We know the big picture: how nineteen men hijacked four aircraft on 11 September 2001 and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York, into the Pentagon in Washington, DC and, not by design, into a field in Pennsylvania, with the immediate loss of 2,977 lives (not counting those of the hijackers). Much of this was witnessed by a global television audience.
The events of 9/11 and their consequences have been well documented, while the ideological background of the terrorists has been brilliantly analysed by Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, which traces the hijackers’ beliefs back to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, who visited the United States in the 1940s and returned to his native Egypt filled with loathing.
But when we look at the big picture, we sometimes miss the human aspect. Details transform understanding – a room full of spectacles at Auschwitz punches you in a way that bare facts and scholarly histories don’t. In Germany, murdered Jewish people are commemorated on Stolpersteine, small brass plaques, ten centimetres square, set into the streets outside the houses from which they were snatched and sent away to the murder factories. The names and dates humanise history.
The great service done by Mitchell Zuckoff in Fall and Rise is to document in minute but telling detail the innumerable human tragedies that unfolded in the space of a few hours on the morning of 11 September 2001.
The day produced countless stories of chance, of people taking one route or another without realising that the decision they had made would save or kill them. I was in New York at the time, working for the BBC, and was on my way to Windows on the World, the complex at the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, on the morning of the attacks. My own lucky break came at the corner of 14th Street and Seventh Avenue, where I got off the bus and immediately spotted a Cuban coffee shop called Sucelt. The prospect of empanadas and Hispanic coffee instead of the usual New York dishwater drew me off course. It delayed me long enough to ensure that I had only reached the bottom of the South Tower when the first plane struck the North Tower.
Zuckoff’s grand account of the day is a compilation of individual experiences, down to the smallest detail: the last words said to loved ones on doorsteps; the messages left on voicemails; the smell of a flight attendant’s perfume; a pilot’s bumper sticker; who got on the plane last; who sat where; a call by a pilot to his nine-year-old daughter to wake her up in time for school (‘I love you up to the moon and back’). He documents the day as the victims experienced it, both in the planes and at the sites of the crashes: the frantic scrabble for life in the dark and smoke of the Pentagon; the employee there who, with a colleague, crawled out on her back; the terrifying uncertainty felt by those in the Twin Towers; a fireman calling to a colleague from Ladder Company 6 trapped in the North Tower, ‘I’m coming to get you, brother’; how members of that same crew survived the collapse of the North Tower by pausing to help a woman who could barely walk. If they had moved any faster or slower, they would have been crushed to death. As it was, they found themselves in a ‘safe’ cavern within the debris of the collapsed tower.
Zuckoff describes numerous acts of heroism, of people knowingly putting their own lives at risk to save others. However, many of us there, including myself, were simply focused on our own ignoble tasks. I was relentless in seeking out telephones in order to get on the air. In that, too, I had a stroke of luck. I persuaded a stallholder on the site of the South Tower to let me use his landline. When the second plane crashed into the tower, he decided to shut the shop. I begged him to let me stay and carry on using his phone, even offering him my credit card. Fortunately, he said no. The shop was obliterated.
Zuckoff barely mentions unheroic acts. There’s a line about a man on a ferry fleeing Manhattan ghoulishly brandishing a piece of one of the aircraft in front of his fellow passengers, but that’s it. It is a story of triumph, the rise from adversity to heroic defiance. The heroes are ordinary people, yet Zuckoff’s descriptions hint at their exceptional qualities. The Somerset County coroner who found himself in charge of an unimaginably complicated and horrific crime scene when Flight 93 crashed on his patch has a ‘passing resemblance to Abraham Lincoln’. Others have ‘kind eyes’.
And this is fine. It really was a day of extraordinary heroism involving many, many people. It was also a day of confusion. Zuckoff documents the breakdown of communication – police and fire departments failing to talk properly to each other, military decision-makers and civilian air-traffic controllers not having a practical way of exchanging information. Fighter planes were scrambled too late and nobody knew what they could realistically have done anyway.
Many of the human stories of 9/11 have been told before, but Zuckoff has brought them together in one comprehensive volume. He has searched through every conceivable archive for individual accounts. He has also obtained transcripts of media interviews and statements to official inquiries. To these he has added a mountain of fresh interviews with eyewitnesses and the bereaved. This is oral history with dramatic verve. The result is a monumental document that is also a compelling read.
I have two particular memories of that day and its aftermath. The first is of the way the widow of one of the victims, when I went to meet her, stroked the wooden table her husband had made as though she were stroking him. She had talked to him on the phone for half an hour while he was trapped in one of the towers and had then watched it collapse live on television in their sitting room, which was filled with memories of the man she had loved.
The other is of a Chinese-American woman with whom I shared a taxi as we both headed uptown to get away from the carnage. We were two strangers, sitting shoulder to shoulder, listening to the radio on the rear shelf and together trying to make sense of a senseless attack that had come out of the blue. She gave me a number on which her husband could be reached. She asked me to call him and tell him that she was going into labour and was trying to get to a hospital. This book will be for her son or daughter. And for the rest of us who want to remember what a terrible day it was.