Honoring the Dead

What happened on September 11?

Only time will give us the words and images that evoke September 11, in the way that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage evokes the Civil War or the photo of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima evokes World War II. Though nothing yet achieves that status, billions of words, artful and artless, are preparing the first draft of history. Here are some.

The 343 firefighters who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers have had outsized attention-with good reason. Their rush to the World Trade Center embodies the sacrificial act to which we all aspire but hope never to suffer. David Halberstam and Dennis Smith have written masterful, but very different, chronicles of this heroism.

Halberstam, a journalist and political writer, lives around the corner from Engine 40 and Ladder Company 35 on Manhattan’s West Side. Twelve of the thirteen firefighters who answered the alarm on September 11 never returned. Halberstam’s Firehouse is a moving and concise story, a stark contrast to his recent behemoth War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals-and for good reason. Far from the leaks and spin doctors of Washington, Halberstam encounters a contained ethos on West 66th Street: firefighters, their families, the firehouse’s tribal customs, and their intense loyalty to one another. Detail by detail drawn from colleagues and families, he weaves together the stories of the twelve: where they were when the alarm sounded; who was subbing for whom; who should have been home; who was attached to another company, but rotating through the house. He writes of a taciturn leadership and a willing "followership"-the unqualified readiness to trust your life to the officer on duty. The wives-always fearful of a tragic end, always praying it away-live for days with the hope that their husbands survive, then for weeks, and sometimes months, with the grievous need for bodies to bury. An outsider to this world, Halberstam in two hundred pages conveys in the life and death of the twelve men the singularity and richness of the firefighter’s vocation.

Dennis Smith, in contrast, is the quintessential insider: a long-retired fireman who wrote the classic Report from Engine Co. 82, about the South Bronx firehouse where he fought the conflagrations of the sixties and seventies in the city’s worst slum. Smith knows everything there is to know about firefighting. He knows everybody who does it, how they do it (there are better and worse ways to handle a hose), and their standing in a tight world of men with the technical knowledge and practical skills to fight fires and win-except, as this book tragically recounts, the fire they faced in the Twin Towers.

On September 11 at 8:48, when the first plane strikes the North Tower, Smith is in his doctor’s office. By 9:45, back home, he dons his old fire clothes and makes his way to Ground Zero. The first half of Report from Ground Zero captures the chaos of that beautiful September Tuesday in the words of the firemen who descended into the inferno and survived. Smith connects their "Testimony" with background, facts, gossip, and analysis. The second half, "Aftermath," gives Smith’s day-by-day account from September 12 to November 17 of rescue, recovery, and funeral Masses.

Smith, like many other retired firefighters, worked bucket brigades that moved debris hand over hand in a futile search for the living (of the 2,823 people caught in the collapse, only 18 were found alive). Firefighting is a family calling, and many of the searchers are fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles; Smith knows most of them. The tales told in "Aftermath" are heartfelt, but marred, at moments, by the blarney of Smith, the Irish storyteller. Not to worry. It gives flesh and blood to Halberstam’s stringent account.

Firefighting is a brotherhood that exists nowhere else in our society. On what does it rest? Halberstam cites a West Side Lutheran pastor’s take on the men: "they were not in the traditional sense, necessarily very religious. But there was also a certain spiritual redemption to what they did...because of the risks they take for complete strangers." Smith is more fulsome, and better connected. When Smith is not at Ground Zero, he is in church praying, singing, and listening to eulogies and bagpipes. Of one Mass, he writes: "it is a deeply moving coming together, of the family of the fire department, of the family of neighborhood, of the family of religion, and of the family of the Irish immigrant, all of us bound in this profound and unrelenting grief."

Several years ago, there was much talk of a "Catholic Moment" that never happened. Were we looking in the right place? Perhaps the authentic Catholic Moment occurred on September 11 when more than 400 firemen, policemen, and other New York City workers lost their lives trying to save others. Many, perhaps most, were Catholic. The culture of the firehouse and the police station that appears self-protective, now is seen to be sacramental and sacrificial.

Deep religious sensibilities were on public display after September 11. There were vigils and candles and little altars at fire stations, and thousands of Masses and funeral services. And then, there was the search for the dead. On November 1, the mayor announced that the search for human remains would end. On November 2, there was a near-riot by firefighters (Smith gives a blow-by-blow account) who demanded that recovery of the dead remain a primary goal as the debris is removed. "They came down to the World Trade Center in fire trucks, and we should not let them leave in dump trucks," is how one fire chief puts it to Smith. The mayor gives in. When a body is found, work is stopped and the remains are carried out in solemn procession. It has given burying the dead a whole new meaning, an emphatic recognition of human dignity, even in death.

