The human stories behind a big disaster

Like most people of round about my age I remember clearly where I was when the news of what happened on 11 September 2001 in America reached me. Although it seems so recent it was a time mainly without Internet and mobile phones. I had an evening meeting and didn’t reach home until after 9.00 pm when, like so many throughout the day, I was glued to the television. I struggled to make sense of it, as everyone did. The person with whom I share my life was able to explain why the twin towers collapsed but the rest of what happened seemed incredible to me – less than ten years earlier I had been in New York and had been to the top of the World Trade Centre and I had seen how these buildings dominated the skyline in the city.

In Fall and Rise by Mitchell Zuckoff the author explains what happened on that day. He doesn’t go into why it happened in any detail or try to blame anyone. He takes all that is known about the events of the day and follows them through in chronological order, illustrating his narrative with stories about real, ordinary people caught up in momentous events. I suspect that some people on 9/11 did behave badly but the author chooses not to feature them but to concentrate on the stories of those who tried their best in difficult circumstances – some of them survived and some did not but all of them were changed by the events.

This book reminds me of good narrative journalism as the author tries to make strange happenings real to the reader by talking about the experiences of ordinary people. He talks about what happened, as far as we know, on the planes and how we know it. He tells us about the relatives who received final telephone calls and messages from doomed passengers but also about the dialogue that there was between some officials on the ground and some aircrew. He explains what decisions were made and why and shows us how they affected individuals, including those which were not right. We learn the stories of a number of people in the towers and follow their fates as they try to get out. Time is given to those in the Pentagon, the passengers who decided to take their fate into their own hands, the fire and rescue services who went into the towers and were decimated when they collapsed, the ambulance crews, those who directed the rescue efforts and the local people who had to cope when a plane fell out of the sky in their vicinity. Apart from their names and a brief description of what they did the author spends no time on the perpetrators of the disaster – this is wholly about the victims. At the end of the book we learn what happened later to the survivors and relatives of the dead that we have followed.

There were so many victims that the author could have written a much longer book but I think that he has chosen well to try and give a flavour of all aspects of the day. His narrative is based on witness statements but also on interviews and are all respectful. The book is long but gripping.  It is full of information but because you are following the stories of individuals it is easier to assimilate than if the whole book had just been fact after fact.

I was absolutely gripped by this book in a way I hadn’t expected. The way in which it was written really spoke to me and, yes, there were tears. At the end I felt that I understood a lot more about the events and also about how people and the authorities react in times of crisis. I know that to understand fully the context of 9/11 I will need to read more but this book was an excellent introduction to the topic as well as a fitting memorial to those who suffered.

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