Sunday, February 9, 2014

102 Minutes

This book by New York Times reporters, Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, tells the story of what happened in the 102 minutes on September 11, 2001 between when the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center until the tower collapsed.  It is told from the perspective of those inside the buildings - pieced together from the personal accounts of survivors, voice messages, e-mail messages and recounts of conversations with those that perished, 911 transcripts and reports of various government and emergency services organizations.

There is a lot of focus on the design flaws in the building that contributed to the number of fatalities - in fact relatively few died as a result of the initial impact.  But there were problems with the fireproofing, with the location of the emergency stairwells, with the materials used to build the skyscrapers, even with the public address system.  All of these meant fewer people escaped the buildings than might otherwise have done so.  It is also what contributed to their unexpected collapse.  The analogy to the Titanic was repeated often - it was not just the iceberg that killed people; it was the lack of proper safety equipment and evacuation procedures following the crash.

The book clearly suggests a similar outcome would not have occurred at some older skyscrapers like the Empire State Building which, built in the years following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, have reinforced concrete fire towers that enclosed stairs which run from top to bottom of the building and which are protected by double doors to trap the fire outside.  There were reports about these differences at the time of construction of the Twin Towers (which were build to newer standards) and at various times after that - one wonders if the terrorists had read the reports.

There were also issues with communication between the emergency services - particularly between the police and fire departments who had a history of bickering and lack of cooperation.  The sophisticated radios that would have allowed them to better communicate with each other were locked in offices at the police station and trunks of fire vehicles.  The fire department's internal communication systems were outdated and also prevented clear communication from the ground to those further up.  This meant many firefighters in the north tower never learned of the danger of the building's collapse following the fall of the south tower.  Moreover, police helicopters were unable to attempt any rescue from the roof as they had to do so at the direction of fire personnel who were unable to talk to them.

But there are also stories of amazing heroism on the part of rescue personnel and civilians in the buildings.  For example, one fire chief who was a marathon runner and used that skill to climb to the point of impact in the north tower and help trapped civilians along the way.  Or the people who assisted colleagues with asthma or mobility issues down dozens of flights of stairs.  Or the man on the 29th floor who could easily have escaped but would not abandon his wheelchair bound friend.  Or the window washer who used his squeegee to pry open the doors of an elevator allowing 7 people trapped inside to escape.  There was the 51 year old firefighter who found an elevator that worked from the ground to the 40th floor - and he used it to ferry people to safety before becoming trapped in the shaft.  Ironically he had worked on the construction of the tower and, on his first date with his wife, had taken her to the 40th floor of the construction site for a view of the city.  There was another construction worker who banded together an ad hoc team of others, a crowbar and a flashlight and went from floor to floor just below the point of impact in the north tower - bringing about 70 people to safety before becoming trapped in the collapsed building.

The book reads like a long newspaper article but it is a fascinating and disturbing account of 102 minutes in history which changed the world.

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