Time has passed and today much more is known about what actually transpired on September 11. Two brilliant pieces of reporting by a team led by Jim Dwyer appeared in the New York Times. The first reconstructs the 102 minutes between crash and collapse (May 26, 2002). E-mails, phone calls and messages from the top floors of each tower, along with the recollections of survivors, "offer not only a broad and chilling view of the devastated zones, but the only window onto acts of bravery, decency, and grace at a brutal time." Firefighters and police are not the only heroes. Office workers, stockbrokers, salespeople, security guards, waiters, and bus boys respond with acts of generosity and selflessness.

The second report, "Fatal Confusion" (July 7), is a gently told, but devastating account of how poorly prepared the fire department was to handle the challenge of the two burning towers, especially with its faulty communication system. Many firefighters never heard orders to evacuate. "Cut off from critical information, at least 121 firefighters, most in striking distance of safety, died when the north tower fell." Off-duty men converged on the site and entered the buildings without the requisite supervision and assignment. People trapped on the upper floors, relying on the experience of the 1993 attack, rushed to the top of the building, only to find roof doors locked-even as police helicopters hovered above. Those police officers reported, some twenty minutes ahead, the imminent collapse of the north tower, but their communications system was incompatible with that of the fire chiefs, 104 floors below, in the lobby. But then, of course, the collapse of the towers surprised everyone, not only the fire chiefs, not only the men who built them, but even Osama bin Laden who destroyed them.

On May 12, Times columnist Dan Barry wrote about the regular Sunday Mass said at Ground Zero. Barry stood in the rain between a weeping construction worker and a retired firefighter, who had lost two sons. A rain-soaked Franciscan said Mass. "Was this drenched Franciscan," asks Barry, "from the same church that is now being criticized-again-as a distant hierarchy of white-haired men hiding in well-appointed chanceries? The same church now embroiled-again-in a pedophilia scandal?" Another Catholic Moment.

On May 30, some eight months after September 11, a last flag-draped, empty stretcher, meant to honor the missing, was carried in silence up the ramp from the bottom of the pit. Ground Zero was cleared in record time as if to erase in a frenzy of deconstruction the fury of the terrorist attack. Over a million-and-a-half tons of debris were removed in 242 days and nights. The Atlantic Monthly’s three-part account, "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," by William Langewiesche, tells how. A technical writer who had access to the site, he describes the "unbuilding" under the supervision of Ken Holden and Mike Burton. The two men, who ran an obscure city office, Department of Design and Construction, rushed to the site and quickly found themselves in charge of cleaning up Ground Zero (the city’s Office of Emergency Management was destroyed in the collapse). Other disasters were possible: fires, further collapses, and explosions. If the slurry wall, which held back the Hudson River, caved in, large parts of lower Manhattan and subway tunnels would be inundated. Burton and Holden accomplished their mission without further disaster or loss of life.

The engineers, architects, construction bosses, and technical experts, all efficiency and know-how, are the antiheroes of the September 11 story, their competing egos barely on hold for the duration. Theirs is a different ethos than that of firefighters and police officers, and there is considerable animus, in Langewiesche’s telling, between the two groups. Recovering human remains competed with removing debris. Work was stopped if remains were sighted or smelled. Confrontations between engineers, bent on keeping on schedule, and firefighters, bent on recovering their comrades, was common. Langewiesche is on the side of the engineers. An early, first tour of the site by the original architects and engineers produces speculation about the causes of the collapse, but not the consequence-thousands dead. Perhaps that is the difference between firefighters and engineers.

About two months after September 11, The Guys opened, way-off-Broadway, at the Flea Theater, a few blocks from Ground Zero. The play by Anne Nelson, then starring Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, brings together a fire captain struggling to write eulogies for his men and a writer willing to help him. Survivor and citizen are united in a moving and painful remembrance of the dead, one by one. The Guys evokes the ritual origins of drama. The audience never has to suspend belief: we have seen it all; we too are engaged in this liturgical act of homage and remembrance.

With all of the words spoken and written about September 11, a sense remains that there are yet things to be said. But not in New York.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has decreed that on September 11, 2002, there will be a nearly silent commemoration of the dead. Perhaps the dark suspicion of political maneuvering and rhetorical inadequacy crossed the mayor’s mind. No politician will utter his or her own words and insult the families of the dead or the citizens of New York. Governor George Pataki will recite Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani will begin a reading of the names of the dead, and President George W. Bush will visit, but remain mum. What could he possibly say?

Published in the 2002-09-13 issue: 
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Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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