Matt's Reviews > 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers

102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer
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's review
Sep 10, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: journalism, 9-11, terrorism
Read in January, 2005

The last moments of Kevin Cosgrove’s life were presented as the Government’s Exhibit P200017 in the case of United States v. Zacarias Moussaoui. Originally labeled the “20th hijacker,” Moussaoui was eventually tried as part of a conspiracy to launch a second wave of attacks against the United States, following September 11, 2001.

Exhibit P200017 is a split-screen video: on the right side of the screen is the South Tower of the World Trade Center; on the left side of the screen, you see the transcript of Cosgrove’s final call to 911 dispatch, which begins at 9:53 a.m. The audio of Cosgrove’s call plays over the split screen, while the tower burns and the seconds slip away. The entirety of the call (though it is clear that Cosgrove made several others) lasts 4 minutes and 53 seconds.

It is a remarkable and agonizing thing to hear. Cosgrove is clearly in a desperate situation, but though he is anxious, he doesn’t panic. Over and over, he demands to know when help will arrive. The 911 dispatcher tries to placate him with generalities; Cosgrove, however, won’t accept that as an answer. During this striking colloquy, there are several instances when the 911 dispatcher lapses into silence, to the point where Cosgrove has to ask whether she is still there. It is clear that the dispatcher simply doesn’t know what to say; and really, there is nothing for her to say. She probably didn’t know it at the time, but there was no power on heaven and earth that could’ve reached Kevin Cosgrove on the 105th Floor of Tower 2. Indeed, from the first moments of the disaster, a fire chief reportedly told New York’s mayor Rudy Giuliani that rescue above the impact zones was impossible.

As the call plays out, Cosgrove displays flashes of understandable anger. He is annoyed at having to repeatedly give the dispatcher information he has already relayed (he angrily spells out his last name, which are displayed in all-caps on the Government’s transcription). When the dispatcher tells him to “hang in there,” Cosgrove responds: “You can say that. You’re in an air conditioned building.” Later, after describing the smoke filling the office, he says plaintively: “We’re young men. We’re not ready to die.”

Four minutes and forty seconds into the video, there is a tremendous rush of sound. The video on the right side of the screen shows the top portion of Tower 2 fold in on itself and begin to collapse. Cosgrove’s last words – “OH GOD! OH!” – end abruptly, and a computerized voice logs the message number. He was one of 614 people who died in Tower 2, and one of 2,606 people who died in New York that day.

For obvious reasons, including the mass casualties and the fact the disaster played out on live television, the tragedy of the Twin Towers has come to symbolize September 11. In 102 Minutes, reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn accept this reality and narrowly focus their story on the World Trade Center and the individuals within. The title refers to the length of time it took for both towers to collapse, following the first plane strike. Chapter 1 begins at 8:46 a.m., when Tower 1 is struck by American Airlines 11, and ends around 10:30 a.m., after Tower 1 has fallen (Tower 2, though hit second, fell first, due to the location of impact).

This is a book with a closed universe. Aside from a very brief prologue, meant to give a little context, there is no attempt to give a broad-stroke account of 9/11. There are no discussions about intelligence failures. No cutaways to the passengers on the hijacked jets. No mention of Bin Laden. No talk of politics. No arguments about post-9/11 foreign policy. This is a stripped down, gristle-free story of survival. Minute by minute it follows a broad swath of humanity – bankers and window washers, insurers and caterers, firemen and cops – as they struggle against the greatest high rise disaster in history. And always, the clock is winding down to the 102nd minute.

102 Minutes is the kind of book that grabs you by the throat and compels you to continue reading. In a way, it is a throwback to those old Readers Digest special features that told the personal stories of disaster survivors, such as those who escaped the Andria Doria. Make no mistake, however: the momentum of the story never makes you lose sight of the human dimension. To the contrary, the momentum is created by the very acute knowledge that these were real people in the not-too-distant past.

The subtitle of 102 Minutes purports to tell the “untold” story of the Twin Towers. Published six years ago, the incidents in 102 Minutes no longer qualify as untold (indeed, in a tenth anniversary reissue, the book has a new subtitle that substitutes the adjective “unforgettable”). To the contrary, many of the survivors and events recounted in the book have passed into legend and lore. This includes the amazing saga of Stairway B in the North Tower, in which six members of Ladder 6, along with bookkeeper Josephine Harris, weathered the collapse.

