When I lived in New York in the 1980s, I would sometimes take the elevators to the rooftop deck of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Up there you could leave the noise of Manhattan behind — or soften it, anyway, into a dim formless roar.
It was, admittedly, unsettling to see small airplanes below, following flight paths up the Hudson River. But the idea that the majestic Twin Towers could be in any way vulnerable was unimaginable.
Utter disbelief is the dominant note of Mitchell Zuckoff’s impressively reported and riveting “Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11.”
Zuckoff, a former member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team and author of “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” delivers a taut moment-by-moment account of how things unfolded so disastrously in the air and on the ground throughout that bright September day when the terrorist group Al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.
Many books about 9/11 followed in the wake of the attacks. Some focused on the experiences of victims or the first-person accounts of survivors or participants in the action. Others, including Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” probed the decades-long background to the events. Zuckoff’s necessary account differs from its predecessors in taking the widest possible real-time view of the day.
Zuckoff embraces the techniques of literary journalism to piece together a cinematic chronicle — Lionsgate Television Group/3 Arts, in fact, has already purchased rights to turn it into a limited series. Terrorists, passengers, air-traffic controllers, Twin Towers workers, first responders, families, all figure into this character-driven account. Zuckoff excels at quick-sketch summaries of dozens of ordinary personal dramas about to be shattered by the attacks: an Internet analyst’s anxiety about a job interview, a married couple’s anticipated reunion, a New York actor’s hopes of making a living without having to resort to temp jobs.
Transcripts of anguished exchanges between 911 operators and ill-fated victims trapped on the upper floors of the Twin Towers are, inevitably, harrowing reading. Zuckoff doesn’t spare you, either, on accounts of the desperate souls who jumped from the towers rather than succumb to the smoke and fire closing in. In a less horrific but still dramatic turn, he relates the on-the-ground experience of residents of Shanksville, Pa., where United 93 crashed. Stunned by the events they were seeing on TV, they never expected to become part of the 9/11 story.
An inability to grasp what was happening extended beyond those trapped in the Twin Towers and Pentagon to the officials struggling to understand and manage the crisis. “The concept of more than one hijacking simultaneously and in coordination wasn’t on anyone’s radar, literally or figuratively,” Zuckoff writes. “Years had passed since the last hijacking of a U.S. air carrier.”
A deeper, if understandable, failure to anticipate stemmed from the Twin Towers’ architectural design itself. Their extraordinary height — they were briefly the worlds’ tallest buildings — raised concerns about the likelihood of aircraft colliding with them, as had happened at the Empire State Building in 1945 when a B-25 bomber crashed into it in the fog. The official scoop was that the towers could survive a direct hit by a Boeing 707 — but “no one calculated the risk if a plane’s fuel exploded on impact.” It was those fuel-stoked fires that brought the towers down.
Communications at every level were a problem. Indianapolis flight controllers trying to make contact with hijacked American Flight 77 were in “an information vacuum,” Zuckoff tells us. Unaware of events in New York that millions of Americans were already seeing on TV, and unalerted to “the emerging pattern of suicide hijackings,” they presumed there had been “a catastrophic electrical or mechanical failure” that had brought Flight 77 down. But the plane was still airborne — and headed toward the Pentagon. Similar confusion reigned elsewhere.
Contact between firefighters and police officers at Ground Zero was hampered. One South Tower survivor, trying to find her firefighter husband, asked a police officer for help.
“Sorry, hon,” he told her, “we’re on different frequencies . . . You gotta find a firetruck.”
Even where signals went through, vital information — for instance, which stairwells in the burning buildings were passable — wasn’t conveyed. People making their escape from the South Tower didn’t think to let 911 operators know that Stairway A offered a likely way out, and the operators didn’t think to ask them so as to share the information with others trying to escape.
Even more poignant was the radio contact from a small group of first responders, alive and trapped in Stairwell B in the North Tower wreckage, who were trying to locate colleagues and guide rescuers. When one of them, K-9 Officer Dave Lim, reached his wife on his cellphone, she “told him that she didn’t want to hang up until either she died or he did.’’ Eventually when the dust settled, fire department Captain Jay Jonas would spot a beam of light: “Guys . . . [t]here used to be one hundred and six floors above us and now I’m seeing sunshine.’’
Written 18 years after the events, “Fall and Rise” is able to take measure of the human fallout in ways that earlier books could not. (The book also serves as a gripping introduction to those in their 20s and younger, who have little, if any, direct memory of the tragedy.) Zuckoff keeps comments on the political repercussions from 9/11 to a minimum. Instead, his focus is on the empirical experience of those caught in the maelstrom. Survivors’ long-term reactions, he writes, have varied widely. Some joined organizations such as September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, while others allied themselves with 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, which endorses a “doctrine of pre-emption.” By the 20th anniversary of 9/11, he notes, more people will have died of Ground Zero-related ailments than were killed in the actual attacks, according to some experts.
As “Fall and Rise” makes clear, we’re not done with 9/11 yet — and may not be for decades, if ever.
FALL AND RISE:
The Story of 9/11
By Mitchell Zuckoff
Harper, 589 pp., illustrated, $29.99
Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.