102 Minutes: The Definitive Account of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn tells the stories of firefighters, police officers and the people themselves who were inside both towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of 11 September 2001. The authors interviewed survivors and the relatives of those who died and compiled their narrative from all forms of communication coming into and going out of both towers that day. Police radio reports, helicopter recordings, 911 calls, E-mails, cellphone conversations and even announcements made in the towers picked up on saved cellphone conversations all capture the sense of the unknown, then the horror of what it was like to be in the World Trade Center as terror rained down.
The workers at 1 World Trade at first believed that a bomb had gone off, a repeat of the act of terrorism that first struck the WTC in February 1993. Unlike the bombing, the disaster that struck the tower this time left no escape route for those who were above the impact zone. Phone calls home filled with confidence that a rescue would soon be underway soon turn into desperation then resignations of imminent death and final “I love you”‘s as the people in the highest storeys are choked into breaking windows for fresh air. The authors describe the feelings of the firefighters on duty that day:
“Worst of all were the thunderous, percussive claps as bodies hit the building canopy. So many people from the upper floors were jumping, even now, just minutes after the crash, that the chief went over to the public-address system, not realizing it had been rendered inoperable by the plane.”‘Please don’t jump,’ he spoke into the dead microphone. ‘We’re coming up for you.'”
Those who were in the second tower immediately after the first tower was hit received mixed messages from the Port Authority Police Department whether or not to evacuate. Dwyer and Flynn documented recordings made by officers working in the same department, instructing people either to remain on their floor or to leave the building immediately. Your life depended on whom you spoke to. Most tragic of all were the stories of those who evacuated to the lobby only to be told that the building was secure and that it was safe to return to one’s office. Those that did, even if their office was below the impact zone, had a hellish second descent down dozens of flights of smoke-filled stairs.
A monumental failure that cost hundreds of lives was the poor and in some cases nonexistent level of communication between the police and fire departments. Each department regarded itself as its own island, ignoring the efforts of the others even while fires were raging and chunks of the tower were falling upon them. No system of shared information was in place, and even when crucial information was known (such as the collapse of the south tower) it was impossible to deliver such a message to those most in harm’s way. The authors relate numerous stories where police officers race down the north tower stairs, passing groups of firefighters gathered together on different floors.
102 Minutes tells the stories of those trapped above the impact zones who tried to make it to the roof. Helicopter rescues were in fact considered by the pilots circling the towers but landing atop the blazing, smoking towers was impossible, as was the idea of lowering rescue crews down on ropes. The intense heat alone could compromise the ability of the helicopters to stay aloft by weakening the updrafts if they got too close. The doors to the roofs were locked anyway, however I wonder if there might have been an attempt by any would-be rescuers who landed on the roof to break them open from the outside.
Many heroes lost their lives that day. 102 Minutes has a photos section and it is sad to see photos of these firefighters, police officers and WTC employees in the midst of rescuing people, only to read their names at the end of the book marking those who died in the collapse. Moira Smith from the New York Police Department is in a photograph escorting a man from 2 WTC. Sadly, she died inside the tower, no doubt in her attempt to rescue more people. Frank de Martini and Pablo Ortiz, who worked on the 88th floor of the first tower which was right below the impact zone, rescued people from offices up to the 91st floor, before being blocked by damaged staircases taking them any further. Both men lost their lives in rescuing others.
In 102 Minutes your heart will race, your hands will sweat and you will not pay attention to anything else other than the page you’re reading. It was a harrowing read.