Still, the power of the stories remain undiminished. For example, there is Brian Clark, a broker for Euro Bank in Tower 2, who was one of only four survivors above the impact zone. Clark, armed with a flashlight because he was his floor’s fire warden, helped rescue Stanley Praimnath, who then surprised him with a hug and kiss. Their story is one of rare instances of levity on 9/11. As a study in contrasts – Clark, a white Canadian with a lilting voice; Praimnath, brown-skinned and reserved – the two wouldn’t have been out of place in a buddy cop movie. Flynn & Dwyer also tell of the remarkable escape from a stalled elevator. In that elevator, a quick-witted window washer named Jan Demczur used the metal frame of his squeegee to cut through dry wall.

Unfortunately, most of the stories recounted by Dwyer & Flynn lack a happy ending. There is Abe Zelmanowitz, a computer programmer, who refused to leave the side of his friend, Ed Beyea, a quadriplegic who could not get down the steps. There is Fire Marshal Ron Bucca, who along with Chief Orio Palmer, were the only known firefighters to reach the impact zone. And there is Port Authority construction manager Frank De Martini, who worked on the 88th floor of the North Tower; after the collision, he worked to pry open jammed doors on twelve floors around the crash zone. None of these men survived.

Whether it is a story of survival, or a story of loss, Dwyer and Flynn maintain the same, reportorial tone. Their style is objective and unadorned. The emotional wallop of 102 Minutes does not come from mawkish sentiments or high-flown rhetoric, but from the stories themselves, and from the known words of both the living and the dead.

Dwyer & Flynn do more than record 102 minutes of suffering and survival, doom and escape. They intercut these chapters with detailed and eye-opening examinations about the safety and security of the World Trade Center, and the effectiveness of the rescue operations. (Besides being informative, these breaks give the reader a chance to breath after the sustained intensity of the central narrative).

Dwyer & Flynn raise serious concerns about the construction of the Twin Towers, noting that their very design ensured the deaths of just about every worker above the impact zones. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 people – a number eerily similar to the fatalities on the Titanic – survived the impacts of the airplanes. These folks, however, had no way to escape. Partially, this was due to changes in the building code, which relied heavily on new materials to ensure safety:

[T]he 1968 code eliminated the need for reinforced staircases and vestibules. Not only the fire towers disappeared. So did half the staircases. The 1968 code reduced the number of stairways required for buildings the size of the towers from six to three. Moreover, those three would have less protection, as the new code lowered the minimum fire resistance for walls around the shafts from three hours to two, and permitted them to be built from much less sturdy material. All these changes offered significant financial opportunities…They would increase the space available for rent by getting rid of stairways and make the building lighter by lowering the fire resistance and eliminating the requirements for masonry.

On September 11, the collision of the two jets into the Twin Towers starkly proved the necessity for better fireproofing measures and more staircases. This reality is ably reinforced by the inclusion of a number of helpful schematics and diagrams showing the layouts of the buildings from different angles. The most effective of these diagrams show the impact of the planes superimposed on the floor plans, highlighting the number of support beams damaged and stairwells blocked.

To their credit, Dwyer & Flynn also critique the emergency response to Twin Towers attacks. This is potentially uncomfortable territory, as it encroaches on our most cherished memories from that awful day: the heroic response of the New York Fire Department. Following 9/11, many Americans clung to the effectiveness of the emergency operations, even when everything else – our intelligence community, our airport security, our immigration offices, and our steel – seemed to fail. Mayor Giuliani spearheaded the charge, noting that tens of thousands of people had been rescued from the Towers.

