this year to respond to safety concerns -- and grappling with how to handle the possibility of a future attack.
  • There is a continuing debate over what cultural expressions are appropriate on the site -- the future of the cultural centers planned for Ground Zero is uncertain.
  • And the redevelopment of Ground Zero has slowed so much that many fear it will never happen.

    Even our picture of what went on in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 continues to shift over time. With us is Jim Dwyer, one of the authors of 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, a book about that morning.

    Thank you for being with us, Mr. Dwyer.

    Jim Dwyer: Thanks for having me.


    Gotham Gazette: On the fourth anniversary, why do you think so little connected to 9/11 has yet to be resolved?

    Jim Dwyer: Some of it hasn't been fully resolved because the public and the government were reluctant to ask probing questions in the months afterwards -- about national security, about emergency response, and for us here in NYC, about the safety of tall buildings.

    But then there is the question of the big hole where the trade center used to be and where 2,749 people died. And while people have complained about the leadership, it is not clear to me yet that the right solution has emerged, that we know what ought to be there. At least not yet.

    Gotham Gazette: Are we still too close to the event to be able to assess what would be best for the site?

    Jim Dwyer: That's how it looks to me.

    Gotham Gazette: Why not? It's been four years -- more time than it took World War II to be fought (as Fred Siegel said during our last book conversation)

    Jim Dwyer: We've actually fought two wars since the trade center fell.

    It took the better part of a year to get the site cleared. The bodies were still being identified. And people have been fighting about real estate in lower Manhattan for four centuries.

    Who knows how we're going to want to see that area four years from now, or 14? And I think it has taken people a while to build with an eye on our future selves, rather than the grieving, angry, distraught, lost, and numb selves in the time right after the loss.

    I guess I'm too ambivalent about what should be there myself to find fault with others for not knowing what to do. But I agree that it's high time something got started.


    Gotham Gazette: Your book gives a pretty wrenching account of what people went through in the Twin Towers, which it is hard to imagine most people being able to handle a few years ago. How far have people come in terms of being prepared to deal with this story than they were previously?

    Jim Dwyer: I think they didn't handle it because no one told them what happened. When the survivors of the Titanic were brought to Chelsea Piers on the Carpathia, the chairman of a Senate committee was waiting for them with subpoenas. The morning after they landed, he began hearings at the Waldorf Astoria that lasted 18 days.

    All the famous lore and fact about the Titanic were established in those hearings -- the wrenching separations of families, the people floating away in the icy sea, the unanswered calls for help from the California.

    We encased the 9/11 events in a glaze of mythology. The mayor went to funerals and said the firefighters saved 25,000 people. Sometimes he said it was 50,000. He said that the firefighters knew what danger they were in and continued to rescue people. People like Fred Siegel wrote books declaring it a triumph of emergency management.

    None of that -- not a syllable -- is true.

    Meanwhile, in real life, here's what happened: the people who could get out rescued themselves. They walked down the stairs. They carried each other. They broke down doors. The firefighters came to help, but they were carrying 100 pounds of gear, and if the people in the building had to wait for them, they'd all have died.

    Gotham Gazette: You mention this in the book, actually, writing in the epilogue that "in the first telling of the story of the trade center rescue, civilians played little role, except as helpless victims who were saved by the police and firefighters"; your book portrays those in the towers as being much more active in their own escapes. Why had this story gone untold?

    Jim Dwyer: Because we needed heroes and "firefighters" was much catchier than "office workers." Because the firefighters made such sacrifices. Because what went on inside the towers was invisible, and fragmented. It took place across 110 floors, and two buildings -- that's 220 acres, and you couldn't see from one acre to the next, so you didn't know, for instance, that two ordinary guys in the north tower, Frank DeMartini and Pablo Ortiz, freed people on the 88th, 89th, 90th, 86th, 83rd and 78th floors. All of them would have been trapped had it not been for these two little-known men. It took us months to piece together their story - neither man escaped.

    Angai: Although the the firefighters might not have physically carried those that were trapped, didn't they still assist by directing those to the exit and clearing obstacles in the way?

    Jim Dwyer: The firefighters cleared exits in the final minutes, absolutely, and they also helped get the remaining people out when the first tower collapsed. Also very important in this same role were the trade center security guards, most of whom stood their ground to the end.


    Gotham Gazette: Over the course of your reporting, you've obviously come in contact with many people who have been deeply affected by both the 1993 and 2001 attacks on a personal level. Is the story of these two men the single one that sticks out? Are there any others that particularly affected you?

    Jim Dwyer: Many, many others. About 18 people escaped from above the crash zone in the south tower; each of them has a powerful story to tell.

    Gotham Gazette: Is there one in particular that comes to mind right now?

    Jim Dwyer: Tom Kelly, who worked on the towers as a young steamfitter, ran the one working elevator in that tower, and brought Chief Palmer up to the 40th floor.