In 102 Minutes, that conventional narrative is turned on its head. With journalistic precision, Dwyer & Flynn recount the miscues of the rescue operation. Most of these miscues come down to one word: communication. There were no amplifiers or repeaters to strengthen radio signals; the fire department could not communicate with the police department; the 911 system was overwhelmed. This led to an ad hoc operation resulting in disastrous – and in some cases unnecessary – fatalities. Firemen charged into the building carrying hundreds of pounds of equipment, including thick coils of hose, even though fire commanders knew from the beginning that they could not fight the fire. After the first tower fell, there was no way to get word to all the units in the second tower, and the consequences were predictable:

Nearly all the 6,000 civilians below the impact zone had left the north tower by the time of its collapse, a fact hard to square with the notion that most of the approximately 200 firefighters who died in the north tower could not get out because they were busy helping civilians. In the oral histories collected by the Fire Department, numerous firefighters recalled that they were unaware of how serious the situation had become in those final minutes. This does not mean that the firefighters were not a welcome and uplifting presence…Yet…[that presence] does not explain why so many firefighters died in a building they could have escaped and where there was scarcely anyone left who could be helped. On the 19th floor of the north tower, scores of doomed firefighters were seen…taking a rest break in the final minutes, coats off, axes against the wall, soaked in sweat…

Defenders of the response point to the unprecedented nature of the World Trade Center attacks. But that argument ignores the 1993 bombing of the North Tower. In that incident, all these same issues – mainly, an utter lack of communication – cropped up. In the intervening years, they were not remedied.

In this light, Mayor Giuliani’s repetition of the conventional narrative seems designed to cover his own failure to press the issue of better equipment and communication. Dwyer & Flynn also fault him for locating the Office of Emergency Management in World Trade Center 7, right next door to the biggest (both literally and figuratively) terrorist targets in the universe. No one can impugn Giuliani’s personal bravery on the day of the attacks, which allowed him to step into the leadership vacuum left by a hightailing President Bush; however, his failure to replace faulty equipment and his inability to display tactical leadership loom large over that day.

Dwyer & Flynn take great pains to separate the chaos of the emergency response from the courage of the first responders. No one can overstate the guts it takes to rush into a burning building when everyone else is heading the opposite direction. Yet the courage of the firefighters was not a suicidal courage. They did not know what they were getting into: initially, the worst they feared was a partial collapse of the top floors; they did not hear early reports from helicopter crews that the buildings seemed to be weakening; and the men in Tower 1 did not know when Tower 2 fell. A failure in leadership squandered a lot of brave men.

The enduring image of the Twin Towers attacks will probably always remain the heroic rescuers. But the best thing 102 Minutes does is to show the courage of the ordinary workers, those people who kept their heads about them, even without years of training and conditioning. Just about everyone below the impact zones – some 12,000 people – survived. And they weren’t rescued; they saved themselves, evacuating in what Dwyer & Flynn call a “mass of civility.” Meanwhile, civilians such as window washer Demczur and manager De Martini saved lives with their gut impulses. Even those trapped above the impact zones, waiting to die, often kept an amazingly serene presence. These were people who were thinking and gathering information and problem solving till the final moments. Before he died, Kevin Cosgrove tramped down 20 floors before he was turned back by smoke and heat. Others tried desperately to reach the roof, knowing that rooftop rescues had been effectuated in 1993.

Ten years later, 9/11 is still an open wound. Alone among all the tragedies in the history of the world, it seems to stand outside the realm of art. (Fifteen hundred people died in the second highest-grossing film ever, but that probably didn't stop you from getting a large popcorn and soda). Every time a book is written, or a movie made, or a television program aired, or a song is sung about 9/11, a dozen scolds pop up to tell you the mere act of consuming such media is sacrilegious.

Accordingly, even a sober-minded, clear-eyed, ground-level view of this tragedy prompts a rejoinder from a certain segment of society: what’s the point? Why write another book about 9/11, a disaster just about every American saw unfold in real-time? The question certainly arose with the publication of 102 Minutes. Not only is it about 9/11, it is also a very good book. Since good books are often entertaining to read, this leads us into dangerous territory.

The short term answer is that 102 Minutes is a historical document, capturing and recording moments that get more distant every day. It helps correct a record that has been skewed by the immediate, emotional response to the attacks.

The longer view, and a more profound answer, is that 102 Minutes is an act of remembrance. Later generations, those who never watched the Towers fall, will meet Brian Clark and Ron Bucca and Kevin Cosgrove and others, and follow them through a short arc on the most trying day of their lives. And long after, beyond the time when even the survivors and witnesses have died, they will be remembered still, vivid in their humanity, fighting against the inevitable death that looms over us all.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Susan (the other Susan) Outstanding review.

Sheila Agreed - excellent review. Loved this book.

message 3: by Bou (new)

Bou A tribute to those brave people who - unwillingly - became heroes.

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