    The efforts of Orio Palmer, a fire chief, and Tom Kelly, a firefighter, in the south tower, are especially striking. Chief Palmer got to the impact zone in the south tower in the final minutes.

    Robert Gabriel Martinez, a young security guard, was on the 78th floor of the south tower when Chief Palmer arrived there. That was a place of devastation -- a sky lobby where people had been waiting for express elevators when the second plane hit.

    We also sued the city and got a tape of Chief Palmer narrating his own ascent through the building. He actually picked up speed as he climbed -- you could time his transmissions and figure out how fast he was going.

    Then there's the story of Jan Demczur, the window-washer, who was trapped in an elevator in the north tower with five other men. He was in an express elevator, and when they pried open the doors, they were facing a sheetrock wall, because the elevator didn't stop at that floor. The men had one tool -- Jan's squeegee. And they used it to cut through the sheetrock, eventually hitting tiles in a bathroom, and kicked them out to get onto the 50th floor. They made it out of the building wtih minutes to spare.


    Gotham Gazette: The stories you tell are very dramatic. Maybe that's one reason why 102 Minutes is being made into a movie. There are other 9/11 movies in the hopper as well. Has there been any reaction to these projects that it's turning something sacred into entertainment?

    Jim Dwyer: I don't know if 102 Minutes is going to be made into a movie. That's not up to me. But if it does get made, I'm hoping that it will have the fidelity to facts of Apollo 13.

    Jocelyn_Rudell: Do you think that the contempt many feel for the financial sector and its employees (or at least lack of admiration for it) compound the lack of attention to stories from people other than firefighters and police? (even though it's a key part of NYC's identity and wellbeing)

    Jim Dwyer:I don't think people's feelings about the financial sector really caused the blackout of information about what happened in the towers. Having done the research to figure out what did happen, I can tell you it is an extremely arduous, complicated puzzle, and I think that, more than any feelings about the financial sector, probably made it easy to default to the firefighters and police as the only heroes of the day.

    Gotham Gazette: There's a lot of sensitivity about depictions of 9/11. Artists, news organizations and politicians have all at times been accused of being insensitive to the attacks or outright exploiting what some see as sacred. During the Republican National Convention, the president was shamed out of even visiting the site; today, some families of the attack's victims are trying to limit what the cultural institutions on the site can display. Have you run into this and what do you think explains it?

    Jim Dwyer: People don't want to see this event manipulated for political or commercial gain. I haven't really run into it with regard to 102 Minutes.


    Gotham Gazette: You've been covering this story, in a sense, for more than a decade. You were also a co-author of Two Seconds Under The World, about the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. You now write about it for the NY Times, which recently got a judge to release more oral histories on the day of 9/11. So, the big question -- could 9/11 have been avoided, or, if not avoided, minimized? In other words -- what went wrong?

    Jim Dwyer: Islamic fundamentalists killed Meir Kahane in November 1990. The same group tried to knock over the trade center in February 1993.

    The mastermind of the 93 plot then wanted to blow up jets all over the world.

    In 1998, bin Laden blew up two American embassies in Africa and announced that no American was safe.

    In 2000, members of his outfit attacked the USS Cole.

    In 2001, bin Laden's crowd killed 2,749 people in NYC, more in Washington and in Shanksbille, Pa.

    We did not pay enough attention to this threat, not to make a "duh" remark.

    We should not ignore what was exposed about building safety at the trade center. It could be relevant to next catastrophe, whether it is the doing of Mother Nature or some malignant hands. More than 1,000 people survived the plane crashes at the trade center, but could not get out of the buildings because there were so few exits. The towers were the first major skyscrapers built under a code that permitted building owners to cut their exits in half, creating more rentable space.

    Gotham Gazette: Much of what you have written in the Times since the publication of your book has been about the debate over building code reform which, you write "hardly makes for gripping drama." Has 9/11 managed to create a constituency for building code reform that didn’t exist previously? Has anything changed?

    Jim Dwyer: Not to pay attention to that is like ignoring the lifeboat count on the Titanic: the boats only had space for half the passengers. As for change -- some elements of the building code have been changed, but the industry apparently has persuaded the city that it does not need to expand the amount of exit space. One of the most interesting points is that when you don't have elevators in a building, it takes hours for rescuers to reach people on high floors. A federal agency recently issued a 10,000 page report on the trade center, and made calls for changes in national building codes. But building codes don't see any difference in risk between a person on the eighth floor or the 108th. There are no more exits for the twin towers than any ten story building -- no more fire resistance, no more impact resistance, no required refuges.

    Gotham Gazette: Have we missed the chance to learn from the mistakes of 9/11?

    Jim Dwyer: There's always another chance.

    Gotham Gazette's Rebuilding NYC, a subsite that offered the most comprehensive coverage of the rebuilding effort from September 11, 2001 to September 11, 2004.

    Three Years Of Rebuilding (September 6, 2004)

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